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Reality Check Reveals Ed-Tech Challenges

By Kevin Bushweller — June 10, 2015 3 min read
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Lofty ed-tech visions are always tempered by reality.

You see this reality check playing out in schools nationwide as they launch 1-to-1 computing programs and expand their use of digital curricula. The unexpected problems that arose in Los Angeles as the country’s second-largest school district rolled out an ambitious 1-to-1 and digital curriculum initiative are now legendary in the ed-tech world. The costly mistakes and poor planning ultimately led the district to dial back the effort. Financial, legal, and managerial repercussions continue to swirl in the wake.

That is a cautionary tale for all districts. But it is one that should not prevent schools from innovating or striving to put in place thoughtful, well-planned, and cost-effective 1-to-1 and digital curricula initiatives. This 2015 edition of Education Week’s Technology Counts looks at both the challenges and the opportunities such programs offer.

In his article “Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming Teaching,” Staff Writer Benjamin Herold points out that even though public schools now provide at least one computer for every five students and spend billions a year on digital content, the vision of digitally driven, student-centered learning remains elusive in most classrooms. Education Week writers have witnessed that reality time and again in their travels to schools around the country. Some researchers take a pessimistic view of this lack of transformation. They argue that the integration of technology has done little to boost academic growth or to alter the ways teachers teach.

Others see it differently. They emphasize that students are learning vital technological and critical-thinking skills in digitally rich environments that will prepare them for college and careers. That is so, they say, even if the use of digital learning tools cannot be directly tied to improvements in standardized-test scores.

“You can’t just drop the technology off at the door,” says Jessica B. Heppen, a managing researcher for the American Institutes for Research and the principal investigator of the air’s evaluation of Los Angeles’ digital learning initiative.

“If that’s what happens,” she says, “some educators will find promising ways to transform their practice, but it won’t happen at scale.”

That, ultimately, is the challenge: to identify digitally driven, innovative practices that work and scale them up. Schools can look to a growing number of models to meet that challenge, as well as the lessons that can be learned from others’ mistakes.

Technology Counts Contributing Writer Malia Herman examines how districts can avoid costly mistakes when crafting, and working to sustain, 1-to-1 computing programs. One of the biggest errors many districts make is trying to move too quickly. “Don’t let the sense of urgency force you to make rash decisions,” recommends Bob Moore, an education consultant and former district technology official.

Districts must also make content a top priority, avoiding the easy option many have taken of simply loading textbooks onto devices and saying they now have effective digital learning programs. That is a shortsighted approach.

“The new digital content that is being developed is so superior to old-world print, and it’s cost-efficient,” says Mark Edwards, the superintendent of the Mooresville, N.C., district, which attracts hundreds of visitors who want to see how its schools have integrated digital teaching and learning.

Embracing Flexibility

To put in place more cost-effective approaches, many schools are turning to open educational resources. They’re convinced that the free, malleable, and shareable academic content offers advantages that traditional commercial materials cannot match. Technology Counts chronicles the different approaches of two districts making that curricular move.

“Bring your own device,” or BYOD, programs have also proved to be cost-effective and flexible options for 1-to-1 computing goals and the expanded use of digital curricula. But BYOD can be messy, as students roll into class with a hodgepodge of devices and many teachers feel baffled about how to integrate those devices into learning.

In many places, though, administrators and teachers are learning to embrace the eclectic jumble of student-owned devices, in the belief that taking a flexible approach will benefit instruction. It is that willingness to try new approaches, and learn from others’ successes and mistakes, that is going to set the stage for more effective use of digital tools and curricula down the road.

As Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, points out: “Learning to use the right tool for the right purpose that’s a life skill.”

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