The Current State of 21st Century Education Technology 2011-2012 – Paving a Road to Success

Remember filmstrips, movie reels, overhead projectors and transparencies? These are the “tech tools” that I remember from my school days. Not an interactive anything anywhere. It was simple. Teachers and professors had to decide between blackboards or overheads, black, blue or maybe green ink and that was about it.

We’ve come a long way from those days, and in many cases new technologies have quickly replaced the old. There is however a wide variation on how advanced school districts are in terms of their education technology implementations. One thing is clear; no matter how limited resources are, all school districts have formed a set of goals around education technology. If we expect to reach any of these goals, we have to understand the underlying factors that can affect the character and complexity of a problem. These factors will in turn affect how we approach a particular problem and the solutions that are applied to reach our goals.

From a 30,000 foot perspective, there are commonly three key components to an education technology solution; Hardware, Software and Training (the often forgotten, but many times most important component).

In today’s education tech world, you will not get very far without the three vital components mentioned above. These are however, merely the tools that we will use in reaching our educational goals. If you were to place all of the best hardware, software and training materials in a room, they would not magically yield higher test scores, achievement and graduation rates all by themselves.

You might think that what I’ll be saying next will have to do with people and how they can be the difference makers. This of course is true, but the actual focus should be on what these all important people are doing (and unfortunately in many cases not doing) in order to achieve our collective educational goals.

Many of us have lost sight on the “education” in education technology. It’s right there in front of our eyes and we still manage forget that this is about properly educating students and enabling them to reach their fullest potential.

The following list contains some of the most common pitfalls that we see on a day-to-day basis as education technology integrators. These are the processes and activities that have proven to be inefficient, ineffective or counterproductive to education technology goals.

1. Having no goals to begin with – This situation is all too common. A school district is hard-set on implementing and/or upgrading their education technology resources, but nothing is tied back to curriculum goals. The purchase and installation of projectors, interactive whiteboards, response systems, classroom sound systems etc is not the implementation of a solution, it’s simply a purchase. Avoid asking yourself “now what?” once the smoke has cleared. Achieve this by creating a real implementation plan that is tied to long term educational goals and state standards. All of the best education technology hardware manufacturers have researched education requirements in detail and have designed their solutions accordingly in order to help schools reach these goals through the use of their products. Ask your technology provider questions related to your educational goals and only engage with those who understand your goals and can tell you how their products will help you reach them.

2. Cookie cutter approach – Let’s outfit every classroom and every teacher with the same exact technology tools. And let’s not stop there, let’s do it all at once so everyone is happy and nobody feels left out. Makes sense – right? Well not exactly. Administrators and Tech Directors don’t want to hear grumblings about inequities or create an environment of haves and have not’s even for a short period of time. This would be disaster – or would it?

One of the best examples I can think of is interactive whiteboards or IWB’s. These boards are incredible tools and can greatly enhance a learning environment when implemented properly, but the addition of this technology tool is not always a “no brainer” in all learning environments. Companies like SMART Technologies and Promethean may disagree, but in the end, if the educational goals of their customers are being met, it will be a win-win situation for all involved – especially the kids.

This is a trend that is difficult to break. It is fairly easy to understand how this has come about since politics can many times trump logic.

Learning activities can vary greatly from room to room and from subject to subject. The learning goals for math will likely vary greatly from the learning goals in science class versus foreign language classes. Science room environments may vary even further based on whether you are dealing with Physics, Chemistry or Biology.

The variances can run even deeper based on other district based requirements, room arrangement or teaching style of an individual teacher.

Taking a step back to do some real analysis and planning may help you and your schools get on a more accurate track in terms of matching technology tools to actual academic goals. To say that “we’ll figure that out later” adds to the risk that you will leave a critical requirement unaddressed.

3. Making all decisions from the Top Down – Not that you would do this, but too many Tech Directors or IT Managers make district wide decisions without gathering any input from the end users of technology. In this case it is of course teachers that would help drive accurate requirements from the bottom up that would complement the decisions being made from above. This will no doubt take more time and effort, but in the end it will likely uncover more detail and accuracy to your requirements that will help minimize risk and decrease the chances that you’ll miss a requirement or waste time and money spent re-working your initial solution with an unplanned “Phase 2” of your implementation.

