The Digital Promise – It Must Be Sustainable

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

A month before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched, Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, the U.S. Army’s top general at the time, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to secure Iraq after the invasion. The U.S. Defense Secretary replied that the general’s estimate was “far from the mark”; the Deputy Defense Secretary chimed in, claiming it was “way off the mark.” Three years later, the CENTCOM Commander admitted that the general’s estimate had been correct after all.

The point of this bit of history is that the U.S. government is wont to take grand and dramatic action to solve problems without paying close attention to the consequences. In the short run, the greater the theatrics, the greater the impact on the public. In the spirit of No Child Left Behind, we have The Digital Promise, the latest shock and awe solution to our country’s broken public schools. The question, however, is the long run, the aftermath. If necessary, can we sustain the additional costs over many years?

The Digital Promise, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a mashup of existing technology-related solutions with a heavier emphasis on outsourcing to a wider range of entrepreneurs. The assumption is that a shell full of silver pellets may be more effective than a single silver bullet. After the smoke from the initial blast clears, however, there is no assurance that the obstacles to achievement will miraculously disappear. In fact, we may find that we’ve simply opened up an even larger gaping hole to pour our nation’s resources into for years to come with the prospect of little or nothing to show for it.

The question remains: What exactly is the digital promise? More precisely, is there a promise that’s sustainable?

Current wisdom is that the digital promise is not going to originate in the schools. The assumption is that teachers and administrators are technologically ignorant and incapable of promising anything except more of the same failures. Thus, change has to come from outside the schools in the form of instructional technology specialists and endless arrays of entrepreneurs. In this scenario, the pedagogical script will be driven by technology selected by “outsiders” — specialists working closely with the private sector. The teacher is reduced to a technician, and quality instruction is determined by how well she or he follows the script.

The problem is that The Digital Promise, in its current form, is not sustainable. Over the long haul, no school or school district can afford teachers and administrators plus an additional layer of technical specialists and outsourced services. The pricetag for the existing system is already through the roof. Thus, sustainability for innovation is no longer desirable but necessary.

We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, our current teachers don’t seem to have the knowledge and skills to use the latest technology to improve learning. On the other, we can’t afford longterm instructional support staff and outsourcing to make up for their shortcomings.

What is the answer? Or is there an answer?

Fortunately, there is. Frank Withrow, in a reply to comments on his article, “The Digital Promise Must Be a Total Learning Experience” (9.26.11), says that our hope is in the teachers who are now entering or will soon be entering the profession. In other words, we need to shift the baseline for what we’re referring to as The Digital Promise. It shouldn’t be teachers and administrators as they are but as they can be. The promise, the hope, is in the future generation of educators, but the groundwork for that future must be laid today.

And this brings us to the crux of the promise – the education departments in our colleges and universities. Raymond Rose, in touch with this need, asks what professors of education need to emphasize in their classes to prepare our future teachers (“What Should All Teachers Know About Instructional Technology?” in e-Learning Evangelist, 9.13.11). The answer, in my mind, is a given. The focus must be on a sustainable model for change, one that reverses the current marginalization of school leaders and teachers. The thrust of teacher training ought to switch from the teacher as technician dependent on outside sources to teacher as independent innovator.

A model for a teacher-empowering digital promise is the MOOC, which re-envisions the educator’s role in the context of the open web. The teacher of the future will be able to develop a teaching and learning environment using the resources on the web, which could incorporate closed options such as CMSs and LMSs as well as face-to-face blended activities. She will also be able to teach her students how to create personal learning environments and how to connect them in infinite ways to form networks, semi-permanent or on the fly, large or small, for specific educational purposes.

This model is sustainable because it empowers and relies on teachers – not costly outside sources. Through the very MOOCs that they use in instruction, they can generate professional development networks to keep up with the latest technology and pedagogy.

In the end, the digital promise is more an attitude toward change than a massive single action. It’s the belief that teachers can be fully capable — and many already are — of using the latest technology to improve learning. It’s the belief that technology is part of the new literacy, and anyone who cannot function in that technology, student or teacher, is illiterate. Finally, it’s the belief that technological change is a constant, ongoing, and that literacy means the ability to continually and independently network with others to keep pace.

