Global Competition: U.S. Students vs. International Peers

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 16, 2009 8 min read
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Anyone who has watched typical American teens readily master the use of cellphones, computer applications, and multimedia equipment might find it inconceivable that they could lag behind their international peers in acquiring the technology skills they’ll need to succeed in a tech-driven world. But experts say the attention and resources being paid by educators and policymakers in other countries to developing students’ technical skills could put U.S. students behind the curve very soon.

Australia, Britain, China, and South Korea have launched plans to ensure that all students have the tools, as well as the essential knowledge and skills, to use technology effectively for learning and work. And a number of developing nations are ramping up programs to help teachers and students become proficient in using computers and other information and communication tools.

Little research is available to show how U.S. students are doing in gaining proficiency in using and understanding technology resources, and the nation’s foray into teaching such skills lacks the kind of intensity and consistency that many experts say is needed.

Online Forum: Students’ Tech Skills—A Global Competition

Experts say other nations like China and India are more focused than the U.S. on developing students’ technical skills. How do you think the U.S. is doing in preparing students to use technology effectively for learning and work? What should U.S. schools do to improve students’ tech skills? Leave your comments, have your say, read posts.

“I don’t have to keep being pounded by the obvious facts about the dominant role technology is going to play in [students’] civic life, work and productivity, communication, and social interactions,” says Donald G. Knezek, the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, based in Washington. “That’s enough to say we need to be [teaching technology] in school right. We need to be preparing them.”

Given the technology push being made in other countries, particularly China and India, which are perceived as doing a better job of preparing technologically skilled workers, the United States, Knezek adds, could lose whatever edge it has had in using educational technology to improve K-12 schools.

“The U.S. is, ironically, kind of leading this movement of talking about the importance of 21st-century skills, but in terms of the classroom, we’re behind some of our competitors,” says Ronald E. Anderson, a researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and co-editor of the 2009 edition of Cross-National Policy and Practices in Technology Education. The book, published by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, in Amsterdam, which conducts international comparison tests, outlines the use of technology in education across more than 30 countries.

The Tech-Skills Race

And while the United States might excel in providing more equitable access to school technology, other nations are working hard to catch up, observers say.

“Developing countries, such as India and others, are beginning to make significant financial commitments and investments in teaching technology skills in their schools,” says Ruwan Salgado, the director of World Links, a Washington-based organization set up by the World Bank to promote technology education in the developing world. While small percentages of students in those populous nations have access to high-quality learning opportunities, new government initiatives are aimed at making technology programs more readily available.

The level of interest in expanding technology learning in other countries can be seen in the growing demand for public and private programs, such as those offered by World Links. The free curricula developed by technology companies such as Cisco Systems and Intel Corp. have been sought after by leaders of many smaller countries as well, according to company representatives. Cisco, for example, has pumped nearly $300 million into its curriculum, which it provides free to more than 2,000 high schools and junior colleges around the world.

Such efforts signal an expansion of pilot programs for select groups of students to scaled-up programs to be available in a majority of schools.

“The implication,” Salgado points out, “is that [those countries] will begin to narrow the gap between the U.S. and themselves in the teaching of technology skills, both in breadth and quality.”

In fact, some countries are already way ahead of the United States, experts say. Singapore, for example, has long taught technology skills in its schools, but has only recently tried to expand those lessons to include more creative and critical thinking in using the tools. South Korea has teacher and student standards that shape all technology education efforts, says Daniel Light, a senior scientist at the Center for Children & Technology at the New York City-based Education Development Center.

China, India, South Korea, and Japan have invested in making sure that their kids have access to the technology and the literacy skills that they see as a key to their economic future."

Technology skills are also being infused into the national curriculum in Britain, alongside reading, writing, and numeracy. Australia has launched its own “technology revolution” to guarantee Internet access, teacher training, and instructional materials to schools throughout the country. And China’s Ministry of Education launched a National Educational Technology Initiative several years ago to encourage the use of technology in more schools.

‘Thinking and Problem-Solving’

In the United States, many states have become more deliberate in infusing technology skills into the curriculum since the No Child Left Behind Act set the goal of having all students technology-literate by 8th grade. The federal law, however, left it to states to figure out how to reach the goal.

At least half the states set their own requirements for teaching technology skills, which tend to draw heavily on recommendations outlined by national organizations, and more than 10 now have assessments of students’ technology literacy.

Too often, though, students are not getting the consistent and comprehensive instruction that can prepare them to apply technologies to the kinds of assignments now experienced regularly in school and the workplace, says Light.

“Many schools really aren’t engaging kids deeply in technology as a creative medium or as productive tools,” he says. “In many places, it’s not part of the message that these are tools for us to build with, to learn with, to create with. They use it just to do Web research, or maybe a PowerPoint presentation, but they are not taught to think critically about what they are presenting and how they are presenting it.”

Those broader skills, which extend beyond being able to use devices and learn specific functions, to analyzing the content and employing the tools to tackle specific tasks and problems, are now generally included in definitions of “technology literacy.”

“Over the last five years or so, it’s become more the argument that students need to have these skills to be economically competitive, globally,” says Robert B. Kozma, a San Francisco-based consultant who has worked with dozens of countries to build technology education initiatives. “It’s not so much the mechanical use of these devices, but rather how you incorporate them into your thinking and problem-solving.”

‘Opportunity to Compete’

The International Society for Technology in Education’s educational technology standards, which were updated in 2007, have evolved to reflect the kinds of advanced competencies being promoted in the movement toward so-called 21st-century skills, which some experts argue are essential in a changing, global economy, Knezek says. In general, there is a growing demand for schools to instill critical-thinking, analytical, and technology skills, as well as the “soft skills” of creativity, collaboration, and communication.

The ISTE standards, for example, suggest that 5th graders have basic keyboarding skills; 8th graders be able to identify file formats, such as spreadsheets and audio files, and be able to use computer utilities to convert them for use in their assignments; and high school seniors know how to identify and fix advanced “hardware, software, and network problems by using online help and other user documentation and support.”

Three of the largest technology companies—Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft Corp.—are collaborating on an assessment of those kinds of skills that could be incorporated into international comparison tests, such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. It would include a test of technology skills, as well as critical thinking and the ability to collaborate effectively.

A number of nations have expressed interest in being able to gauge their own students’ levels of proficiency, and particularly in having a measure that could be compared across countries, according to Kozma, a former director and senior scientist at the Center for Technology and Learning at SRI International in Washington.

Federal officials, in fact, are planning to gauge students’ technology skills using the National Assessment of Educational Progress, with the first NAEP exam in that subject scheduled for 2012. The test will “define and measure students’ knowledge and skills in understanding important technological tools,” according to the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP.

Kozma recently met with leaders of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, about ways to measure technology skills. He has also been working with a group of experts that is advising the U.S. Department of Education in surveying international benchmarks for technology learning that might be used to improve and compare such programs in this country.

Such an international perspective could provide insight, and additional motivation, for creating more comprehensive and effective tech-literacy programs for American students, experts say.

“China, India, South Korea, and Japan have invested in making sure that their kids have access to the technology and the literacy skills that they see as key to their economic future,” says Steve Andrews, the manager of Intel’s U.S. Teach program. The curriculum for that program is now used in some 40 countries.

“But the U.S. has not given as much attention as the highest-performing countries around the world,” says Andrews, “which means our kids aren’t getting the opportunity to compete.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as Global Competition


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