4. No Training or Professional Development (PD) Plan – You might be lucky enough to have a real go-getter on your staff that takes the ball and runs with it, creating your training program in the process. These self starters do exist, but you can’t count on training and PD taking care of itself. Full adoption and use of new technology tools requires planning AND management of the plan. If done correctly, your educational goals are met and everyone comes out looking and feeling like a champion.

5. No metrics – How do you show that your plan has been successful? Part of proper planning is establishing a pre-determined method of measuring success via a set of well chosen metrics. Not everyone loves numbers by nature, but I’m betting that everyone will love them when they definitively show that planning and implementation has led to success.

6. Buying solely on price – Hopefully you have not grown completely cynical when it comes to value. If you spend the time talking to your prospective sales people and service providers, you will see a wide range of offerings presented to you. If you want to do what’s best for your schools, you will spend some time calculating the true cost of a solution where the physical hardware is only one component. If you make your decision solely on the price of hardware, you might be doing a great disservice to yourself, your schools, your project team and your students. Some of the most important value differentiators will have to do with service, support, training and professional development. A quality solution provider will not only sell you the hardware, they will pro-actively support it. They will work with you consultatively and open an ongoing dialogue with you and your staff to assist in reaching your goals. Many providers have dedicated Education Consultants on staff that are familiar with state and federal education goals. This further enables you and your team to map education goals to the use of education technology tools in the classroom.

7. Thinking your planned solution is “good enough” – This might apply when buying a car or home appliance when added cost is usually associated with “bells and whistles”, but a classroom is not about getting to point A to point B or how white your shirts can be. True adoption of education technology in a classroom can be a tricky goal to meet and adoption must come with real results like increased test scores and graduation rates. If you are heavily constrained by budget, I recommend creating the best solution possible and starting with one room. If you don’t have the funds to complete an entire room, do it in well thought out phases with guidance from your education technology integrator (remember that thing about added value? – A perfect example). If you continue this process over time, you will end up with quality learning environments in every room vs. a watered down “solution” in each room that yields no actual results.

8. Thinking you are “done” – This relates directly to #7 above. It’s important to have a mindset of constant improvement. New and improved technology is constantly being developed. This can offer great opportunity, but it can also create confusion. In the ‘one room at a time’ scenario above, it would be of added benefit to re-evaluate your plan as time progresses. This will give you the ability to fine tune your solution over time. For this reason, it will be important to pay attention to feedback from end-users of technology enabled classrooms. There may be a new and improved technology available or you may have realized that you “over-bought” in a particular area and can then adjust your plan accordingly. Ideally, there will be no changes at all and simply a confirmation that your plans and system designs are sound. If you reach the end of an implementation and everything has gone according to plan, you are still far from being done. As with all technology, there are the elements of hardware maintenance, support and an ongoing training/professional development plan. If you have specific plans in place in all of these areas and actively manage to your goals, your chances for success will be greatly improved.

The Future of Educational Technology and Education 3.0

Thinking of what education might look like in the next decade, one quickly realizes that the trends in technology are leaving a large number of our students behind. We no longer live in an age of visible movement when it comes to progress and innovation. Today is an age of exponential change. New and ever-improving technologies are popping up every day and in every corner of society.

Educating the best and the brightest in this brave new world will take a new and improved educational paradigm. Allowing our educational tools to age in the corner of the classroom will be the mistake that may cost us our future. Throwing away masses of children to inequitable access will ensure that we languish at the bottom of the global pool of employable workers for decades to come.

The New Toolbox

I was at an auction a few years ago and noticed a few old woodworking tools that I thought I could use. For a few bucks, I was able to snag an assortment of hand tools that may have been in someone’s toolbox for a generation or more. As the next decade passed, I used these tools in my shop for a wide variety of projects until my projects outgrew these old, dull tools. My woodworking creations continued to improve as did my skills and artistry. I quickly discovered that using improved tools would translate into improved craftsmanship. As any woodworker will tell you, new tools require new skills.

Woodworking is a great metaphor for shaping and molding students. There is simply no good substitute for a sharp tool. If you want to build the best projects possible, you need to use the best tools possible. Thinking in terms of the next decade for our country, we will be sorely disappointed in our projects if we fail to improve our tools.

