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Refreshing the ISTE Technology Standards

Senior Editor Gary Stager interviews Don Knezek, CEO of ISTE, on the revised National Educational Technology Standards (NETS).

Don Knezek of the International Society for Technology in Education has served with the organization for years. Since 1999, he has directed the association's National Center for Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers to Use Technology, targeted to improving technology preparation among teachers.

DA: Why are new NETS necessary?

KNEZEK: A number of forces influenced the need to update the NETS, from their age (NETS for students, or NETS*S, were released in 1998) to the globalization of education, from developments in technology and changing demographics of learners to the emergence of the digital learning landscape inside and outside of schools, and, of course, pressures from the flattening world and the slippage in our nation's leadership in innovation and in its world economic leadership.

DA: What was wrong with the last set of standards?

KNEZEK: Absolutely nothing was wrong with the last set of standards except that societal, learning, technological and economic landscapes have evolved, and it is clearly time to re-examine what our students need to know and be able to do to learn effectively and live productively in increasingly digital and global environments. The NETS for Students published in 1998 by ISTE are very strong, and we should be ashamed of how many of our students have not yet been given the opportunity to master them. However, there are other capabilities that are now critical in order for young learners to have rich and equitable opportunities to develop and participate in society.

DA: Why did it take so long to identify creativity and innovation as important aspects of learning?

KNEZEK: That is a really good question. Many educators, even in 1998, talked about the importance of several of the "noncore" areas of the school curriculum (the arts, for example) and some of the less structured learning opportunities as major forces in developing creativity and innovation in students. However, until recently most education stakeholders assumed the United States had a lock on world leadership in these two areas. Evidence of the last decade the boom in applications for patents from Chinese nationals, for example have made it clear that the world is rapidly cutting into our lead. Also, as more routine jobs have gone off shore, there is a realization that creativity and innovation generate salaries and employment opportunities that continue to be desirable to the U.S. workforce. I suppose it took so long because trends take time to come into focus, and people take time to react to those trends once they are evident.

DA: Who is the audience for the NETS Refresh document?

KNEZEK: The "audience" for the NETS Refresh is really a misnomer. They are truly for audiences ... teachers, curriculum and learning resources developers, other standards bodies such as content area organizations (NCTM, NCTE, etc.), school leaders, students, parents, policy-makers (especially state departments of education), and the business community.

DA: What surprised you during the NETS Refresh process?

KNEZEK: I think three things surprised me most during the process:

1. The original NETS for Students are very widely used by educators, providers of education solutions (vendors), state departments of education, and policymakers around the world at least as a starting point for developing student expectations of their own. I expected much more resistance to the refresh effort, and I expected it to be more difficult to convince the community of education stakeholders to think far enough ahead to bring a really significant revision to this heavily adopted framework. The truth is, we went further in the first version of revised standards than I thought we could throughout the whole process. I am surprised by, and extremely proud of, the readiness of the community for a really significant updating of the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards for Students.

2. I am pleasantly surprised by the sophistication with which the media are covering this initiative. There is a basic understanding that:

a) this effort can have a major impact on the ability of individual students to take advantage of the emerging digital and global learning landscape.

b) without these standards we will propagate and exacerbate a learning divide emerging in this country as a result of our digital divide. Without these skills students are at a serious learning divide now and through their lifetimes.

c) these skills form the foundation of 21st century skills, workplace and college readiness, lifetime learning and global competitiveness.

As a result, the media ... understand that these new skills are increasingly important and still vitally relevant to preparing students for their futures.

3. There are still some very, very bright people involved in education ... even in thought-leadership for education ... who confuse embracing standards with "standardization!" This is clearly my biggest surprise. To believe we are specifying or limiting how students may master and use these standards is such a constrained view it is difficult for me to even understand. For example, how "collaborate and publish with peers employing a variety of digital environments and media" can be seen as constraining amazes me.

DA: Will there be NETS Refresh for teachers and administrators, as in the original NETS? If so, why are different standards necessary? This seems like a departure from most other educational standards efforts where the emphasis is on what students do and learn.

KNEZEK: The NETS Refresh Project will review and revise NETS for Students, Teachers, and Educational Leaders, it will update competencies, profiles, essential conditions and implementation resources, and it will offer guidance for all the updated assessments.

The rationale goes like this: If NETS*S are what all students need to know and be able to do as a result of their learning experience, the teachers must be capable of establishing, executing, and assessing the experiences designed to bring these capabilities to students. And leaders must be able to support the teachers and students and ensure that conditions essential to ensuring optimal benefits from the technology are in place. Like any other effective educational innovation, enabling students for their futures requires systemic transformation ... and that requires capable and persistent leaders and well-prepared teachers. Because capabilities and knowledge are so uneven among teachers and school leaders, it is important to establish what educators must know and be able to do as well.

