Sunday, March 20, 2011

Six Ways Education Technology Must be More than Just Computers

Quickly, define technology. Do we know what technology is?

Is it computers? Or is it instant, wireless, world-wide communication? Or is it . . . you know, technology?

Well, we think we know it when we see it. But the use of the word technology has not always meant what it seems to today. The Roman Empire conquered their known world due largely to their superior technology. The Allies won the war with the help of their advanced technology. Yet there were no microchips involved.

When we struggle with definitions, we can always turn to Webster's Dictionary. It says technology is "the practice of any or all of the applied sciences that have practical value and/or industrial use."

This broad and vague definition is creating issues in my home state of Iowa as the state looks at how to fund technology in our public schools. A special revenue fund can be used to purchase a single unit of equipment or technology provided the cost is above a certain threshold. Opponents of technology for schools say that technology is equipment--count each device separately as a stand-alone unit. But others argue that a device cannot stand alone in this day and age; a unit of technology is an entire instructional concept with the computers, their connections, network, software, security, etc.

When desktop computers came to the forefront of office work, they increased efficiency and productivity with their word processing and calculating power. They initially operated independently. Now computers are connected around the world. Web 1.0 provided information and interesting sites to view. But Web 2.0 allows for on-line interaction globally. Internet applications and uses continue to explode.

Unfortunately, we are living in a time where some people are clinging to the notion that this technology stuff is a fad like citizen band radios or video arcades--eventually people will tire of it and move on. The detractors also argue that schools have been purchasing computers since the 1980's without making a significant difference in student achievement.

However, it is only now that technology has the power and interconnectedness to change from a sideline curriculum of keyboarding and computer basics to a new pedagogy of its own. Some of us are now trying to reform education using the power of modern technology to advance learning. These people recognize the following:

  1. Education technology is devices certainly, but it is no longer the devices alone. Each device is now just a link on an enormous chain.
  2. Technology is about networks--local, national, and global. And it is all the connective devices: the wires, the wireless, the hubs, the servers, the connections, the bandwidth--all the tools.
  3. Education technology is information access. It is the Library of Congress and the world, the good and the bad, at the fingertips of our students,
  4. Technology is connections and communications. It is not just finding sources. It is finding first-person interactions. It is also idea sharing and collaboration with people everywhere.
  5. Technology in education is information creation and higher order thinking skills, providing students the opportunity to find the information, break it down, then synthesize it into something of their own making.
  6. Finally, technology is human relationships. Some predicted that technology would isolate us and let our interpersonal skills atrophy. Instead, our students are touring the world, meeting other people, learning about other cultures, and learning about relationships.

Anyone who observed the recent regime change in Eqypt knows there was a fundamental difference in how the change took place as compared to any other time or place in human history. Communication technologies and social networking created the conduit for an entire nation to informally organize. It was not just about computers. It was about computers, connected with a world-wide network, joined with wireless communication, and these connections accepted and used by people everywhere. It is applied science with a practical value that will continue to change and evolve at a more rapid pace every year. Will schools keep up?

If you think technology is something more than just equipment, feel free to offer me a comment.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Threat to Iowa Technology Initiatives

This is a special blog. It relates to State Auditor David Vaudt and his investigation into schools: whether or not they are spending their current technology funds properly, if new restrictions should be placed on the funds, and if schools should be required to pay back from other funds for tech-related expenses already incurred.

First a little history from my perspective. When technology first began to emerge as a clear and future force in public education, the Iowa Legislature created a special fund in the early 1990's strictly earmarked only for technology acquisition and tech-related uses. With this special funding stream, Iowa schools had few concerns about how to pay for this new classroom component that we knew would be the future of education. Iowa soon became a classroom technology leader. Combined with our fiber-optic classroom network that was providing instant interchange in schools across the state, we became the envy of the nation.

However, at the same time, other funds became tighter in Iowa schools. When our nation's economy was booming in the late 1990's, Iowa schools were being under-funded. Budgets were not permitted to grow. Iowa teacher pay fell further and further behind the national average. Funds were stretched as far as possible to cover the gaps. Then following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, our nation's economy tanked. Iowa's special technology fund for schools was cut. Schools that had already obligated all other funds elsewhere had trouble funding technology. Iowa fell behind in technology as schools limped along by using the Apple IIe's we had purchased in the early 1990's.