Within this article, I will try to paint a picture of how technology will shape the way we educate students in the next decade. I will attempt to show the amazing possibilities that lay before us if we will simply walk through the doorway of opportunity that is open to us. My focus will be this idea: Transforming the student from being a passenger to becoming a “user.” You may be wondering what I mean by this. Let me explain.

Ask yourself what it means to be a “user.” A user is not simply a person who uses. For the student, being a user should involve using the latest technology in a free and autonomous manner. This new-found freedom will allow the student to become an active participant in his/her education instead of a passive passenger. No other time in history have we been so able to make this a reality.

In our current technological society, being a user also means being tracked. Tracking has become a major part of our daily lives and is precisely the engine that should drive our educational process for the foreseeable future. Tracking a student means having the ability to target education toward weaknesses and strengths. The ability to accurately customize curriculum to the individual has been the holy grail of educational philosophy for many years. This golden age of technological development may soon enable this dream to become a reality.

Current educational curriculum and individual assessment is arbitrary at best. Being able to accurately asses a student can only be achieved by using modern tracking and database technologies. The means by which we can make this a reality is readily available and only needs to be taken off the shelf to be used. If Congress is looking for a shovel-ready project, this may be the one.

Imagine a world where every child has a tablet computer with ready access to the App of virtual photographic memory (internet). Further, imagine that every student can access all the knowledge of humankind freely at any moment in time. Continue to imagine a world where a misspelled word brings up a spelling challenge application instead of an auto correction. Try to contemplate what it would mean for a teacher to have a database of every misspelled word, every misunderstood concept or every missed equation for each of their students. Try to envision a teacher with the ability to customize the experience of the individual “user” with minimal effort. Imagine the curriculum being automatically targeted to the user through an intuitive educational platform that knows every strength and each unique weakness. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

The company that makes this standard available to the educational community will be the company that shapes the future of humankind. Will it be Google, Apple, Microsoft, or some other yet unknown pioneer?

Continuing from the thoughts in my last post, I would like to elaborate on the idea of the student as a user of a new standardized educational platform. It is obvious to me that the future of education will always mirror our everyday lives in one way or another. If you examine how technology has influenced your daily life already, you begin to put together a snapshot of what it will mean to be educated in the next decade.

In the last few hundred years, most individuals would consider an education as something you receive. You often hear the question asked, “Where did you receive your education?” As we proceed through the next decade, education will slowly move away from reception and toward being custom designed for the individual user. New technology will not only allow us to receive an education, but also develop an education. The question we might ask in 10 years is, “How did you develop your education?” The question of where will still be important, but the how of the matter will be the focus that defines the individual.

To make this a reality we will need a standardized platform from which to develop a student’s unique education. This standardized platform will allow us to tailor a custom curriculum that will be matched to talents, interests and life goals. For the educator, a standardized platform will create a way to assist the student in discovering a true purpose in life through a unique educational experience. The basics of reading, writing and arithmetic will not be taught as much as they will be discovered and used. Learning will become a reciprocal experience between the teacher, the student and the machine.

Under a standardized platform, each of these three participants will have a role to play. The teacher will be the facilitator, assisting the development of the curriculum and inspiring the direction the student takes. The student will be the user, gathering resources, skills and knowledge in an efficient and measured sequence. The machine will do the work of data gathering and analysis, which will assist the teacher and student in refining the curriculum. This data gathering work of the machine will also free the teacher from the burden of record-keeping and tedious tasks that currently distract from the real job of teaching and learning.

Under a standardized system, grade level will be far less important. Achievement and progression will be measured by accomplishment and intelligence as a benchmark for success. The question of failure or success will be irrelevant and replaced with a standard and consistent measurement of potential and overall intelligence. Information will no longer be missed but continually rehearsed and monitored for retention by the machine.

In our current educational paradigm, the teacher is in charge of arbitrarily constructing curriculum. This approach to curriculum development is based on inexperience in some cases, outdated materials, inadequate funding and a shortage of time. Measuring the success of a specific curriculum is currently impossible. With a standardized system, comparisons of curricular success can be made across the entire spectrum of education and then continually reformulated and enhanced by the machine.

