Many of the people in attendance at the educational technology forum held here at Google Inc.’s renowned headquarters had already proven they can dream big and achieve lofty goals.
Take Gary E. Knell, the president and chief executive officer of Sesame Workshop, who has helped spread the groundbreaking television show “Sesame Street” to 140 countries. Then there was Geoff Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone has become a national model for educational and social-service organizations working to promote success in at-risk communities. Google’s own Sergey Brin may be the most famous among the group as a co-founder of the largest Internet-search company in the world.
Even so, the speakers and participants in the two-day event, held Oct. 27 and 28 for a select group of educators, government leaders, and corporate and foundation representatives, laid out ambitious visions of how technology can drive innovation in the nation’s schools, much as it has across most public and private-sector industries.
But while they agreed on the potential of digital media and other tools to improve student engagement and raise achievement, most acknowledged the challenges of equipping schools and teachers with new equipment and instructional strategies, gauging the progress of new teaching approaches, and scaling up proven practices.
“We wanted to move the conversation [about the promise of technology-based education reform] away from a Washington focus to Silicon Valley where they’re innovating like crazy,” said Michael H. Levine, the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center for Children’s Media and Research at Sesame Workshop. The New York City-based center helped organize the event.
Mr. Levine said the growing prevalence of digital tools in the lives of children and the federal government’s push for innovation in education using economic-stimulus funding have created a prime opportunity to speed efforts to enhance education with technology. “Frankly, schools haven’t kept up. ... Now, there’s got to be a new accelerator for reform, and we think technology is key.”
To help fuel the change, Mr. Knell announced a new competition sponsored by the center that will reward innovation in children’s media starting next year.
“We have in this room an ability, I think, to push the envelope for something bigger and to bridge the divide with formal school and so-called informal learning,” Mr. Knell said, noting that “Sesame Street” was created 40 years ago to tap the power of emerging media—television back then—to promote learning. “These awards can begin us on a journey ... to create that tipping point where each child can learn and dream and grow.”
There is growing evidence, some speakers said, that technology can have a positive impact on student achievement.
“The kids today who are digitally literate are having significantly stronger outcomes in school, … but kids are becoming digitally literate outside of school, not in school,” said Constance Yowell, the director of education at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has invested more than $50 million in research and development related to digital media for learning. “It seems as if schools are falling behind on this job.”
Getting schools up to speed on using technology effectively to build the skills and knowledge students need for college and the workforce is an issue of educational equity for the most disadvantaged communities, several speakers said.
The federal officials who were on hand agreed, and outlined some of the programs that are currently in place to address the problem of access for the poorest communities, including the National Broadband Plan and the $10 billion in grants the U.S. Department of Education is overseeing for expanding proven school improvement efforts.
Several sessions highlighted ways that some schools and districts are integrating technology into instruction to engage students in the content and give them opportunities to tackle real-world tasks.
New York City’s Intermediate School 339 in the Bronx, for example, went from a failing school to a rapidly improving one after incorporating technology-based lessons.
Some panelists suggested that despite such stories, and the energy and ideas shared by the group, there are significant challenges to identifying proven practices for raising achievement and disseminating them more broadly.
“I’m unhappy that the issues we’ve discussed have not gotten down to teaching and learning and how to take [effective practices] to scale,” said Marshall “Mike” S. Smith, a senior counselor at the Department of Education. Even so, Mr. Smith said the forum has the potential for building momentum and support for school improvement through technology.
“This is an unlikely collection of people gathered,” he said. “And the fact that it’s at Google with all these different groups represented suggests that the Silicon Valley is interested in moving toward working on serious education reform.”
The organizers hope to create policy recommendations based on the forum discussions, a research agenda for studying and developing products for digital learning, and a public-awareness campaign to promote the need for using technology effectively in schools.
“This is a pretty rare moment in terms of the extraordinary role technology plays in our lives, in terms of where education reform is at this point,” and in light of the federal dollars that are being devoted to technology and innovation for education, said James Steyer, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Common Sense Media, a media-literacy advocacy group that also helped organize the forum. “This is our moment to really revolutionize learning for all our children, especially the most disadvantaged in our country.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Ed. Innovation on the Agenda at Google Headquarters