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Catalyst For Change

Some schools and researchers find that technology doesn't drive educational transformation

Quick, what's the one, hot topic that Seymour Papert, Susan Patrick and a host of others agree on? Surprise, it's not technology, at least technically. Of course, both the MIT professor and the former head of the DOE's Office of Educational Technology favor creative uses of today's technology. But before schools get there, they say, a radical redesign is needed. Instead of leading with an idea of how to use technology, both agree that schools have to decide what they want children to learn and then integrate technology into these new models. This agreement however isn't all good news; part of the reason this is a hot topic is precisely because so few schools are following this model.

At a recent conference, Papert, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, explained that school administrators who claim they are using technology as part of an educational transformative model, are not telling the whole truth. It's "pure verbal inflation," he says.

"What our schools are learning to do with this technology is not to use it for radical change in teaching but to use it to support what has already been done in 20th century learning," Papert said in a speech at Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Educational Ministerial.

"The idea of integrating technology into the curriculum is what is wrong. The real long-term goal is to change our ideas of what they will learn," says Papert.

"IF WE SUCCEED ... WE'LL REVOLUTIONIZE THIS DISTRICT. THIS IS WHERE EDUCATION SHOULD BE GOING." -Stevan Kalmon, Information Literacy and Technology coordinator, Denver Public Schools

Susan Patrick, former head of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology, echoed Papert's sentiments last June in a separate interview. "We've been talking about inundating technology into classrooms," says Patrick, now president and CEO of North American Council for Online Learning. "And I don't think that's the right term because that means you assume the way the classroom is set up today is the right model and then you stick computers on top of that. So we have to rethink how we want to transform the classroom model and then use technology to accelerate that. And that's asking for systemic transformation and that's not about the technology but about the system itself."

Papert was joined by others at this year's Consortium for School Networking conference who agree technology is merely a tool that could foster advanced learning if schools could only rethink their priorities. During the late 1990s, technology was deemed to be able to transform everything, but very few schools have been so altered.

"I don't think technology creates transformation," says Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. "I think we need to define the change we're looking for and then see how it happens."

Melinda George, executive director of State Educational Technology Directors Association, agrees that, "the transformation of what is going on is about the education, not just the technology."

But she points to the 2005 National Trends Report, saying there are some shining examples of transformation where technology is playing a key role. In one Texas district, for example, the Write in the Middle Project targets improving writing across the curriculum through professional development strategies and integrating technology in grades 3 through 8. Mobile laptop labs and videoconferencing technologies are used to increase collaboration with a partnering district. "It's not so much what the technology is but it's making our core subjects and our core fundamental priorities stronger," she says.

Examining Priorities

With NCLB requirements, many districts are more focused on test results than transforming education, experts say. Districts today are buying technology that will collect data to make sure schools are on target or at least making strides to improve, says Chris Dede, professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

"Technology is a catalyst for educational transformation," says Dede. "Technology enables a kind of collection of data about students that can make possible formative and diagnostic judgments to improve instruction."

Some administrators are transforming education, recognizing that students need to start learning as if they truly live in the 21st century.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a group of business people, educators, and policymakers, have identified some core skills as do-or-die: critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, self-directed learning, civic engagement and economic literacy, Kay says. The group has design specifications for what they want kids to do. "Critical thinking has been around for decades, but it's never been a primary purpose of what we want to accomplish," Kay says.

Even collaboration and community, which have been secondary goals, have shifted to the front of the line, Kay says. The tricky part is how to get consensus and then improve teaching strategies and professional development.

New Technology High School in Napa, Calif., for example, grappled with students who just couldn't communicate with others and the business community spoke out.

So now, the school focuses on self-directed learning and analytical thinking. "When a student is flunking, the teacher serves as a coach to help him communicate," Kay points out.

Kay is convinced serious progress is being made. "I'm more convinced now that this methodology is the right direction," Kay says. "This is not a simple tweak. It's a major evolution of where education needs to go. Our work offers a compass for all the efforts to be grounded that is thoughtful, has direction and is purposeful. The world is more complex. Subject mastery alone doesn't work."

Learning the Virtual Way

While more schools grapple with change, students are busy doing what they do best: listening to iPods, instant messaging friends, playing on GameBoys and surfing the Web while studying a textbook.

Adults complain, "This generation can't focus." But these students show a sophisticated set of skills, Dede says.

The problem is that "we expose them to deep academic skills that are so out of touch with their learning style," he adds. So the struggle becomes: how to take powerful interactive media and bring academic content in that stresses such 21st century skills.

Dede has spent years on design-based research that builds on new technologies and takes advantage of such learning styles. For one, he uses multi-user virtual environments, or MUVE, that build on student strengths.

"TECHNOLOGY IS A CATALYST FOR EDUCATIONAL TRANSFORMATION." -Chris Dede professor, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

One example is the River City curriculum unit which consists of a MUVE and has students develop and design experiments as well as focus on national standards in biology and ecology. Teachers lead students through instructional activities over several days.

River City is a virtual 19th century city with a river running through it. Students encounter residents, overhearing conversations with one another. Through data gathering, students see patterns and ask themselves, for example, why are more poor people getting sick than rich people? Such answers may lie in polluted water runoff in low-lying areas, insects in swampy areas and/or overcrowding.

Initial studies of the educational approach prove worthy. Students learn to act like scientists while they identify problems through observing and devise conclusions, using the evidence in front of them. "Our results are very promising and show that students find the MUVE powerful for both engagement and learning," Dede says.

A similar program mimics the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts. Named, Reliving the Revolution, students play this game on a wireless handheld as they stand in the spot where the actual 1775 battle took place in Lexington. Using a Global Positioning System on the handheld, they can see statues of Minutemen or British soldiers, hear comments that soldiers made at the time, and walk to the buildings that played a historical role.

