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Education Commentary

Chat Wrap-Up: Technology and Learning

December 05, 2006 6 min read

On Nov. 17, questions on the ways that educational technology has changed K-12 schooling, and continues to do so, were answered by Larry Cuban, an education historian and emeritus professor of education at Stanford University; Sara Hall, the deputy director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association; Don Knezek, the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education; and Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking. Below are excerpts from the discussion:

Read the full transcript of this chat.

Question: Looking at technology curricula, one can get the feeling it is not about media literacy, but teaching computer skills. So I see the risk of technology’s being used simply to perform training for corporations. Even if there are higher-level goals, how often are they achieved in the classroom?

Krueger: This is an important distinction. “Technology literacy” can be defined very narrowly, as understanding the skills of using specific applications, or more broadly to include information literacy. My personal opinion is that the latter is more important. I also think there are even more skills than just information literacy, although that is clearly critical in a world of information overload. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has done a terrific job of framing the sorts of new skills that kids need to succeed. These include, in addition to the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, such skills as team-building, collaboration, and critical thinking.

I just returned from a five-week study trip to Asia and the Pacific, and was surprised by how countries such as South Korea and Singapore, which do well on high-stakes tests for math and science, are focused on these sorts of new competencies to enable creativity and collaboration. I am concerned that the United States’ sole focus on high-stakes accountability might squeeze out its inherent advantage around creativity.

Question: In The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman challenges American education to answer the call for more science and engineering students. How shall we respond? What is technology’s role in that response?

Cuban: Pay higher salaries to teachers in poor, largely minority rural and urban schools; ensure that schools like these are handsomely funded and not underresourced, as they are now; provide more state and federal financial aid for needy students to go to college; ensure that science, math, and other teachers receive sustained and well-endowed professional development.

The absence of any mention of technology is intentional, because I do not believe that the presence of computers, hand-held devices, and the latest software has very much to do with high schools and colleges cranking out more science and engineering graduates.

Question: Many teachers are still very resistant to infusing technology into their lessons, especially older teachers (sometimes called the digital immigrants). How do you think we can make this transition easier and also help them use technology efficiently in the classroom?

Krueger: We first need to step back and ask, “What can technology do for learning that we couldn’t do without it?” If we answer that question, I would bet that most teachers will rush to its adoption. I am not sure I completely agree that the problem is the difference between young and old teachers. In fact, we are seeing evidence that “master” teachers, who typically are older, are the most likely to powerfully use technology. I think the core problem is that in most classrooms, most schools, and most districts, we simply are layering technology on top of what we are already doing. If you do that, you will get only marginal impact.

Question: How can technology help students with learning and attention problems?

Knezek: There are a number of programs and products targeted at students with special challenges. I recommend you refer to the Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology’s Web site at http://caret.iste.org, connect with the Council for Exceptional Children (www.cec.sped.org), and visit the site of my organization’s Special Education Technology Special Interest Group (SETSIG) at www.iste.org/setsig. I believe the Consortium for School Networking may have a recent publication on that topic at www.cosn.org.

Question: Please share your vision of what public schools will look like in the next decade or two for visually impaired students. Right now, equal access through talking equipment is spotty at best.

Krueger: What you are really asking is, “How can technology be used to enable children with special needs to succeed?” My sense is that assistive technologies are currently making a difference for many children. Voice-recognition software is certainly not perfect, but such tools make it possible for blind students to not be “left behind.”

One of the areas my organization, COSN, has been working on is how we can get our school networks to provide accessible technologies for all students. Our sense is that in most districts, we are not very far along in thinking about accessibility for all students. Voice-recognition software, for example, is also very useful to students who are learning English as a second language. In fact, it is useful for any of us who learn better by hearing. Yet, in most districts, the folks responsible for general information technology deflect this topic to their special education department. Accessibility is a critical element, and most of our school networks are much too narrowly niching technologies that could benefit all kids. And it is very expensive to deploy assistive technologies to one child at a time on one workstation at a time.

We have a great resource on this topic at www.accessibletech4all.org. We really need a new conversation in most districts over accessibility.

Question: Please comment on the effects of technology in providing classroom teachers with readily accessible teaching tools as well as professional-development (recertification and continuing education) enhancement.

Hall: The State Educational Technology Directors Association believes strongly that professional development must be consistent, timely, and relevant to a teacher’s daily work. We believe that online and virtual learning opportunities are uniquely suited to accomplish this. We have seen examples where online professional development provides these key components in a way that high-quality, school site professional development cannot deliver. That is not to say we should go fully to online professional development, but that we should leverage the unique aspects of technology-delivered training when it makes sense.

There is a place for both. In Iowa, for example, districts are using videoconferencing to pull math teachers together from all parts of the state. During regular virtual meetings, they are provided with high-level instruction, time to collaborate, and critiques of their teaching practices. This form of professional development has yielded amazing results in student achievement. I do not think online professional development is always the answer, but it can create this dynamic and consistent feedback mechanism through which teachers are engaged in training that directly relates to their work. Again, key elements to the success of professional development.

Question: How do we justify investing in school technology, given the fact that student achievement in reading, writing, math, and other subjects has not improved in the several decades during which public expenditures in technology have vastly expanded?

Knezek: How do we continue to justify the incredible expense over decades for textbooks, when we aren’t seeing improvement in core content supported by them?

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Technology and Learning

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