By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
The Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission was created in March 2012 and is co-chaired by Lee Bollinger (President of Columbia University), Jim Coulter (Co-Founder of TPG Capital), Margaret Spellings (Former Secretary of Education) and Jim Steyer (CEO of Common Sense Media). – from “Paving a Path Forward.”
The LEAD Commission1 has published a five-point plan for a national technology initiative. The points are:
- Solve the infrastructure challenge by upgrading the wiring of our schools.
- Build a national effort to deploy devices
- Accelerate the adoption of digital curriculum
- Embrace and encourage model schools
- Invest in human capital
These are great-sounding goals, especially given the state of today’s technology and the poor learning opportunities in too many of our schools. Due to a recession and extensive government budget cuts, our country’s entire infrastructure continues to deteriorate. There’s much to do here, but are these the right goals, and are they properly articulated? Let’s take them one at a time2.
THE INFRASTRUCTURE CHALLENGE
Having visited a great many schools across the country, I can sympathize with the wiring issues. In many classrooms, a complete class of 30 or so students cannot operate with the wireless access available and have reasonable response times. Frequently, this problem results because of a “computer cart” with an inexpensive router that cannot handle the traffic. Sometimes, it’s the building’s central routing hardware. Occasionally, it’s the school’s connection to the Internet.
I’ve seen cases and heard of more where the problem is that a school’s administrative load on the bandwidth swamps the educational access. Most schools have provided a priority to administrative access and left teachers and students in a second-class position with respect to Internet bandwidth. This seems to be a reversal of priorities in this writer’s opinion.
The commission recommends a bandwidth of 100 Mbps for every 1,000 students and staff by the coming school year and suggests that the current e-rate program be modernized to account for the changes. That’s an average of 100 Kbps per person or a download of 37.5 Mbytes for each one during a 50-minute period. Given that all students will not be on the Internet in every class for every day, that is a rather high estimate. Within three years, they recommend a tenfold increase.
Too many schools have far too little bandwidth, far below these numbers today. However, such a dramatic increase may be excessive. Once classroom bandwidth becomes adequate, the overall school bandwidth may be substantially less than the recommendation, especially if the central routing facilities cache files. The internal wiring and technology must be improved before considering upgrading the school-to-Internet bandwidth to these amounts.
On the other hand, 100 Mbps is not so great a bandwidth as it once was. Fiber networks have become much more common. Even 20 Mbps is readily available to residences near fiber connections and upgrades to the 100 Mbps level are becoming available. This plan point should be moderated to adapt to local capabilities and costs with internal upgrades taking precedence.
This point also sounds excellent, but lacks an important specific. It does not define “device.” The description of this point includes courseware and not just devices, making the title misleading. What is a “device”? It could be, viewing today’s school purchasing decisions, an iPad, an Android tablet, a Chromebook, or something else. The first three devices limit the courseware available to schools because of various technology “wars” taking place between the major players in the consumer computer/tablet market today: Google, Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, and Oracle. The moves designed to limit access and control purchasing in the consumer market have affected the educational market too.
Educational software providers are left to scramble to keep up with the ever-shifting sands of the learning device landscape. Future plans, especially in the compatibility area, tend to be kept very secret and so leave developers guessing. Today’s hot device could well be tomorrow’s turkey, leaving both schools and educational courseware providers high and dry.
The one thing that the government and schools could do to help themselves and all education is to insist on compatibility between device manufacturers. This compatibility is unnecessary in the general consumer market, but is a crucial feature of educational institutions. Right now, you may find a dozen really great educational software programs only to discover that some will only run under iOS (the iPad and iPhone operating system); others run as Android apps; some have HTML5 versions; others will only run on traditional computers systems (Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux – and maybe only a subset of these). Some of these programs may run in browsers; some may run in browsers with a specific plug-in; others run outside of the browser environment. This Babel of computer systems and software costs our schools much in money and in lost learning opportunities. Unfortunately, this aspect of devices was overlooked by the commission.
ACCELERATE DIGITAL CURRICULUM ADOPTION
The commission gives three reasons for slow adoption of digital learning resources. Beside the usual “risk aversion” and lack of comprehensive curricular solutions, they add on the decentralized system of multiple decision makers with limited resources for making complex purchasing decisions. They might add that this old-fashioned (textbook model) approach to purchasing also increases the costs to vendors who pass this increased cost on to schools.
