Technology Taking Education to New Heights

E-newsletter Issue #123 | September 26, 2013

Technology has changed the course of the world—making daily tasks easier, faster and cheaper to complete.

But are American students prepared to change the course of technology in the future? How can technology change classrooms today? These were the questions posed by experts at The Council of State Governments’ Digital Learning and STEM Initiatives Policy Academy, sponsored by Microsoft and held in conjunction with CSG’s 2013 National Conference in Kansas City, Mo.

American students are not as competitive globally in the science, technology and math fields as they should be, said Cameron Evans, U.S. education chief technology officer for Microsoft. As the economies of the world become increasingly interconnected, the capacity of U.S. students in these areas becomes not only an education issue, but also an economic development issue.

In 10 years, said Evans, one-third of America’s baby boomer engineers will retire and no adequate “pipeline” of students in the science and technology fields exists to fill these positions.

“We have to start thinking today, as we start modernizing education opportunities, about what will provide economic opportunities,” said Evans. “The decisions, the time, the appropriations that you make today have long-standing implications—for generations.”

Educators are increasingly turning to technology as a teaching tool to help improve student readiness in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM—from videos to enhance conceptual learning to tablets and other electronic devices incorporated as important learning aids.

Daniele Massey, the 2013 Department of Defense Education Activity teacher of the year, adopted a “flipped learning” approach to help her teach algebra to military children overseas. Through this approach, students watch online videos on a particular lesson at home, followed by exercises, practice and direct instruction conducted the following day in classroom learning centers. Homework and assessments often are conducted online, allowing Massey to review progress and offer feedback in real time.

Massey said this allows her to “meet them (students) where they are” in their education, which is particularly important as students in her classroom come from all over and have diverse educational backgrounds.

“I teach students to think, collaborate, to use technology or not use technology … to use their brain,” said Massey. “It’s about putting students at the center of learning. The technology—that’s just a tool in the toolbox to make it happen.”

Jeremy Ensrud, a biology teacher in Oregon’s Canby School District, is using a similar approach with his Advanced Placement biology students. Through a school district innovation grant, Ensrud is able to equip each student in the class with a digital tablet for the year, allowing them to conduct video lessons, do online research and collaborate after school hours for group assignments. It even allows students to communicate with Ensrud in the evenings and on weekends to clarify homework and receive critical feedback.

It also encourages students to expand their learning outside the classroom environment. “Current mobile technology can help students make real-world connections with their classroom education,” said Ensrud.

Experts caution, however, that even the best technology cannot replace good teachers. 
“I’m another tool along with that tablet, those encyclopedias, those text books … to help students learn,” said Massey.

Gregg Fleisher of the National Math and Science Initiative agreed.

“We infuse technology throughout everything that we do, but it has to be where teachers are present and trained through every part of the technology so that we get student outcomes,” he said. “If you invest in tablets without proper teacher training, you’re not going to get the outcomes you want.”
The National Math and Science Initiative works to enhance student performance in science, technology, engineering and math by training new teachers and supporting students in Advanced Placement courses. In the 83 schools where the initiative’s approach was implemented in the 2012-13 school year, the number of students who passed Advanced Placement exams nearly doubled as compared to the previous year.

Matthew Wicks of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning said online courses also hold promise in increasing access of educational opportunities to home schooled students, nontraditional students who must work and students whose medical challenges prevent them from attending school.

Evans noted the Microsoft IT Academy provides an opportunity for both traditional and nontraditional students to get certification on critical technology skills through online courses that will prepare them for the workforce.

“We’re going to have students who have life interrupt their plans and education. We need to have alternatives for them that will allow them to work,” he said.

Wichita State University has made the IT Academy, a digital library of more than 1,500 courses in multiple languages, available to its students, faculty and staff. Courses range from the fundamentals of programs such as Excel and Access to complex tasks like setting up a server.

“Taking the online courses has really helped me with my degree,” said Wichita State student Christopher Franklin, who holds a management information systems degree. “Overall, I think when I complete these courses … I’ll stand out as I enter the workforce.”

Speakers in the policy academy provided several key considerations for state policymakers:

  • Invest wisely in technology tools to enhance learning. Given the rate technology is changing, states should invest in tools that can adapt to the changing landscape.
  • Allow for computer science courses to count for required credits. In many states, computer science courses only count as electives.
  • Increase access of educational opportunities through online and digital learning. Providing digital learning opportunities can increase access to previously isolated populations and make education a more equal playing field for marginalized groups.

John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, stressed the importance of technology for education.

“While it’s not the silver bullet, technology is a tool for overcoming some of the challenges we face in isolation,” he said. “The world opens up when we have this technology.”

Also in this issue: