Administrators Say Technology Calls For Range of Skills
Fran Karanovich knows how her students feel when they get lost playing in the cornfields of central Illinois. The same moment of terror sometimes strikes the superintendent, and her colleagues across the country, when they come face to face with technology.
For superintendents, the computer's full-fledged march into schools means many challenges: buying the machines, hiring people to run them, training teachers, ensuring children's safety online, and mastering e-mail to answer notes from employees, school boards, and parents.
But there is light at the end of this cable-clad labyrinth, some school leaders are finding. Many believe that technology put to good use can improve teaching, and that failing to adapt to technological changes is nothing less than a denial of the future.
"You don't have to be a techno-whiz," said Ms. Karanovich, the superintendent of the 2,400-student Olympia community schools in Stanford, Ill. "You just have to be able to see where we're headed."
Underscoring that point, experts had a sobering message for school leaders at a recent conference on technology: Woe to those who don't see what's coming.
"There's not a single person in this room who can imagine what will happen, including me," author and technology expert Ian Jakes told educators gathered in Palm Springs, Calif., last month for the Superintendents' Technology Summit, sponsored by the publication eSchool News.
By the time this year's 1st graders finish high school, the former administrator predicted, a computer hundreds of times more powerful than today's average desktop will sell for only $14.
Michael Gershowitz, a Long Island, N.Y.-based technology-grant writer and former college teacher, implored school leaders to realize how affordable and manageable distance learning can be through the Internet.
"Don't think you can't afford to go to Europe, Asia, Africa or Australia" electronically, he said. But, he warned, "you need a different approach to teaching when the teacher is teaching on a monitor."
Envisioning schools without walls and allowing a shift toward inquiry-driven lessons, in which teachers lead the learning rather than being the source of information, are changes enough for some school leaders to contemplate.
But incorporating new pedagogical ideas isn't their most immediate challenge. Superintendents say what vexes them most is taking the practical steps toward making their schools technology- ready.
Few educators would want Bruce Husson's job. His role is to help California's 143,000-student San Diego Unified School District overcome, as he puts it, "20 years of institutional neglect" when it comes to technology.
Problems include antiquated equipment, a piecemeal computer network that often crashes, and a lack of training for thousands of teachers.
"It's a system out of control," said Mr. Husson, the senior assistant to the superintendent for technology and special projects.
He is seeking advice from some 240 people—teachers, students, parents, principals, other employees, local businesspeople, and college-level experts—to determine technology goals for the district and write a plan.
San Diego's technology council envisions a computerized attendance and grading system, the infusion of technology throughout the curriculum, and better computer support for transportation, finance, and food services.
On a smaller scale, in the black- soil farm country of rural Illinois, the problems seem just as deep and expensive. Ms. Karanovich said her school district isn't poor enough to qualify for extra state aid, and isn't wealthy enough to provide an adequate level of technology and training.
Her worries echo those of many school leaders: providing extra pay for teachers who seek after-school computer training, finding affordable technical support, budgeting for high-quality hardware and software.
"How many students will leave our schools not knowing all they could have known, because we couldn't give our teachers sufficient training in a timely manner?" Ms. Karanovich said.
Once her district hires and trains a technician, a difficult enough job, the person can leave the schools for a higher-paying job in larger towns, she said.
Still, Ms. Karanovich said, successes are beginning to show. One in five of her teachers now has enough training and wherewithal to use technology in daily lessons, helping students make good use of electronic tools.
A local parent stumbled upon a computer company in Arkansas that has donated the lion's share of a $500,000 computer lab at Olympia High School, where students tackle projects such as creating a computer map of the school for safety reasons and drafting a proposal about how to fix a dangerous highway crossing.
Warding off commercialism and protecting students from inappropriate online material also are top technological concerns for administrators.
Some districts have jumped to install "guard dog" Internet filters to prevent students from visiting objectionable Web sites—but some of those safeguards can invite unwanted commercial invasions, said Nancy E. Willard, a research associate at the University of Oregon's Center for Advanced Technology in Education.
She advises against the use of free, commercial Internet filters, because some of them feature advertising and track which sites children visit. That information, in turn, is sold to companies.
There's no substitute for adult supervision and for helping students think through their behavior, Ms. Willard said. If students or employees inadvertently visit sexually explicit or other inappropriate sites, they should be able to easily report such incidents through a process set up by the school, she suggested. Students can be trained as monitors and tutors, Ms. Willard added.
"We're always hoping technology is going to absolve us of personal responsibility," she said, "but it never does, and it never will."
Without evidence that technology can help improve test scores, some school leaders say, they can't persuade parents and school boards to find extra money for hardware and training.
Proof that using technology pays off can be found most clearly in the state of West Virginia, said Dale Mann, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City and a co-author of a study on how technology has raised test scores substantially in that state.
"It makes a difference," Mr. Mann argued.
Eight years ago, the state began a program with students in kindergarten. Each year, it expanded equipment, training, and support to a larger group of students, grade by grade, making it relatively affordable to immerse children in technology.
The results are significant, Mr. Mann says: Students in the program have scored several points higher every year.
Sandy Paben, an Albany, N.Y.-based consultant and former principal, said administrators can begin to reach for technology goals by asking some simple questions: Is your school using technology efficiently to ensure the best possible teaching and learning? What's your current situation? How should you improve, and how will you improve?
Despite the many obstacles, technology can become a solution instead of a problem, experts on educational technology say. Figuring out precisely how it can be put to good use is the role of school leaders, San Diego's Mr. Husson said.
"It's imperative that the system work well," he said, "not because it's an end, but because it's an important means."
Vol. 20, Issue 13, Pages 1,13