The commission’s plan provides three sub-points:
1. Evolve state and district purchasing cycles to the digital age.
Simply, this point addresses the long-held practice of making textbook purchasing decisions every five years or so. Five years is an entire generation of computer technology. Schools should no longer take this slow and somewhat lazy approach to their purchasing. The landscape is changing rapidly right now and will continue to evolve with astonishing rapidity. Schools that make these long-term decisions will be left behind.
2. Create an independent certification program.
Schools and districts often are ill-equipped to evaluate the new (and old) software and hardware available for education. They frequently end up paying more for less. Current government programs for evaluating new educational software are based on systems built up for textbook purchases. I’ve seen situations where vendors are required to provide an ISBN for each “title” in their provided software because that’s the way they’ve always done it with the textbook companies, and they expect all submitting companies to emulate those practices. An ISBN is fine for something that issues a new edition no more frequently than at five-year intervals, but makes no sense for today’s educational software. These sort of requirements just make it harder for smaller companies to compete with the large textbook manufacturers.
3. Increase innovation and research funds.
“Capital targeting entrepreneurs, businesses and researchers would not only help bring new, more effective products to market, but also foster greater competition.”
This statement is clear enough by itself. Availability of capital for educational technology innovation has been very limited until quite recently. While the situation is beginning to loosen up a bit, much more should be done. The government could play a major role at very minor cost and with substantial rewards for learning.
EMBRACE MODEL SCHOOLS
This point sounds like the charter school movement redux. The idea that model schools can try out new ideas and disseminate the successes throughout the country should work but hasn’t and probably won’t. Why should a school in Kansas emulate a model school in New Mexico? There’s simply no incentive for schools to copy something that some well funded model school did. In the first place, they don’t have the same funds. Other variables also make this plan point difficult.
You can go into any large urban school district and find plenty of charter schools doing learning differently than the adjacent public schools. Have the different practices spilled over into the rest of the schools? Generally not. In the meantime, students and parents left out of the model schools feel resentment. We must have a better means for trying out new ideas than a few so-called model schools. Even the name is misleading.
It would be better, for example, to identify model teachers across the country who will work with innovative ideas within the current structure. Instead of the 200 model schools recommended by the report, we might have 20,000 model teachers scattered throughout the country in rural and urban schools, in public and private schools, in wealthy and poor neighborhoods. These teachers must be willing to do the extra work required to adapt their curricula to innovations and to find ways to make this effort less for the next teacher if the effort is successful. They must be ready to provide detailed feedback so that ideas that are close to success can be altered to make them successful.
The technologies employed should have the promise of Dan Goldin’s NASA motto of better, faster, cheaper. Without that promise, the technologies will not scale.
INVEST IN HUMAN CAPITAL
This point essentially suggests increasing the funding for professional development. The commission says that 96% of teachers believe in technology in education but only 18% believe that they have the necessary training to use educational technology in their classrooms.
These statistics suggest that up to 78% of teachers are seeking an excuse for not using technology. A great many teachers currently use technology effectively in their classrooms and have not had professional development training to help them. We have to find ways to introduce technology into classrooms gently. Technology vendors have to make their technologies easier to integrate into classrooms and curricula. Teachers must overcome any reluctance to understand today’s digital devices. Schools should provide platforms for sharing among teachers and not just hope that it will happen.
The LEAD Commission makes some very good points in its five-point plan but misses some issues and has overemphasized others. The backgrounds of the commissioners puts them at the “30,000-foot” viewpoint and probably explains this situation to some extent. Minor adjustments to the plan will increase its effectiveness and potential power.
In the final statement of the laudably short plan, the commissioners compare their plan to the interstate highway plan and call for a revolution in learning. The technology is here now and affordable, they claim, and can be quickly deployed. They’re right, but their plan is just enough off to thwart this objective.
1 “Bipartisan LEAD Commission Releases Five-point Blueprint Recommending a National Initiative to Expand Digital Learning in K-12 Eeducation,” 13 June 2013.
2 Harry’s review of the plan was inspired by a post in Bonnie Bracey Sutton‘s Facebook page. Bonnie is an ETCJ associate editor.
Filed under: K-12 Schools |