Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Our Technology Future

By Laurence Goldberg — March 20, 2002 9 min read
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To have a truly transformational impact on education, technology must become ubiquitous. It must be seamless and nearly invisible.

Why does educational technology seem to have such trouble living up to its full potential of transforming the learning process? Conventional wisdom says the solution is simply to find more money for technology, more time and resources for staff development, and more innovative and effective ways to integrate technology into the curriculum. While this may be true, certain substantial roadblocks also have kept educational technology from reaching its potential.

As the state of the information-technology sector and the economy as a whole has changed, along with the mood of the country, many thoughtful educational technology leaders have switched into a reflective mode, looking at schools’ substantial investment in technology infrastructure and trying to understand how it is and is not being fully leveraged. They are finding that, while individual educational institutions may do a better or worse job of “infusing technology,” all schools face some common limitations.

To have a truly transformational impact on education, technology must become ubiquitous. It must be always available, mobile, and flexible. It must be intuitive, reliable, and user-friendly to the point of being no more difficult to operate than a chalkboard, textbook, or overhead projector. It must be seamless and nearly invisible.

At the moment, educational technology isn’t any of these things. How can bulky, wire-tethered computers become invisible? How can students achieve ubiquitous access when there is only one or perhaps half a dozen fixed, shared computers in a classroom, or when they must wait until their next scheduled lab time? How can a quirky, unreliable computer (dependent upon the occasional resuscitative visit of an overstretched support technician) become an intuitive extension of the learner? More to the point, how can technology have a transformational impact on the educational process when it is simply being used to automate the same classroom-management and instructional-delivery tasks that were being done before?

Let’s look first at what I’ll call the “device dearth.” Plenty of computing devices of all sizes and flavors are available for educational uses. Yet, conspicuously absent has been any “killer device” with the potential to transform the educational process by enabling one-to-one, personal, ubiquitous computing, and allowing the computer to take its natural place as a modern-day instructional supply in the bookbag or on the desk of every student and teacher. The ideal educational device should be as common and lacking in mystery as textbooks or spiral-bound notebooks.

Desktop personal computers are inherently awkward and inappropriate for many dynamic uses in an educational setting. While desktops may provide an appropriate medium for administrative uses, classroom-management tasks, and demonstration-style instruction, they are not the best solution for the personalized, portable, and dynamic technology needs for a ubiquitous student or teacher computer. Further, the operating system, hardware, and software of most personal computers sacrifice reliability for wealth of features, many of which are irrelevant to educational settings.

If hardware and software manufacturers can finally ‘get it right,’ they will be rewarded by an explosion of adoptions of some sort of portable, personal computing device in the educational market.

Laptop computers offer an alternative to desktops with some distinct advantages. But their relatively high cost, fragile design, and higher-than- average failure rate have impeded their acceptance as desktop replacements for students or teachers. Moreover, most laptop computers are simply too heavy and bulky to live up to their promise of true mobility. “Slimmed down” models may achieve lower weight and trimmer form by leaving out essential components (and are generally even more susceptible to damage), while “all in one” devices achieve full functionality at the cost of weight and girth.

Handheld computers offer greater mobility, but generally feature cramped keyboards that do not lend themselves to regular use. And palmtop computers, while excelling in mobility and in their original roles as personal organizers, are of very limited use in an educational setting. Unless you are well-schooled in “graffiti,” enjoy tiny accordion keyboards, or tapping out sentences on a Lilliputian screen, letter-by-letter, it’s fair to say that no viable input method exists on these devices. Nor does the screen of a palmtop computer lend itself to the kinds of rich multimedia content or large chunks of texts that students need to be able to easily create and access in an educational setting.

So what is the killer device that will enable ubiquitous educational computing? It must be portable enough for every student and teacher to carry around in a bookbag, light enough not to further weigh down that bag, and sturdy enough not to get cracked or whacked when tossed in. Significantly, the personal educational computing device must be of a low enough cost to be universally available, whether through outright purchase, loan, or home-school-government- business partnership. The “e-book” devices that have appeared on the market recently (and in some cases, subsequently disappeared) held some promise for education, but are too single-purpose in their design to be useful. The same can be said of digital notepads designed to allow computer input of handwritten notes and diagrams. Why have one device to read digital books, another to take notes, another to keep track of class and activity schedules, another to surf the Internet, and yet another to communicate electronically? Students and teachers need a single, personal educational computing device that seamlessly performs these functions in a reliable, user-friendly way, using an intuitive and flexible input method, such as natural handwriting in a classroom setting or voice recognition at home.

