It's now a given that technology belongs in our schools. It only took 25 years.
T echnology advances at an unnerving pace, but the payoff from a new technology takes time. As new products are refined, they become easier to use and less costly. Gradually, people learn how to make the most of innovation, changing how they do things to exploit the new tool.
The pattern has been repeated time and again, from the industrial era to the information age. Computers, for example, had been widely used in business for years before their impact became evident. The truly transformative changes didn't occur until the 1990s, when personal computers were linked to the Internet, forever altering work patterns and habits worldwide. Is this story of technology’s time-delayed impact about to play out in our schools?
After years of false starts and elusive results, there are some promising examples that suggest putting computers in classrooms, when done right, can transform education. These encouraging experiments share some characteristics: The ratio of computers to pupils is one to one, or close to it, and the tech isn’t isolated in a computer lab, but found in every classroom, always at the ready.
But hardware does not operate alone; it needs effective software. Web-based education software has vastly improved in the past few years, and new Web education networks have opened the door to broader changes. Parents can track their children’s attendance, punctuality, homework, and performance, and get tips on how to help their kids at home. Teachers can share methods, lesson plans, and online curriculum materials. In the classroom, the emphasis can tilt toward project-based learning that relies less on the traditional textbook-and-lecture model. Teachers in schools that have adopted the project-based approach say students are more engaged, and early evidence shows improved performance in class and on standardized tests.
At the forefront of project-based teaching is the nonprofit New Technology Foundation, which espouses technology-enabled reform of education. Forty-two schools in nine states are trying the foundation’s model, and their numbers are growing rapidly. Computing is essential, but it is not the most significant ingredient in the foundation’s teaching model.
Tech Is No Cure-All
to be sure, no education leader or tech advocate believes technology can replace an effective teacher. According to Christopher Dede, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, face-to-face tutoring is the one technique that consistently improves a student’s measured performance. Dede argues that individual tutoring can deliver a “home run,” as when a student moves up from the 50th percentile to the 95th percentile in a population of students. But one-on-one tutoring is scarely practical for large numbers of students. Computers, however, are a uniquely flexible technology that can be programmed to do all manner of tasks or tricks. Properly used, a computer can serve as a gateway to customized learning. “To individualize education, you need power tools,” says Dede, a member the of U.S. Department of Education’s expert panel on technology. “A personal computer can be that power tool.
“With technology, we don’t aspire to home runs, but good, solid singles,” Dede adds. A single, in his baseball analogy, would be a student moving from the 50th percentile to the 67th percentile.
Robert Pearlman, director of strategic planning for the New Technology Foundation and a former teacher and union leader in Boston, agrees that technology is not an elixir. “Unless you change how you teach and how kids work, new technology is not really going to make a difference,” he says.
“I agree with those who say that most of the investment in school technology over the years has not produced anything,” Pearlman adds. “But I would argue that the technology and our understanding of how to use it has progressed enough so that we could be on the verge of a serious inflection point in bringing innovation to education and making a real difference.”
Two Schools of Thought
The champions of using technology to enhance achievement in schools fall broadly, it seems, into two camps: radicals and moderates. The radicals want to remake schools altogether, supplanting the traditional curriculum with project-based learning models. The projects, to be sure, are guided by state standards outlining what students must learn in math, science, and English. Still, the approach means a sharp break with the past, and it is aptly called “whole school” reform. Its proponents include the New Technology Foundation; the School of the Future in Philadelphia, a partnership between the city school district and Microsoft; the High Tech High schools in California, with eight schools in the San Diego area; and the EdVisions Schools, with 27 schools in six states.
The moderates are also making significant investments in technology, but they are taking a more evolutionary path. Moderates typically see computing as a means to enhance conventional courses and teaching methods rather than replace them. Project-based learning often becomes part of the mix, but only part. These more tentative steps span a broad range of initatives with varying goals. For example, the Miami-Dade County (FL) public school district, one of the nation’s largest with 345,000 students, is building a Web portal for connecting teachers, parents, and students, while the state of Maine issues laptop computers to each of its 32,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students.
The Moderate Approach
individualized instruction is the guiding principle behind Maine’s pioneering program to give its seventh- and eighth-grade students laptop computers. Governor Angus King, who served from 1995 to 2003, was attracted to the ideas of another Maine resident, Seymour Papert, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and a longtime proponent of using computers to reform education. In their conversations, Papert stressed to King that real change would not come until the each student was supplied with his or her own computer.
A budget surplus in 2000 gave King the opportunity to pursue the one-to-one laptop computer initiative. When he first proposed the laptop concept, the public and political reaction was scornful. His e-mails ran ten to one against the proposal, saying it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money. But the governor persisted. He toured the state teaching classes to demonstrate the power of Web-based computing, with local television news crews in tow. He taught an American history class on the Battle of Gettysburg, with links to numerous Web sites on the battle and its historical and political context, and even a photocopy of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s own handwriting. “The depth of content blew away anything you could find in a textbook,” King said in 2006.