10 Responses

  1. I mostly agree with Jim’s remarks but have a couple of significant differences. As an entrepreneur, I’ve been touting the potential for enabling entrepreneurs in education for a long time. It’s my perspective and bias.

    Consider what entrepreneurial activity in education can do. It can produce adaptations of technology such as interactive whiteboards that cost lots of money to buy and service plus plenty more for teacher training, while producing uncertain results. Alternatively, it can produce money-saving technologies that improve student outcomes, make teachers more effective, and allow for teaching strategies that are just not possible in a traditional classroom filled with 30-40 students. The real digital promise must, absolutely must, include sustainability along with scalability. Any other technological attempt at improving education is just a mirage. Don’t assume that innovation means more expenditures. It should mean less.

    Not mentioned in Jim’s remarks is the strategy of transforming the market for learning technologies. The way our 14,000 school districts do business has evolved to make selling difficult for smaller enterprises. Few people ever encounter the problems of selling to our schools. I have done so for over a decade now, and it’s extremely difficult to scale up your efforts. If the Digital Promise can really transform this situation, it would be a boon for those of us who really are working to make education technology fit the NASA motto of “better, faster, cheaper.”

    Today, you must sell one school, sometimes one teacher, at a time. With high costs of selling, the price of what’s sold goes up too. I see many who say that the decisions regarding what to buy should be left to individual schools. Yet, you’ll find few districts that allow individual schools to choose textbooks. Which should it be? Should the district decide, or should the schools one at a time? You’ll find good arguments on both sides. Larger districts and consortia can leverage their size to get discounted prices. They also tend to have administrative staff experts who can better evaluate potential purchases than can a single school or department.

    The best solution here is a cooperative system in which all those involved in the decision take part in it and come up with a single solution so that the district (or district consortium) gets the best result for its money.

    Reading the Digital Promise section on transforming the market, it’s hard to see whether the result will help or hinder smaller companies with real innovative technologies that cost less and do more. We’ll see.

    • Harry, you bring up some very good points. One especially is critical: some outsourcing can be sustainable. The issue, though, is, as you say, who should make the decisions. In the model that I’m envisioning, I’m suggesting that teachers have the greater say on pedagogy and technology. Let’s take the money we’re pouring into top-down, one-size-fits-all ed tech approaches and give teachers the autonomy to decide on the technology and services they need.

      All schools must have a budget for ed tech. The issue is who should decide on how to spend that money. The rule of thumb for that decision ought to be sustainability. Teachers are professionals who take a problem-solving approach in their work. They have clear objectives in mind and many have a clear understanding of the instructional technology they need to attain their objectives. Those who haven’t kept pace with the latest ed tech are fully capable of researching in small, informal groups (networks).

      As part of formal teacher training, I’m suggesting that colleges of ed emphasize the ability to use the open web and networking as a resource and medium for teaching, learning, and professional development.

      There are, as you say, sustainable, cost-saving private sector ed tech services out there. However, because of institutional purchasing policies, only a handful ever reach the classroom. The digital promise has to include a means for teachers to research and determine the services they need from as large a pool of offerings as possible.

  2. Jim
    I found your post resonating for many reasons. Here in Australia, procurement is often state wide over multiple year contracts. Economies of scale leverage cost savings but also limits agility when lock in to “a model” is subsequently “trained into” teachers. That push model has had its day.

    Momentum towards full MOOCs may be sustainable if the first expectation of our professional learning, not only ICT or tech, is to be discoverable in a digital network and shared with peer mentors. We are currently developing a Journey Model for k-12 Teacher PL where individualisation for all Australian teachers (cross sector) at any stage of development will be possible. This pull model will be linked to national professional learning standards for teachers with peer guidance, offers of micro rewards (if wanted) and savable levels. The concept is one of empowerment, choice, goal setting and resiliance. Ageless attributes that can then flow on to our students without a technology hammer, small or large, needing to be raised.

