Innovating education with technology.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest public school district in the USA, has approved a plan that will provide every K-12 student and teacher in Los Angeles with an iPad by Fall 2014. With over 650,000 students and almost 26,000 teachers, this initiative represents a huge and risky $500 million investment. With all that technology flooding into the public school system, to what degree will LAUSD’s ambitious new plan change the quality of education offered to public school students in the city of Los Angeles?
It’s clear that there’s an urgent need for change in education. Colleges increasingly report that incoming freshmen lack the required skills for academic success. The 2013 ACT tests reveal that less than 40% of US high school graduates meet three or more of the college readiness benchmarks in reading, math, English and science. Incredibly, 31% failed to meet even one of the benchmarks. When employers are asked to assess new workforce entrants, most report that they lack the skills that are essential to job success in today’s market. The skills listed most often include oral and written communications, teamwork/collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving.
Those of us that graduated school at least two decades ago left with the expectation of secure careers and employment. That’s no longer the case. Just ask anyone that trained as a stockbroker, courier, typesetter or postal worker. Outside school, we live in an unprecedented era of exponential change where technology is transforming society and causing a significant shift in the knowledge and skills demanded by modern life. Exposure to interactive digital devices has fundamentally altered the way in which children learn and process information. The internet - a phenomenon that has been with us for only twenty years - has totally revolutionized global communication and connectivity. We can now plug into a global learning community and access enormous amounts of information at the touch of a button. We carry vastly more powerful computers in our pockets than all of NASA had at its disposal when it landed man on the moon. However, when you walk into most schools it’s often difficult to distinguish today’s classroom from any in the past. I recently took my family to the abandoned ghost town of Bodie, California where you can find a classroom from the early 1900’s that’s fundamentally the same as many I visit on a daily basis. The primary characteristics of those early educational models - standardized curriculum, content delivery, delineated academic disciplines, frontal lecturing, children seated in rows facing a board - have remained largely unchanged since the inception of organized schooling over a century ago.
Seen in that light, educational technology initiatives such as the one proposed by LAUSD appear essential but they will only be effective if they are well-planned, properly managed and most importantly, integrated within a more holistic approach that addresses the needs of 21st century learners. As a parent deciding between educational alternatives for my child, I would ask several key questions in deciding whether this new initiative will improve public education:
How will technology use change the educational dynamics at the school?
We’ve all experienced the depth of “learning by doing”. In contrast to the traditional “sage on the stage” classroom lecturing model, technology can be used to empower students to research, discover, create and connect within more student-centered, experiential learning processes. Given opportunity and support, students can analyze and work towards solutions of real world problems. The end game of student-centered education is to develop independent, life-long learners that can thrive in a climate of societal change. As examples, consider the school in Culver City where students polled residents about their water usage in order to research and create public service videos as part of a campaign to promote water conservation. A middle school class in Texas designed and developed school programs for healthier eating and increased fitness. When deciding to rebuild their outdoor play areas, one elementary school turned first to their students and gave them the chance to research, debate and offer design solutions.
In contrast, LAUSD’s iPad initiative is still entrenched within an age-old educational paradigm that stresses course delivery and administrative control. The iPad becomes a glorified digital textbook that contains extensive Common Core courses by Pearson (yes, the textbook publisher) for pre-K to 12th grade, designed to prepare students for standardized tests.
Will technology be used to break down classroom walls?
The traditional classroom brought students together with a single source of content (textbook) and a subject matter expert (teacher). Education was confined within the walls of a physical classroom. Along came the internet. Libraries of content and teams of experts are now available instantly - anywhere and at any time. We can steadfastly hold on to our old pedagogical models or embrace the opportunity to help our students connect, analyze, evaluate and utilize the incredible amount of information they have at their fingertips.
Connecting, collaborating, and sharing are vital skills for modern living. Imagine their awe when a class of 5th grade Science students in Ohio had a Skype video call with famed international astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson to discuss their inter-planetary travel project. Consider the 9th grade class I worked with that searched Twitter and found the author of the novel they were reading, then arranged a video-conference to discuss how he developed the characters and plot. Think of all the classrooms where students can work collaboratively in groups, sharing their work online with others while developing the teamwork and collaborative skills demanded by employers in the workplace. The mindset changes completely from “refer to your text and answer the questions at the end of the chapter” to “how and with whom can I connect to get the information I’m seeking”.
President Obama has announced a plan to bring high speed internet to most US schools within 5 years. In contrast, an LAUSD initiative that’s designed to cram course content onto iPads as opposed to prioritizing the importance of connection and collaboration will be missing the forest for the trees.
How will teachers make the adjustment?
Deploying iPads effectively involves a major change in educational approach and school culture. This requires ongoing training, mentoring and continual support. We know that LAUSD teachers are getting some initial training on how to use iPads and the Common Core course content, but what about the 101 other ways that iPads can be used to educate innovatively? Will teachers receive training on integrating multimedia into lessons, screencasting presentations, creating and publishing class eBooks and more? Without that constant training and reinforcement, technology may simply become an expensive Band-aid on an old educational model that isn’t working.
Will schools create virtual learning environments?
Learning is occurring in both physical and virtual environments. Schools require a well designed and implemented online presence that helps students engage in interactive communications and learning practices both before and after the afternoon bell rings. It remains to be seen how LAUSD will approach its online presence but substantial questions remain. How will teachers create a truly interactive virtual space where they can post information, create online calendars, develop and distribute tutorials, host online discussions, annotate, grade and return student work? Students are already connecting and learning online all the time. Will LAUSD join them?
The LAUSD plan is a brave and bold step that recognizes the need to reform our schools and in fairness, the District is challenged by a lack of the bandwidth, both in terms of digital and human capacity, required to embrace the highest and best uses of devices like the iPad. Having said that, it’s vital we recognize that technology use is not a goal but a step towards the creation of a 21st century learning environment. Our children live in a different age than the one we grew up in. As parents and educators, our job is to prepare children for their journey and not to bring them to a destination. Anything short of that is doing them a grave disservice.
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