King’s road show helped turn public opinion, and so did the support from the state’s business community. Like so many education reform efforts around the nation, the Maine program was partly animated by concerns that K–12 schools were falling short of preparing students for the twin challenges of globalization and technological change. Indeed, the Maine program began in 2002, the same year that simmering worries about the nation’s future competitiveness led to the creation of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition whose members include the Department of Education and the National Education Association, as well as technology companies like Apple, Cisco, and Microsoft.
Before a laptop is issued in Maine, students' parents must attend a school meeting to be briefed on the program and the laptop. “This is a catalyst for many parents to reengage with their children’s education,” says Jeff Mao, the learning technology policy director at the state’s Department of Education.
The Maine laptop experiment has steadily evolved over the past six years. Initially, Mao says, the computers and software were often digital substitutes for what was done before—e-mailing assignments and worksheets instead of paper handouts. “But now,” he says, “the focus is much more on how we use this technology to change the way we teach and interact with each other.”
At a middle school in Yarmouth, Maine, French teacher Paula Vicenzi has reshaped her seventh-grade assignment on Paris as a Web project. Students use Google Earth to pick different locations in Paris. From their laptops, they then embark on a digital excursion, via Google Earth's satellite eye, from Yarmouth to France. Vicenzi recalls a student remarking, “Wow, the Earth is a lot smaller when you look at it this way.” The assignment, Vicenzi says, “opens these kids’ minds and their eyes to a global perspective.”
The cost of the program, including the laptops, software, and technical support, is $289 per student per year. Student performance on state standardized tests has improved notably since the program began. Public opinion in Maine is firmly behind the middle-school laptop initiative, with new four-year funding approved in 2006. Next up, Mao says, is high school. “We’re still working on that and trying to massage the budget,” he adds.
The Radical Approach
the most adventurous experiments tend to be done at new schools. The School of the Future in Philadelphia, now in its third year, is an ambitious effort to redefine the urban high school. It is a neighborhood school, with no admissions test, where nearly all of the 400 students qualify for free or subsidized lunches. The school's ratio of computers to students is one to one, and all of the students’ homes have been equipped with high-speed Internet access. School officials say that technology is an important tool, but their real goal is to try to reorganize the way education is done.
The classes are interdisciplinary, typically taught by three teachers, and the curriculum is built around project-based learning. Even the conventional language of schools has been altered. At the School of the Future, students are called “learners,” to avoid the connotation of students passively reading textbooks and listening to lectures. Teachers are “educators,” classes are “learning engagements,” and the library is the “interactive learning center.” “We’re trying to recreate what education means,” says Thomas Gaffey, a math teacher at the school.
In a recent environmental science project, Gaffey explains, he teamed with an English teacher and a science teacher, to examine the issues of conservation, trash, and recycling from multiple perspectives. The class studied the problem of municipal solid waste as an environmental challenge and a practical local issue. They then designed a brochure that listed tips to reduce one’s waste footprint as well as locations and hours of nearby recycling centers. They printed the brochures and distributed them to local community groups.
“With this kind of project-based learning, you see learners become more engaged,” Gaffey says. “They are doing something, making something, and completing a project, as opposed to me handing out a list of math problems.”
It is still early to judge the effectiveness of the experimental Philadelphia school, a four-year high school only in its third year of operation. And it is a work in progress. Even Gaffey, who calls his position “the job of my dreams,” admits that teaching at the school is both stimulating and a personal challenge. At 26 years old, he still can feel slightly behind the curve. “All of my experience in education, as a student and teacher, was in the traditional model,” he observes. “Here, you give up the comfort of the familiar and struggle to get acclimated to a new style of teaching. But two to four years down the road, I think I’ll be really good at a different kind of education—one that is better, not just different.”
new start-from-scratch schools, however intriguing, are scarcely a guide for how every school may want to rethink the ways it uses technology. Instead, they might consider some encouraging trends. The shift toward Web-based software and applications will reduce costs and complexity for schools, and leading technology companies are putting out more and better educational software. “Computing in schools should increasingly become more like electricity or water today, a utility service,” says Anoop Gupta, a former Stanford professor who leads Microsoft’s education group. “And the goal for Microsoft, and others in our industry, should be to leverage our resources and scale to make this affordable for schools.”
There is also growing evidence that advances in computing, combined with improved understanding of how to tailor the technology to different students, can help improve education. Wisely deployed, educators say, computing can be a powerful tool to make education more engaging, contextual, interactive, and individualized. Still, it is only a tool. “There is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution in technology,” Harvard’s Dede says. “The starting point should be to talk about learning and teaching, and then how you use the technology will flow from that understanding.” •