    The expectation can then shift to one of purposeful supported engagement as teachers are assisted to design PL frameworks to satisfy their own needs, much like a MOOC. Also if barriers of entry are eliminated, and the model is not seen as unsupported learning of simply “more” technology, then sustainability of Discoverable PL for individuals will result. How much and who they share with will be shapable as confidence grows.
    The new layer upon old layer, outsourcing and waiting for the edupreneur silver bullett you mention, also don’t sound sustainable to me. Thanks also for alerting me to A Digital Promise. Maybe Learning Promise is more apt?

  3. Hi, Tony.

    Tony: Economies of scale leverage cost savings but also limits agility when lock in to “a model” is subsequently “trained into” teachers.

    Yes. Well said. Much to think about in this pithy statement. In a nutshell, you’ve captured the process that encases outdated pedagogy in concrete.

    Tony: Momentum towards full MOOCs may be sustainable if the first expectation of our professional learning, not only ICT or tech, is to be discoverable in a digital network and shared with peer mentors.

    Yes. The inclusion of closed systems limits the power of MOOCs. But it may be necessary, to some extent, for privacy concerns. In time, I think we’ll find a way to do both — maximize openness while maintaining essential privacies.

    Tony: We are currently developing a Journey Model for k-12 Teacher PL where individualisation for all Australian teachers (cross sector) at any stage of development will be possible. This pull model will be linked to national professional learning standards for teachers with peer guidance, offers of micro rewards (if wanted) and savable levels. The concept is one of empowerment, choice, goal setting and resiliance. Ageless attributes that can then flow on to our students without a technology hammer, small or large, needing to be raised.

    Tony, your voluntary (pull) professional development model looks very promising! Cast as a “journey,” it underscores the need for a process orientation to teacher training and in-service programs rather than specific approaches. The emphasis on “empowerment, choice, goal setting and resilience” ultimately places decision-making back in the hands of the teacher, where it belongs and where reform is most sustainable. The flexible support structure is an excellent way to work with teachers at various levels of expertise and confidence.

    Thank you very much for sharing these thoughtful comments and insights. I hope you’ll consider submitting an article to ETCJ on the Journey Model for k-12 Teacher PL. Colleges of ed and in-service programs will have to play a more proactive role in training teachers for a future in which constant change in technology will be a given.

    Best,
    Jim
    jamess@hawaii.edu

  4. […] The Digital Promise – It Must Be Sustainable By Jim Shimabukuro Editor A month before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched, Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, the U.S. Army's top general at the time, testified before the Senate Armed Services … Source: etcjournal.com […]

  5. […] The Digital Promise – It Must Be Sustainable By Jim Shimabukuro Editor A month before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched, Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, the U.S. Army's top general at the time, testified before the Senate Armed Services … Source: etcjournal.com […]

  6. […] The Digital Promise – It Must Be Sustainable By Jim Shimabukuro Editor A month before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched, Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, the U.S. Army's top general at the time, testified before the Senate Armed Services … Source: etcjournal.com […]

  7. So here is something that is bothering me about the Digital Promise and FCC working to share the Comcast Initiative. It sounds like a commercial and so at first I did not realize that the FCC and Comcast are working together. I posted this to DIIGO, So what you typically hear is that they are providing connectivity to lower income students.

    Is This a Commercial?

    Nothing is said about the computer that they can get on sign up for about $150.0 and I am thinking, where is the community group that will help them with this. The people even get Norton I think the campaign has been badly handled. Who understands that this is a government partnership, that there is a low cost computer deal, that there is Norton Software available free and so on.We tech people get it. I bet you that ordinary citizens without technology do not know how to get started. So do they go on line to register? I don’t know.

    Who is eligible for Internet Essentials?
    A household is eligible to participate in Internet Essentials if it meets all of the following criteria:
    Is located where Comcast offers Internet service
    Has at least one child receiving free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program
    Has not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days
    Does not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment
    Where and when will Internet Essentials be available?

    Sounds like a commercial to me but wait, there is more..

    Making it Real

    In my mind, school and community groups would come together and invite the parents of these students in for a workshop to explain the initiative. ( where in the world they will get the money to get the computer is another story), but perhaps there is some community
    group that has recycled computers that would be free. I don’t know if they would then be eligible for the Norton software.

    So I explored and drilled down , there is a community initiative, who knew?

