Education and medicine have seen significant increases in costs, but limited increases in benefits. Interestingly, computerization has been brought to the “back office” (record keeping, accounting, etc.) in both areas, but the front office, where doctors meet patients and where teachers meet students, has seen precious little computerization.
Computers Improve Effectiveness
In contrast, essentially all other professions have incorporated computers into their front offices. Sales professionals, for example, have a broad range of CRM (contact-relationship management) tools to help them perform their day-to-day tasks. Sales professionals “live” all day long in cloud-based, customer relationship management systems like Salesforce.com. Such systems are the digital counterparts of the salespeople’s professional activities. Companies invest significant dollars in such systems because those systems make their salespeople more effective.
Through the Affordable Care Act, the federal government is incentivizing doctors, hospitals and the industry that supplies doctors and hospitals to bring computers into the front office in order to gather and share critically important patient health information, not just billing and bookkeeping information.
But What About K12?
If there is money to incentivize the use of technology in medicine’s front office, why aren’t there funds to incentivize the use of computers in K12’s front office, in the classroom where teachers and students are working together eight hours a day, and after school, where students do their homework both by themselves and collaboratively? With NCLB, the feds tried to incentivize schools, but the only role of computers in NCLB was in the back office, keeping track of whether or not schools achieved “Adequate Yearly Progress.” NCLB is not the program that is needed to bring computer use to the front office of K12 education.
Empirical data from efforts such as Project RED indicate that increases in student achievement occur only in situations where front-office support is such that computers can be used as essential tools for teaching and learning. If there is little front-office support and computers are used as supplements, increases in student achievement are not observed.
While it is easy to talk about using computers as essential tools, the reality is this: It is hard for teachers, working under extremely tight budgets, with limited IT support, using curricula developed for paper-and-pencil technology, to do more than use computers as supplements.
Invest and Incentivize Our People
The feds can get it right; after all, by investing in our people and providing the soldiers returning from World War II with funds to get an education, the G.I. Bill profoundly and fundamentally changed America for the better.
We need again to invest in our people by incentivizing schools and the educational technology industry that supplies schools to create the next generation of front-office computer-based systems that will enable our teachers and our students to use the next-generation computers—the mobile tablets and smartphones—as essential tools for teaching and learning. The educational industry needs to create front-office systems:
- that teachers and students use all day, everywhere, every day;
- where there is a broad suite of general purpose apps (for reading, writing, filming, searching, using spreadsheets, concept mapping, KWLing, drawing and animating, creating time lines, etc.) as well as content-specific apps;
- where a teacher or student can easily drop in a new app that just came on the market;
- where all of a student’s work is in one place so that his or her time is spent learning, not computing;
- where students can instantly work collaboratively either face to face or at a distance; and
- where students can do their work even when no Internet connection is available.
There is no front-office system available today that does these things, but if we want to see improvements in student achievement, we need them.
Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and a past ISTE President. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and Chair of ISTE’s Special Interest Group on Mobile Learning (SIGML). For the past 10 years, Cathie and Elliot have been circumnavigating the globe, advocating for the use of mobile technologies in classrooms.