"The kids loved it," says MIT graduate student Karen Schrier, the creator of the game. "They are very engaged the whole time. One kid said he finally understood history."

"Historians are still debating who shot first. That can be a real epiphany for some students. In the long run, they realize [many] social problems don't have a clear answer and they have to think more multi-dimensionally."

One Course at a Time

And that's a beautiful thing, says Stevan Kalmon, information literacy and technology coordinator at Denver Public Schools. "It's not important because of the technology itself but one of the hardest things is to get kids to see the context of it as real," he says.

It's really about engaging multiple senses of all learners. "We've moved from an oral society, ... to print and now we're more a digital and graphical society. We're all going in that direction," Kalmon says.

Because the tools change, the focus has to be on information. "What will always be essential is that we can critically evaluate information that is massively flowing to us," Kalmon says.

Denver's Disciplinary Literacy program is still in the development stage. But district leaders want students to be literate in particular disciplines, Kalmon and Fulton say. To make it work, they need non-textbook-based curriculum. "We need to have students find their own materials--a lot--including original sources," Kalmon says. "We want students to do a better job of all those things people talk about. To take them seriously, to be responsible for their own learning, to be engaged in critical inquiry and to think what they're learning is important and significant and we want teachers to be engaged as learners."

The big question is: how would that work?

Denver is using a rotation to create one course at a time in each of the four core subjects of language arts/reading, math, social studies, and science. The first year focuses on developing a curriculum, such as using master teachers across the district to consider what they want students to learn and master, the following year it is used as a pilot program in one class when teachers are field tested, or getting professional development to teach the curriculum, and the third year it is implemented across the district.

In U.S. history, a sophomore social studies class, for example, teachers tossed a given textbook and adopted a collection of materials including primary documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, and secondary resources.

Technology, inevitably, comes when the Internet can facilitate instruction. For example, the ABC-CLIO Web site, a history reference site, allows teachers to download reams of primary sources and have students learn what slaves really said to each other, or what slave owners said to slaves, Fulton says. Teachers are also thinking about moving from conventional essays and research papers to having students re-create a historical event and videotaping it or publishing Web sites.

"Multimedia is a natural part of their communication and the Internet is so let's use those communication media to give them authentic ways to communicate their learning," Kalmon says.

The constant point is how to make it a real experience for youths so the learning holds meaning for them.

In science, the science lab is restricted. But go behind the school and check the water quality of a stream and that's real science. "For that you have to have handhelds," Kalmon says.

Technology is then used to support quality learning. In biology, scientific probes attached to handhelds help students understand that things change over time. They can take temperature and create diagrams or charts on a computer, for example, which will make it more memorable for them, Kalmon says.

And in geometry, the Geometer's Sketchpad software allows students to see three-dimensional figures that can twist around in space. "It's really incredible," Fulton says. "Software gives kids access to so many more sophisticated pictures. The learning is so much more sophisticated."

Teachers, who undergo three-day workshops and institutes, feel they have a voice in curriculum redesign, Fulton says. "They are feeling empowered and excited." Grant money helps pay for the teachers' extra time, including Title I and Title II federal funds, and the Teacher Quality Enhancement Grant program. A mill levy tax increase has also given the district leeway to buy materials, such as termites for behavioral studies.

Center of All Things

Technology is the center of all learning at TechBoston Academy, just outside Boston and one of eight Gates Model Secondary Schools with grand goals. Every student has a laptop and uses technology as a tool to assist him or her in all academic courses.

Along with the tech focus, every student must go to college or have quality life choices upon graduation. "It had an extraordinary impact," Dede says, as students have improved test scores and are actively engaged with learning.

The school, which is part of the Boston Public School system and answers to the superintendent and governing board, was founded in 2002 and opened with 75 freshman and added a grade each year.

WE HAVE STUDENTS FIND THEIR OWN MATERIALS-INCLUDING ORIGINAL SOURCES. -Stevan Kalmon, Information Literacy and Technology coordinator, Denver Public Schools

The advantage TechBoston has is that it can redirect money in different areas. "We spend a great deal on technology and we have longer school days," from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. three times a week, says Mary Skipper, headmaster of TechBoston Academy.

Laptops are leased to students, interactive whiteboards stand in every classroom, projectors bring graphics alive, and teachers work on their own laptops.

"What strikes people [the most] is how engaged these kids are and in what they're doing," Skipper says. "That engagement comes from the technology. It has to be part of the larger culture of the school."

And on top of that, students earn certifications in technology programs, such as Microsoft Office Suite. They know details of and can actually teach someone PowerPoint, Word, Excel and Access which, of course, helps students get their first jobs or internships. "They know more than the adults and that gives them huge credibility," Skipper says. "Obviously, from an income perspective, relative to jobs and college, it is also a great confidence builder and motivator. It's wonderful. There's a sense of completion for students."

Tomorrow's Challenge

Tomorrow, teachers and superintendents are faced with high stakes tests and NCLB so the question Dede asks is: What can educators do to help improve test scores and to help kids become engaged, and at the same time, have a strategic, long-term vision that is practical in schools today? "I'm helping schools to implement new programs, but the things I develop are out on the cutting edge," Dede says.

Youths say it's so important to have connectivity and communication. But technology is disconnected from other initiatives, he adds. "Our challenge is to help people see that technology is part of change and to see we're just in the middle of a long evolution," Dede says.

The challenge is not so much how to put technology on the front burner, but the challenge is to talk about specific and generation models, assessment and accountability and refocus people on the important things, he says. Then, technology will naturally follow.

Angela Pascopella is features editor.