DA: Why should teachers view the NETS Refresh as anything other than another unfunded mandate imposed on them?

KNEZEK: These standards do not carry with them a mandate ... an imperative, maybe, but not a mandate. These identify targets of excellence ... a broad national consensus of what we should try to provide every young learner to prepare them for their future, to allow them the opportunity to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly digital and global society.

With or without mandates by governments or standards boards, each teacher should know what students need ... and the vast majority of teachers want to know that and want to know how to equip students as well as they can.

"These standards do not carry with them a mandate ... an imperative, maybe, but not a mandate." - Don Knezek

So if mandates are created with the standards and are not funded, that is disappointing. These standards have a very important role to play regardless of whether they are mandated. Knowledge and expertise are not inherently evil ... and these standards represent a huge body of collective knowledge and expertise.

DA: Who is to blame if the NETS Refresh standards are not met? Is it the fault of the teacher, school, district, state?

KNEZEK: I think it would be very difficult to identify, in general, who will be to blame if the revised NETS*S are not met. We know a lack of leadership at the federal level for moving schools to relevance for digital-age learners inhibits mastery of NETS and continues to reduce the level of engagement of schools in general. We know that implementing a technology- rich learning enhancement requires knowledge, attention and persistence in many areas. Among successful implementations of technology we see:

- a shared vision

- knowledgeable, committed and persistent leadership

- well-prepared and supported teachers

- measurement of progress toward achieving the vision, and

- a willingness to adapt depending on results of measurement

So failure of students to meet the NETS for Students could result from any number of shortcomings.

DA: Are you concerned that an unintended consequence of the original NETS was that nearly every state in the nation took ISTE's document and used it as inspiration for creating a much more cumbersome set of their own standards?

KNEZEK: The standards were presented as targets for excellence and as a national consensus on what students in the United States should know about and be able to do with technology. It's logical that states would use this set of resources standards (competencies), profiles (achievement benchmarks), essential conditions (system conditions necessary for achieving potential benefits of technology in schools), implementation resources, and assistance/guidance related to assessment as excellent background information for starting the discussions in their own states to develop localized expectations for their own students.

I believe the NETS generated great conversation, encouraged alignment of expectations and resources, and provided compatible frameworks across several states. We believe it is appropriate that each state worked with educators in their own states to decide how the standards could best support students in preparing for their futures.

DA: Can't most kids achieve the objectives of the NETS Refresh without any school intervention?

KNEZEK: Apparently not. It is bothersome that though we've known for almost a decade what a reasonable target might be for our students, we only see one in five at the fifth-grade level and one in three at the eighth-grade level demonstrating competency against that target. [Source: multiregional sampling 2005-2006]

What we actually see is a continuing digital divide, which translates directly into a learning divide, among the subpopulations within our student population.

DA: Both the NETS Refresh and the original NETS address the importance of telecommunications. What is ISTE doing from a policy and leadership perspective to ensure that every child and teacher has an e-mail account and access to the same resources of a Web 2.0 world in school that they expect to learn and communicate with outside of school? Isn't advocating for such legislation critical to the success of NETS?

KNEZEK: There is a great deal of policy, program and funding work to be done at the federal, state and local levels to provide students the opportunity to achieve the vision documented by the NETS project. ISTE is working to sustain the eRate, develop reasonable benchmarks for bandwidth to the learner's workstation, see policy and programs adopted to ensure students master knowledge and skills spelled out in the revised NETS, and share best practices and models for engaging students in robust, relevant, and rigorous learning and productivity in an increasingly digital global society.

These efforts include advocacy efforts at the federal level, capacity-building so that education stakeholders can effectively advocate at the state level, and provision of support resources for educators, students and parents to use in advocacy at the local level. [See and ISTE's Ed Tech Advocacy Toolkit under "Advocacy" at]

DA: How important are the various scenarios presented in the NETS Refresh documentation?

KNEZEK: The scenarios are extremely important, as they help educators and other stakeholders picture how the NETS might be achieved through a variety of approaches with the same activities teachers use to address core content standards.

DA: PowerPoint is spotlighted in one third of the scenarios presented in the NETS Refresh materials you provided. Does PowerPoint represent the state of the art or even something every child should be expected to learn and use?

KNEZEK: There are extremely creative ways of using the features of presentation software to meet a number of the indicators in the refreshed NETS and to link to and disseminate products that demonstrate mastery of indicators in the NETS. If you are asking if we are promoting it as a "killer app," absolutely not. Should students learn to use presentation software effectively in their learning and productivity? Absolutely.