Tablet computing devices currently hold the most promise of meeting these many requirements. Although some tablet devices already exist for specialized markets, expect to wait another year or two for the technology to become mature, reliable, and inexpensive enough to really begin to have an impact on the education market. Microsoft’s recent announcement of a new version of the Windows operating system (currently scheduled for release this summer) designed for tablet computers will help spur hardware development and interoperability for this type of device. If hardware and software manufacturers can finally “get it right,” they should expect to be rewarded by an explosion of adoptions of some sort of portable, personal computing device in the educational market in the coming years.

The only viable way to reach ubiquity in educational technology is to free ourselves of wires.

But, in the long run, the only viable way to reach ubiquity in educational technology is to free ourselves of wires. All school buildings must sooner or later provide wireless access to all of their students and educators by way of a wireless local-area network, or WLAN. Wired infrastructure can be leveraged by the placement of wireless access points, or be used in selected instances for wired applications with higher needs for security and performance. In classrooms, the killer device will have built-in, high-speed wireless capabilities for handling not just simple data, but also graphics and video content.

Users will be able to move freely within the school building, maintaining always-on connectivity to local network resources, the Internet, printer and file sharing, and e-mail access. Students’ group work will be fostered from real-time, controlled connectivity among devices in the classroom. Teacher charts, diagrams, and notes may be integrated into the digital assignments passed to students. Student work will not be limited to written essays or quiz sheets, but may be in graphical or multimedia format where appropriate, and will be submitted electronically from school, home, or somewhere in between.

Outside schools, ideally, the device would automatically switch, to access a wireless wide-area network, or WWAN. For true ubiquity, schools may depend on the development of such networks by commercial providers of cellular telephones or integrated mobile Internet-access devices. Once at home, the student, parent, or teacher should be able to seamlessly access school information on the same device. For the near term, this access may be achieved through some broadband connectivity method, such as a high- speed modem of some sort, but ultimately it also should be wireless.

In the ubiquitous model of educational technology, it is essential for students to be able to continue working, with access to all the same digital educational resources, from anywhere in their community. It’s also important for parents to have access to student and school information online, and to have open channels of communication with schools and teachers via the same device, or an online connection on the parents’ home computer.

While the convergence and full implementation of these technologies may be rare in the current landscape, none of this is pie-in-the-sky. All these technologies exist today, but are not fully mature or widely available. More important, they are not yet being brought together in a meaningful way for the education community.

Once the right devices are widely available and the proper, ubiquitous infrastructure exists in and out of our schools, the true, transformational capabilities of educational technology can be realized. In industry and science, we sometimes refer to “disruptive technologies” as those that cause paradigm shifts in the way certain processes occur. Nascent “disruptive technologies” for the educational space will bring about this shift. Ubiquitous learning is student-centered and personalized, based on discovery activities. It is both collaborative and self-directed. In a ubiquitous model, students must become adept at information retrieval, management, and synthesis, from a variety of sources. Personal technology puts those resources within their reach, not just in the hands of the teacher, librarian, or lab aide. The ubiquitous model gives students the means of communicating and requires them to develop responsible “netizenship,” with guidance from the instructor.

By its very nature, technology lends itself to interactive, bidirectional activities. This is why the insertion of a few computers into the traditional educational model of frontal, unidirectional delivery of facts and instruction has largely not had any substantial effect on learning. Unidirectional use of technology is a great way to foster a “boob tube” mentality of passive consumers. Students should instead be taught and encouraged to be active, creative participants in the learning process. The only way to make this happen is to provide them with the correct technologies, tools, and environments.

Ubiquitous learning is student-centered and personalized, based on discovery activities. It is both collaborative and self-directed.

Educational technology has made incredible progress in the last decade. The building blocks have been put in place in many schools; we have become accustomed to new digital concepts like the Internet, multimedia presentations, and streamlined classroom management. Yet, in many ways we are in the Digital Dark Ages.

We are on the verge of the dawn of a golden age for educational technology. It may take a few more years for attitudes and technologies to mature to the point that the transformation is possible—but it will happen. Ubiquitous technology will have such an explosive impact on education that its results will become clearly visible to the naked eye, in stark contrast to today’s inconclusive empirical studies.

Students will become vastly more involved in both the content and delivery of the learning process, and the walls of the school will crumble, as ubiquitous technology extends that learning process to the home and the community.

Laurence Goldberg is the director of technology and telecommunications for the Abington School District in Abington, Pa.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Our Technology Future


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