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How About "National Pencil Standards?"

ISTE’s vague standards and a potential exclusionary “seal of alignment” make one wonder whose side the group is on.

Some of you may be members of the International Society for Technology in Education. Many of you are not. And that may be where the problem lies. In a “Hail-Mary” attempt to enhance its visibility and importance, ISTE has embarked on the timeless education tradition of solving a problem that doesn’t exist. Not wishing to be left out during the recent go-go years of “my standards are bigger, meaner and higher than your standards,” ISTE published the National Educational Technology Standards, redundantly referred to as the NETS Standards. This laundry list of “thou shalls” and a rare “thou shall not” apply to students, teachers and administrators. Despite the voluminous nature of these standards (think Manhattan phone book) they offer little that is new and do almost nothing to move educational practice into the 21st century.

ISTE should be an advocate
of educators on the
frontier of tech innovation,
not a group that caters
to corporate interests.

These standards are non-specific, imprecise and general in nature. Despite their heft, the NETS are remarkably free of new ideas. They state the obvious and offer little that challenge the status quo or inspire new learning opportunities. One could imagine satisfying the NETS standards without actual computers—perhaps just cardboard keyboards. One gets the impression reading the NETS that the words, “ballpoint pen,” “book” or “library” could be substituted for the ambiguous term, technology.

If you disagree and believe these standards are a good idea, you must:

--Proclaim a belief that classroom practice should be guided by the edicts of an anonymous committee far away from actual classrooms.

--Believe standards apply to a body of knowledge. It is debatable that educational technology is an actual discipline. Where are the National Pencil Standards?

--Profess that in order for standards to take root and have an impact on educational practice, they must be applied to a fairly static body of knowledge. One could hardly argue that educational technology, a field that changes regularly, is susceptible to such stasis.

The ISTE standards focus almost entirely on the informational aspects of computing. In fact, the word, “computing” hardly ever appears. While the NETS focus on the need for students to be good consumers of digital information, they are portrayed as just that, consumers. There is hardly any mention of students as producers of knowledge. One could get the impression that computer science or students learning to and through computer programming had gone the way of churning butter.

The ISTE NETS are unimaginative, unenforceable and unnecessary. The current climate of school homogeneity will use this set of standards as it uses every other—to retard innovation and lower expectations.

VIRTUAL REALITY A recent education article described collaborative teams of pre-K through sixth-grade students partnered with a high-tech firm to build virtual reality games about topics of study. KidPix creations were mapped onto 3-D models so the students could don VR goggles and navigate a 3-D virtual world of their creation. The school’s principal stressed how the project will “span the entire curriculum.” Pretty cool, huh?

Well, not so fast. When asked for his opinion regarding the project, ISTE CEO Don Knezek said: “I think the danger in novelty approaches is that you get so excited about the motivational factor that it might leave holes in the overall experience of computer literacy. It’s important for teachers to give students a knowledge base they can apply to other areas and for teachers to assess whether students have really grown.” Does anyone actually believe that elementary school students building interdisciplinary virtual reality games would somehow be deficient in computer literacy skills?

THE CURE IS WORSE THAN THE DISEASE On Nov. 12, the society announced a new program, the ISTE Seal of Alignment. According to ISTE, this is an innovative review process to recognize products, services and resources that are in alignment with ISTE’s mission and NETS. This raises the stakes for NETS and attempts to enforce compliance. For a fee, ISTE will now certify that educational products, practices and services are ideologically pure. Intel, Microsoft and PBS are inexplicable partners in this program. I find this strategy quite alarming.

Now, a committee, neither elected nor accountable, will try to determine winners and losers in the marketplace and in classrooms. Since technological innovation often results from small companies, the most outstanding products may not be able to afford this seal of approval. This process will advantage wealthy textbook publishers, classroom management systems and other large companies that can afford the price of admission. The pre-application fee is $1,000 per product. Other costs are unpublished, although ISTE’s press release implies that preferential treatment will be afforded ISTE 100 members, major corporations who have already made substantial investments in the organization.

WHAT ABOUT PROTECTION? I pity the imaginative teacher who embraces the use of products that have failed to undergo the time-consuming and expensive ISTE review practice. Such teachers may be prohibited from doing what they believe benefits their students. If ISTE’s Seal of Alignment process is successful, state and local policies may forbid the purchase of unaligned products, regardless of their educational value.

One could understand how an industry association could undertake such a venture, but a member organization chartered to serve educators? Shouldn’t ISTE protect its members from the over-reaching influence of corporate interests? Whose side is ISTE on?

ISTE could satisfy its mission to “provide an international organization that supports the use of technology in education” by being an advocate for educators on the frontiers of educational innovation.

Why was ISTE silent when the governor of Maine fought so heroically for every child to have a laptop? What is their position on federal censorship legislation? Why doesn’t ISTE inform the public that its own standards stating that students should “use telecommunications to collaborate, publish and interact with peers, experts and other audiences” are violated routinely by school districts across America that refuse to allow students e-mail or FTP access?

ISTE could provide a valuable service if it was able to fund and disseminate information about truly compelling models of educational computing. It should celebrate excellence and use its clout to call attention to innovative classroom practices. The ISTE standards could raise the bar by encouraging schools to provide a laptop computer for every child, offer comprehensive computer science and digital media courses in every school district, and use computers in constructive ways across all grade levels.

Risk-taking educators need a courageous membership organization to support their efforts and bring their innovation to the public’s attention. ISTE could be such an organization.

Gary Stager,, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.