    School leaders can go here to learn how to collaborate with community
    leaders to create a learning community and take advantage of this opportunity.
    You can always tell when there are no people at the education level or parents involved in initiatives that are supposed to help the people who need something, in technology.
    I guess we who think about technology are so wired we can’t get how to talk to people who are not. Point in case in the Comcast Initiative to help link America. This is not an ad
    but it reads like one. I have been in a meeting twice, when it has been explained, but not really explained so that people can take the message to the community. I think
    that lots of time people explaining technology are so mired in it that they cannot understand how to communicate. My mind closes when the words competition, race to the top or an invitiation comes to win this whatever. Minorities may look away from stuff like this, Come ones are everywhere. Who is to know that a real offer is here.
    . How to apply?
    How can I apply for Internet Essentials?
    Call 1-855-8-INTERNET (1-855-846-8376) to request an application.
    Comcast will continue to accept new customers into Internet Essentials for three full school years.

    It is my personal opinion that non tech users need support to take advantage of this.

    Internet Essentials helps more students and families get online.
    While participating in Internet Essentials, customers receive:
    Fast home Internet for just $9.95 a month + tax
    No price increases, no activation fees and no equipment rental fees
    A computer available at initial enrollment for just $149.99 + tax
    Access to free Internet training – online, in print and in person

    Perhaps i need to explain why I am pushing what seems like a commercial initiative. You have heard me talk about vendorization.

    Vendorization is in my opnion, when the information in technology that we all have access to, is put in little packages ( If we are out of the loop we pay for the information that people get free in various workshops, briefings and policy briefs.
    I do understand that there are people who do not have time to collect, correct, correlate and communicate these ideas to others without the various groups that do this as a business.

    Comcast is a partner with the FCC and the White House . So how do we talk about it. WHen we first talked about technology in the US.

    Comcast has the largest footprint of any of the technology groups , so that is why they were selected. According to Julius Genachowski

    is it a commercial , still kinda.? Your thoughts?

  8. The winds of the political system and government of America holds education in a death throttle. .. change change.change … and we have not even gotten most ot what was promised at the end of the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council 1996, we thought we had ensured Broadband for America at that time. Think again.

    We are not there yet. The experts in Washington in education who put the ideas of education on the cloud, have gone , and new leadership is in place.

    Read ITIF’s FCC Filing.

    Efforts to modernize the Universal Service Fund have been underway in Washington nearly as long as the Fund has been in effect. Very little progress has been made on this issue, despite the almost universal agreement that the United States should place higher priority on broadband service than traditional telephone service. However, the stars seem to be finally aligning around the need for fundamental reform. Toward that end, the FCC has taken the lead on the issue with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on the best ways to convert USF from a telephone-oriented program with runaway costs to a more efficient, forward-looking, broadband stimulus.

    http://www.itif.org/events/time-change-case-reforming-universal-service-now

    The telephone companies take turns suing the US government over these ideas. That’s another way to hold things up.

    The overhaul of an “outdated” U.S. Federal Communications Commission program that subsidizes telephone service in rural areas will lead to universally available broadband service in the U.S. by the end of the decade, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

    Genachowski’s proposal to revamp the Universal Service Fund (USF), unveiled Thursday, would transition the fund away from subsidies for traditional telephone service and toward broadband. The fund, with an annual budget of about US$8 billion, would start paying for broadband deployment to areas now unserved in 2012, under Genachowski’s plan.

    Genachowski called the current USF system “unfair” and “broken” and scheduled a vote on his proposal for later this month. In some cases, USF is paying telephone carriers $20,000 a year to provide service to a single customer, and the system pays subsidies to multiple carriers in some areas, he said.

    Instead, the FCC needs to take action to deliver broadband to an estimated 18 million U.S. residents who don’t now have access to it, Genachowski said. About half of those residents could have access to broadband within five years under the plan.

    “Harm from not having broadband — the costs of digital exclusion — already high, are growing every day,” Genachowski said. “The costs of this broadband gap are measured in jobs not created, existing job openings not filled, and our nation’s competitiveness not advanced. The broadband divide means economic opportunities denied for ordinary consumers who lack broadband access; educational opportunities diminished; health care access reduced; and public safety compromised.”
    So the first “Digital Promise ” was broadband.

    We are still waiting ….

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