Bringing Technology Into the Classroom is a Process, Not an Event

Georgia legislators passed a bill this year to encourage every student to take an online course during their middle or high school career.

Rep. Tom Dickson, a former school superintendent, said students need to be familiar with technology, since many jobs of the future will require a level of technological literacy.

“We try to encourage lifelong learning,” said Dickson. “Technology is really going to be the future of that.”

But that’s just part of the story.

Technology has made it easier to offer high-level courses at smaller, rural schools. These virtual schools allow for a more equitable education between rural and urban school districts, Dickson said.

John Bailey, executive director of Digital Learning Now!, a national campaign of the Foundation for Excellence in Education to promote quality, customized public education through technological innovations, said technology helps on two levels in education. First, it is making things more efficient by reducing the amount of time teachers spend on everything from grading papers to developing lesson plans. Secondly, technology is transforming many models of education, everything from the way schools are structured to the way classrooms are designed.

“The transformational element is where there is a lot more excitement and promise,” he said. Teachers can “adapt to each learner’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Focus on Students

It’s that promise of personalization that can help shape a better learning environment for all students, said Allyson Knox, academic program manager, National Partnerships for Microsoft Corporation’s U.S. Partners in Learning program.

“I think (technology) is going to engage and empower a learner in a different way,” she said. “A student can become a contributor in a different way in an online world.”

Chip Slaven, senior advocacy associate for the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit education policy and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said technology also gives teachers almost instant information about what their students are learning and understand.

“It gives teachers an added way to guide their students through learning, but also to be an educational designer of what their students each need,” said Slaven.

When Dickson started teaching in the 1960s, teachers served basically as lecturers standing at the front of the room and talking for 50 minutes with all students doing the same thing. Now, he said, students work in small groups with two or three different things going on in a classroom.

“We’ve seen so many changes in education over the last 40 to 50 years,” Dickson said.

He believes technology will accelerate those changes, and states and school districts should be ready.

Assist the Teachers

But successful adoption of digital learning requires more than just sticking laptops or tablet computers in the hands of every student, Slaven said.

“You can have all the technology in the world,” he said, “but … it’s still a person who is driving the learning.”

That’s one reason teacher training will be key to whether digital learning can meet its potential outcomes.

“Training needs to be a huge part of what teachers are doing and it needs to happen all the time,” Slaven said. “If we do that, I think you’re going to see a sea change in student learning.”

Educators must be involved in any state discussion of expanding technology in schools, Dickson said, not only because of costs, but also because they have some good ideas.

“If educators are not prepared to use what we as legislators have put in front of them, then we’ve wasted a lot of money,” said Dickson.

Cover The Costs

While it can be expensive to equip schools with the hardware and software necessary to enhance digital learning, supporters believe states can find options to work around some costs.

In Georgia, for instance, the state is working on ways to enhance infrastructure to schools, such as installing broadband sufficient to allow students to access all the information available through the Internet.

Policymakers also are re-evaluating the state’s funding mechanism for K–12 education—from technology purchase and upkeep to training for teachers and staff.

Slaven said schools could lower some costs by allowing students with their own devices to use them in school. While some have concerns that allowing students to use their own devices might widen the digital divide, that may not be the case. Slaven said some schools have loaner programs for students who don’t have them.

In addition, the digital divide is much smaller in one area—mobile technology, according to Chris Dede, Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an editor of “Digital Teaching Platforms: Customizing Classroom Learning for Each Student.”

“The gap between rich and poor in mobile technology is much smaller than the gap between rich and poor in terms of things like having a home computer with broadband,” Dede said.

Mobile is cheaper and many families across the economic spectrum use mobile technologies for reasons beyond education.

“If we look at the fact that even poor kids have cell phones, then we can take advantage of repurposing those cell phones to narrow the digital divide,” he said.

Dede pointed out that, if used correctly, technology can help teachers be more effective and schools be more efficient. In short, he said, technology can bring down the costs of education.
Bailey believes those upfront costs for technology can be taken from current state budgets.

“As long as we keep the conversation that this is something else you have to do in addition to everything else in the budget, it’s going to undercut and undermine it,” he said. “It’s rethinking how existing funds and budgets can be spent on digital learning opportunities.”

But before that decision is even considered, Slaven believes states should spend time on a strategic plan for schools to move forward.

“Don’t rush out to buy the technology,” he said. “Instead, rush to think about how to do that.”

Schools, the Alliance for Excellent Education believes, should allow students to advance when they have mastered a skill. If students need to spend more time in a particular area, they get it. Schools should ensure teachers get the professional development they need to best deliver the information to students.

Slaven said policymakers should not take a Band-Aid approach, considering digital learning the latest big thing in education and adopting policies around that.

“It’s a process that requires very, very careful thought because there are a lot of issues associated with it,” he said.