Another foresightful tool created by the Iowa Legislature was the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (abbreviated PPEL and pronounced PEP-pul). It created a fund from local property tax to be used for equipment purchases of over $5,000. Educators asked legislators if that minimum threshold could be lowered, and the Iowa Legislature responded positively by dropping the minimum to $1,500 which could be used for either a single piece of technology or "a technology system." Now this "system" language was key because we all recognized the power and the future of networking computers. Wiring might not cost $1,500, but if it was part of a system, that was O.K.

We were fine for a short while, but the price of technology continued to drop. Computers no longer cost more than$1,500 apiece. Schools had a dilemma. They could buy computers as part of a system, but they could not afford to buy a stand-alone computer for a single classroom. Educators again returned to the Legislature, and legislators again were supportive. They lowered the minimum limit again, this time to only $500.

Somehow in this last correction, the key words of using PPEL for "a technology system" was erroneously left out of the language. The rule allows $500 for a single piece of equipment.

Now this is a problem because we educators have continued our past practice and recognize that our technology is most powerful as part of a unified tech system. We have continued to spend these funds quite appropriately in this way.

Now a decade into the 21st Century, schools are beginning to implement what we have known for considerable time is the future of education, i.e. students carrying ubiquitous portable learning devices, currently in the form of laptop computers. A few leading schools are implementing one-to-one laptop learning initiatives. We are lease-purchasing a number of laptops for a fixed-price for each computer over a four-year period. Included in the per-computer price are the network connections, the wiring, the system servers, the operating systems and software that come pre-loaded on the laptops, training for the staff, and the consultants and technicians necessary for installation and implementation.

This month Auditor Vaudt began questioning how schools are spending their PPEL funds. While purchasing their laptops, schools are also acquiring these other devices and services. He questions if schools should continue to be allowed to implement laptops learning initiatives using PPEL funds. He also questions if schools already with laptop initiatives should be required to refund their PPEL funds from their general funds.

Here's the bottom line. Schools are following a past practice that has been acceptable for nearly two decades. School leaders and school boards are operating in full view of the public and with overwhelming support by our parents and patrons. Does it make sense that any school should only be allowed to purchase computers but not the software that makes them run, the infrastructure that allows them to connect, or the training for staff that makes them effective?

This is a serious threat to the future of education in Iowa. Iowa schools are being asked to get by with less funding this year and the next two years. And we should. Times are hard. But now is not the time to place more restrictions on school budgets. Technology is the future of our society and our 21st Century workplace. Technology literacy is a 21st Century skill both by common understanding as well as under Iowa Code. Our laws and our rules should be promoting and propagating the integration of technology into our classrooms, not setting up road blocks.

Whether it is by rule interpretation or legislative action, Iowa schools need to be allowed to use their technology funds for either a single piece of equipment or a "technology system."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Leaders Have to be 21st Century Learners

Do school leaders need technology skills to perform their duties? Absolutely not. Their jobs are about leading and directing students and adults and managing a public organization.

However, do school leaders lack key skills if they are not technologically proficient. Absolutely.

Two Western Illinois University professors, John Closen and Rene Noppe presented at the National Conference on Education in Denver in February 2011. Their data suggests that a gap exists between what most superintendents perceive is needed for themselves in terms of technology skills compared to how this perception is affecting school organizations. The basic skills for a superintendent are generally believed to be
 word processing, powerpoints, spreadsheets, and data bases. A survey of sitting superintendents indicates most believe technology skills are not important to their jobs. Most startling, according to their data, one in five superintendents never use modern technology to communicate with their public.

In contrast, a doctoral dissertation by Nancy Viscuso Hudanch (2002) found “the superintendent’s technological perceptions, practice (personal use) play an integral role in the technology implementation of his/her district.”

School leaders need to recognize that technology is not a fad. It is the future awaiting our students. Moreover, it does not slow down; it accelerates. After a school has come close to catching up (because no one ever truly catches up), the work continues because the change wrought by the advancements continues. School leaders who are not utilizing modern technology, who are not modeling technology skills, and who are not learning about emerging technologies are doing a disservice to their students.

Unfortunately, if you are reading this, you probably are not someone who needs to hear this message. You are looking for new sources of information and new insights. You are modeling what it means to be a 21st Century Learner. Therefore, your duty must be greater. You must challenge the status quo, set an example for your colleagues, and make your school the kind that others must emulate. That is how we will eventually serve all the students.

You have work to do. And thank you for all you do.