I'm not familiar with all the scenarios in the document we shared with DA. If we are using the example of a call using VoIP as a demonstration of mastering one of the indicators in the refreshed NETS, I would have to question it. If there were not a deeper point made by the scenario, I would criticize it, too. If it is part of a more comprehensive demonstration of a student's demonstrating multimodal communications in a modern digital setting, it could work fine.

DA: Digital Citizenship is one of the six standards, and "Students will exercise proactive leadership for digital citizenship" is one of the substandards. Recently, politicians have used the World Wide Web to announce their presidential candidacies. They are also using Web chats, different social networking sites, streaming video, blogs and wikis to interact with voters. How are students to develop as "digital citizens" when many school network policies make the processes of citizenship impossible?

KNEZEK: I share your concern. In fact, I would say we've equipped schools with the most powerful enabler to learning in decades ... Web connectivity ... and then created policies that take away a teacher's ability to effectively develop responsible digital citizenship in the students. Young learners need to be protected online. However, it is equally important that they be guided in developing self-responsibility as they mature.

DA: Neither "computer science" nor programming are mentioned in the documentation you provided. How can technology standards focused on creativity, innovation and invention fail to even acknowledge students' learning to create at this most fundamental level?

KNEZEK: Again, this demonstrates a fallacy often present in interpreting the standards. There is nothing in the standards that prohibits ... or even discourages ... students' mastering programming or computer science. Indeed, several of the standards and indicators can be met by such activities. However, there is a great deal to be done in creativity, innovation, and self-expression (as well as problem solving, decision making, communicating and publishing) that do not require computer language programming or study of computer science. So why would our standards indicate that every student needs to program and master computer science?

You ask why not, and I ask why?

DA: Should educators be concerned by the number of corporate executives who contributed to the NETS Refresh? Why are they qualified to set education standards, and is there a danger of conflict of interest?

KNEZEK: The process we've used in the revision of the NETS for Students closely follows that of the original development. ISTE certainly views representatives from the corporate sector as legitimate stakeholders in the effort to transform schools for digital age learners. We believe insulating schools from the world outside of schools is one of the major forces that allows schooling to be so far out of touch with the rest of society. We have taken the vast majority of input and feedback on the standards from frontline educators and, as a lifetime educator, I am relieved to see that ISTE has structured corporate input into the process without allowing that sector to dominate. We view that involvement as a true strength and an anchor to reality. It is the responsibility of every stakeholder, and of ISTE, to ensure that conflicted interest does not dominate the revision. We feel the revisions are motivated by our students' best interests, and we believe the standards are stronger because we involve enough corporate input to prevent dominance by a specific sector.

DA: When a conflict arises between the interests of educators or ISTE's corporate sponsors, how is the matter often resolved?

KNEZEK: Decisions are made with ISTE's primary constituents' interests at the center ... the interests of young learners and education leaders. We consider the corporate sector representatives legitimate stakeholders in the school transformation agenda ... but we carefully guard against their interests dominating.

DA: Can you imagine any uses of computers in K12 schools that ISTE would not support?

KNEZEK: Yes. Mainly those behaviors that are illegal, unethical, irresponsible and unsafe.

My Perspective

Gary Stager shares his views on the new standards.

IN 1998, THE INTERNATIONAL Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS). This set of objectives, often referred to redundantly as the NETS Standards, outlined what students should know about technology and what they should do with it within the school context. The NETS followed the development of subject-specific content standards, most notably the 1989 Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, commonly known as the NCTM Standards.

The NETS differed from other sets of content standards. ISTE published distinct NETS for students (NETS*S), teachers and administrators, while other standards documents focused exclusively on student outcomes. The NETS for Teachers (NETS*T) and Administrators (NETS*A) specified what teachers and administrators must do in order to ensure student success.

There remains widespread disagreement regarding whether "technology" is a legitimate subject of study or a means by which to learn wide variety of other subjects. ISTE itself throws this matter into question when it states that technology should not be used in isolation but across the curriculum. Computer science and digital media production are instances where the technology is more akin to a discipline. However, they are not the focus of the NETS. If ISTE intends technology as a discipline, then the standards are woefully short on specifics.

New Standards

Over the past year, ISTE developed the NETS Refresh document being released this month. These new standards are intended to reflect modern technological realities and lessons learned over the years of NETS implementation. A great deal of attention is being generated by the NETS Refresh's addition of creativity and innovation as the number one standard for what students should be able to do as a result of technology access. The order of the standards from the first document to the latest document has shifted the focus from "competency with technology tools" to "skills required in a digital world to produce and innovate."

