As U.S. educators and policymakers seek ways to boost student achievement, against a backdrop of tight budgets, perhaps it’s time to consider a new model—harnessing the power and popularity of technology.
In most classrooms today, cell phones, iPads, and other electronic devices are considered distractions. Their use is discouraged, if not forbidden.
That’s too bad: because we think technology may be the best way to reach and teach our kids, rather than the textbooks, chalkboards, and projection screens previous generations preferred.
Technology has succeeded in reshaping other industries, including banking and travel. Even the book-publishing industry is being transformed, as the proliferation of devices such as Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook drives sales of e-books.
Technology can change education as well.
But it can’t be used willy-nilly. If parents, educators, entrepreneurs, and policymakers want to realize technology’s full potential, it needs to be deployed systemically, in a “closed-loop” system that uses technology at every level to provide continuous improvement in instruction and outcomes.
This requires establishing clear objectives, developing content that enables teachers to meet the objectives, training teachers to use these new resources effectively, and using technology to provide real-time continuous feedback and one-on-one intervention, where necessary. The main challenge isn’t how to put the latest, greatest software or device to use, but employing available technologies to address specific needs.
So why has education been left out of the technology revolution?
One explanation is the misallocation of education dollars. In most school districts, technology spending accounts for only a tiny fraction of the budget. Gartner Inc. estimates that in 2010 U.S. primary and secondary schools spent some $9.2 billion on IT, just 1.6 percent of total spending. Comparable labor- and knowledge-intensive industries, such as professional services and health care, spent 4 to 6 percent on technology. If U.S. school systems invested in technology at the same level as other knowledge industries, the total investment would be $25 billion to $30 billion annually.
An even more critical factor is the fact that schools typically use technology to automate and support existing practices, rather than to transform learning. Computers and interactive “whiteboards” have been placed in classrooms and have been plugged into the Internet, but little has been done to use the new technology to reshape the school day, the classroom, the curriculum, or the ways in which students and teachers interact. The chief opportunity for innovation in education doesn’t center on automating the status quo, but redesigning the process.
Change is coming. And driving such change is the sheer number of companies now in the education IT business, most of which didn’t exist five years ago. Several providers, such as K12 and Connections Academy, offer a full range of products, including digital curricula, lesson plans, instructional tools, and teacher training. School systems can take advantage of these resources at greatly reduced costs, rather than go it alone.
In California, the Riverside Unified School District has a pilot program in which students access digital content using either a personal device, such as an iPod Touch, or a unit provided by the school. Officials estimate the new approach could save as much as 30 percent over traditional textbooks.
Rocketship Education, a charter school network near San Francisco, with national expansion plans, is reinventing how learning takes place in the classroom, asking its students to spend 25 percent of each day in a “learning lab,” where they work on customized, computer-delivered material. During this time, the students are supervised by monitors, rather than teachers, saving significantly on costs.
More than half the states already have virtual high schools. Florida Virtual School, the first and largest state-run online school in the country, offers more than 100 courses to students throughout the United States and more than 40 foreign countries. One study estimates the school has saved Florida taxpayers some $38 million over the past four years.
The classroom that does not embrace technology is becoming progressively out of touch with the way America’s children learn and interact at home and away from school.
Of course, we can’t let technology become the distraction many educators fear. We don’t want kids texting or engaging with friends on Facebook when they’re supposed to be studying. There need to be guardrails.
Still, there’s no legitimate reason education can’t adapt to the modern era. When it does, we’ll see students who are more engaged, more proficient, and more likely to graduate and succeed as adults. Technology can help educators get the job done: better, faster, and at a lower cost.
The original version of this article was published by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and appeared in many U.S. newspapers. The authors of the commentary are also coauthors of BCG’s report Unleashing the Potential of Technology in Education.