Sadly, teachers today are bogged down with an assortment of mind-numbing tasks that would be better suited to an off-the-shelf automated system. Tasks such as data tracking, reporting and record keeping are currently accomplished manually. These tasks could easily be delegated to an intuitive database. Developing a standard to follow would eliminate these tasks and free the teacher to do their main job of teaching students.

Education 3.0

Throughout history, man has sought to pass on knowledge to the next generation. This process started with oral tradition, storytelling and writing. With the advent of the printing press, knowledge and information slowly became available to the masses. The amount of information that could be gained by one human in a lifetime was severely limited by his access to printed materials and wealth. The majority of learning was gained through observation and imitation. We can call this Education 1.0.

Education 2.0 starts around the late eighteen hundreds with universal literacy movements throughout newly industrialized regions of the world. Improvements in education slowly transitioned from apprenticeship to formal education and training. Despite our movements toward universal education, access to knowledge and opportunity continues to be inequitable throughout the world. Even with the arrival of the computer revolution, access to the tools of learning continues to define the learner.

The next decade may mark the moment in history when all men are granted equal access to the greatest treasure a soul can possess. I use the word may in the last sentence because there is the chance that we will miss this golden opportunity. Access to Education 3.0 will only be gained through investment and universal standardization. If we continue to divert wealth toward fruitless goals and corporate greed, this opportunity will be lost or hopelessly delayed.

Education 3.0, when it arrives, will be the age of universal enlightenment. Platforms for education and learning will slowly standardize and become globally accessible and affordable. The poorest to the wealthiest will have access to the machine that runs the platform.

The thought on your mind at this point is most likely wondering what machine I keep referring to. The machine in question is the one we have been so busy teaching and training since roughly 1969. You’ve probably guessed it by now that I am referring to the internet. The great cloud of knowledge that we call the internet is precisely the mechanism that we will use to build the platform of Education 3.0. When the platform is finally in place, the decade to follow will see the greatest amount of wealth, discoveries and use of human potential that we have witnessed during our time on this earth. The only question that remains to be answered is the point at which I will leave this article.

When will we allow the user to use the machine to its potential?

Online Education Technology

Distance learning as a form of education has been developed before computer network advent, gradually increasing the range of used technologies. First they introduced a so-called case-technology: well-structured training materials were completed in a special set (“case”), which was then sent to a student for independent study. Over time, paper pamphlets and books were supplemented by records on magnetic media and CD-ROM, and teachers began using television technology conduct classes and lectures. Students still had to periodically attend full consultation of teachers (tutors) or instructors in specially created remote (regional) training centers.

The World Wide Web provided basis for network technology development to share knowledge, providing students and teachers with electronic books and libraries, convenient testing systems, as well as means of communication. Internet not only combines all previously known tools of training, but also significantly expands their list, has a significant impact on information culture in educational environment.

Types and forms of learning via the Internet

Most of learning centers can be divided into three groups according to the degree of “immersion” into the Internet.

The first group includes institutions, which work is based entirely on Internet technologies. A choice of course, its payment, training students, transfer of control tasks and their verification, as well as passing interim and final examinations are carried out via the Web. Such training centers are sometimes called “virtual universities” and not numerous because of high requirements for software program equipment and staff training, as well as the need for substantial initial investments.

Second, the largest group is represented by schools combining a variety of traditional forms of full-time and distance learning with modern innovations. For example, some universities transfer a part of their program courses into virtual form, and distance learning centers at the same time do not abandon the practice of classroom examinations. There may be many options here, but in each case only a part of educational process is computerized.

The third group includes learning centers using Internet only as internal communication environment. Their websites offer information on training programs (plans), seminars, and library catalogs.

Courses proposed in virtual learning systems can be divided into two types: credit and non-credit. “Credit” is a course approved at an accredited academic institution. A student passes it as part of curriculum for any degree and uses it as a step on a way to get a degree. (Each course has its own weight in credit hierarchy).

“Non-credit” courses include those designed to obtain additional or post-graduate education (e.g. for training) and not leading to a degree.

In fact, institutions offering non-credit courses form a system of “open education”. They emphasize the value of training program as it is, not caring about prestige of diplomas issued or weight of credit.