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Is Technology the Answer to our Education Problems?

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Question: Is Technology the Answer to our Education Problems?
We have spent billions on educational technology in our schools. What do we have to show for all the spending? Were our expectations realistic? Have teachers transformed their teaching with technology? The reality is that technology has improved communications and access to information. That's a good thing. The downside is that we are not teaching our students how to use technology to make a living in a highly competitive global arena.
Answer: It is a partial answer to some of our education problems. First of all, what exactly is educational technology? Bob Whitehead's definition makes good sense:

"Educational technology is the incorporation of Internet and other information technologies into the learning experience."

With this definition in mind let's look at why technology has been part of the solution and answer to our education problems.

1. Education Is not Like Business

Put computers in every classroom and we will revolutionize teaching. Back in the early '90s that's what most reasonable leaders thought would be the solution. Indeed computer science was seen as one of the five basic graduation requirements when A Nation At Risk was written in 1983. Many experts sincerely believed that computers would somehow be a panacea for the legion of problems we faced in our classrooms. They reasoned that the gains in productivity which technology had enabled in the business world could be replicated in the classroom. After all the introduction of the PC in the '80s had revolutionized the accounting or numbers side of business. Spreadsheets such as VisiCalc, then Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel were the applications which helped business people everywhere crunch numbers, keep track of purchase orders and project income and expenses.

But education is not like business. What leaders underestimated was the enormous scope and size of the technology infrastructure which was needed at the local and state levels just to gather assessment data. In other words, putting stand alone computers in every classroom enriched lessons. On the other hand electronic assessment, which drives a teacher's actual daily work, could not be implemented without huge investments in networks, storage and software. Transferring students' grades from the classroom to the school office then to the district office and finally to the state is what was so complicated and expensive.

Therein lies the intrinsic difference between business and education. Business couldn't function without data in real time. But schools thought they could or, probably more to the point, didn't have the capability to data mine in real time.

Expenditure on the back office infrastructure began in earnest after No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001. NCLB basically forced school districts to upgrade their data gathering and data mining capabilities so that they could upload student data to the state level. The states in turn are required to transmit that data to the federal Education Department. The accountability aspect of NCLB is what drove the implementation of technology.

Once teachers were able to upload student grades virtually in real time, administrators at the district level could begin to see patterns. They had the data they needed to chart progress of a student, of a particular class and of grades across the entire district. Finally they could do this quickly and produce reports which were able to identify problem areas and trends. This is when technology really began to have an impact on our education problems nationwide.

2. Opposition to Technology

Initially many administrators and teachers saw computers as an invention which had to be resisted at all costs. It posed a threat to the comfortable status quo which many teachers equate with successful teaching. Let's face it, if you have been teaching from the same lesson plans for years and they get good results, why would you want to change them? While most educators have embraced technology and have incorporated it into their every day routine and teaching activities, there are still pockets of resistance.

Yet computers have become a fixture in our schools. Were they a quick fix to the problems with which our educational system has been bedeviled for decades? Probably not. On the other hand legislation such as eRate and No Child Left Behind has broadened the implementation of technology in even the most remote areas. And that has to be a good thing.

So what has technology actually accomplished in the class room? Three things.

1. It Has Enriched Teaching.
Computers stimulate young minds by making learning fun. The Internet allows students to explore whole new worlds in real time. There hardly a subject which can't benefit from the resources available on the web. Gifted, creative teachers stimulate young minds. They light the fire and capture the imagination. They always have and always will. Technology is just one more tool, albeit a most useful one, in the serious teacher's portfolio of teaching tools.

2. It Has Facilitated Remediation.
Computers are terrific for remediation. Tedious math drills like times tables and the endless lists which are a cornerstone of any language's grammar all can be rehearsed on the tireless, patient computer. We all know that practice makes perfect.

3. It Has Improved Communications.
Email benefits students and faculty alike by permitting almost instantaneous exchange of ideas and information. It's easy to use. Twitter and Facebook offer still more ways to keep in touch. Most private schools offer a local network which keeps the school community informed of everything from homework to PTA meetings. Technology makes it easy to stay connected. The latest technological marvel - blogging - records class and club activities in an energizing, contemporaneous way.

On Technology in Private Schools

In private schools there is a great temptation to implement technology on your own. That's fine. But remember: integrating technology into your school's program is a complex business. Don't try to do it alone. Seek expert advice. We can all learn from other's mistakes and successes. Participate in ISEN. You will find that the Independent School Educators Network members are a great resource. Above all, hire a consultant for the major projects. Most are just too complex and time-consuming for any one school staffer or committee to undertake.

Conclusion

Gifted, skilled, experienced public and private school teachers who are passionate about their subject still determine educational outcomes. That will never change. Technology merely enhances a teacher's ability to inspire and stimulate young minds.

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