The draft NETS Refresh document provided to District Administration addresses ISTE's desire to create the information and communication technology standards for all students worldwide. It reminds readers that students, education, societal demands and the world are changing, although it provides little concrete evidence of these changes.

ISTE will soon create profiles, called "Profiles for Technology Literate Students," which will be organized into four grade-level bands. These bands divide pre-K12 into three- or four-year chunks during which certain proficiencies should be achieved.

How will such profiles be accessed? Will the assessment techniques reflect the complexity of learning and the myriad ways in which technological fluency may be expressed? Or will a partner company produce a multiple-choice test quizzing students on the parts of the mouse or menu items in Microsoft Word?

The NETS Refresh document performs a public service by featuring "technology implementation scenarios" at each grade-level band (pre-K2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). These vignettes offer readers a glimpse of what implementation of the formal standards rhetoric might look like in actual pre-K12 classrooms.


Some scenarios presented in the draft NETS Refresh document are problematic. Although ISTE denounces a focus on the technology alone as its own subject, several of the nine scenarios provided suffer from technocentrism and verbal inflation, terms coined by MIT's Professor of Learning Seymour Papert.

Technocentrism is "the fallacy of referring all questions to the technology," Papert has claimed. It focuses on whether "this use or that use of the computer is the right one." Verbal inflation, which is related to technocentrism, is the common practice of inflating the significance of an educational practice simply because it uses technology.

Despite its lofty rhetoric about the global economy and the need for new educational experiences, the NETS Refresh assumes that schools will remain relatively unchanged and includes few novel examples of technology use. Standards documents by their very nature are aspirational. Do classroom Power- Point presentations, often requiring little actual knowledge construction, represent the cutting edge of 21st-century learning schools should achieve?

One-third of the scenarios in the NETS Refresh draft involve PowerPoint presentations. Is PowerPoint use critical in preparing students to be lifelong learners and contributing digital citizens in a global society? What if my school uses Keynote instead? Regardless of the presentation software employed, the educational value of making presentations continues to remain an open question.

Another scenario presented in the draft involves young children reading a story about birds and then conducting a "mini-research project." Is this research "mini" because young children are involved? Does the research process change substantially based on the age of students? The students then call an expert about this type of bird to ask questions. So far, so good. This sounds like a terrific early childhood activity you might find in classrooms over the past century. The critical variable that warrants the scenario's inclusion in the NETS Refresh document is that the children used Skype to place the call. Skype is then explained as Voice Over Internet Protocol. Kids made a phone call! Does it matter how the call was placed? I hope not. This is an example of verbal inflation.

"How are students to make productive contributions in a global society without a fundamental knowledge of the technology so central to their lives?"

Other examples include descriptions of students creating mind-maps (visual diagrams of the brainstorming process), looking up facts, making posters and even creating films. Sure the computer may enhance these activities, but they were all possible without computers, the Internet or even technology standards. What is new? How does the use of technology advance education?

Despite the emphasis on creativity, innovation and invention, the NETS Refresh documents fail to include a single mention of programming or computer science. How are students to make productive contributions in a global society without a fundamental knowledge of the technology so central to their lives? What is one to conclude about the state of educational technology if agency over the computer was not a priority for any of the stakeholders (technology coordinators, corporate veteran and academics) involved in the creation of NETS Refresh? Is this an oversight or an anti-intellectual reaction to learning the science of complexity?

While it is all well and good to promote "digital citizenship" as a standard, that goal is elusive if school network policies severely restrict access to the tools of modern democracy including Web chats, social networking sites, streaming video, blogs and wikis.

Observation Is Not Insight

The NETS Refresh draft also suffers from an exaggeration of the youth culture phenomenon. A great number of educational technology pundits and school reform gurus like to recite statistics such as the number of children who own cell phones or the hours of television they watch. That demographic trivia is then presented as wisdom even though it lacks any insight or recommended action. The NETSRefresh draft implies that youngsters possess great quantities of technological sophistication, but they still require "technology operations and concepts" as a standard.

The NETS Refresh Web site materials include a table (see right) indicating the ways in which technology has changed since 1998. These examples are intended to support the contention that "the world has changed, and so must we." One should assume by the tabular nature of the data in the left and right columns that they represent some relationship indicating progress. However, many of the matchups are comical. And this is the work of the premiere educational technology advocacy organization in the world?

It's important for school leaders to make informed decisions before making any change in curriculum, assessment or professional development. Gather as much information as you can before deciding how to respond to the new NETS and the state-level technology standards sure to follow.

Gary S. Stager,, is senior editor of District Administration and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate (