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Success of Ed-Tech Tied to Broader Improvement Strategies, Authors Contend

While the use of educational technology is surging in schools, a new book cautions that digital tools will only bring positive change to schools if they're used correctly.

This week, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a discussion of the issues raised in Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital  Age, a new book written by Frederick M. Hess and Bror Saxberg. The authors say that the key to capitalizing on the virtues afforded by tablet programs, flipped learning, and other popular ed-tech trends lie in the mindset and culture in the schools instead of the tools themselves. 

"We think of technology as the solution—it is not," said Saxberg. While technology "can take good learning solutions and make them affordable, reliable, available, data-rich and personalizable," he said, if districts fail to adopt sound strategies, technology can perpetuate "bad solutions, too."

Saxberg is the chief learning officer at Kaplan Inc., and Hess is the director of education policy studies at the AEI, who also writes an opinion blog for Education Week.

While the book is available at a cost, a free white paper that provides an overview of its conclusions can be found on the AEI website. In addition to examining the value of technology and providing case-studies detailing best practices, the book also offers policy ideas designed to encourage the meaningful use of technology in the classroom.

Suggestions include creating more flexible "seat-time" requirements, easing restrictions on online learning, and giving schools more power to use procurement to purchase the tech tools they need. In addition, the book also calls for improvements to the federal E-Rate program, which is now being reviewed by the Federal Communications Commission, that don't stifle innovative uses of technology.

The co-authors were joined at the book launch by three educators who pioneered digital strategies for their schools and districts. Mark Edwards, the superintendent of North Carolina's Mooresville School District, overhauled his district's technology program six years ago by giving every student in grades 4 through 12 laptops to use both at home and in the classroom. Instead of setting expectations that the technology would magically improve student achievement,  the district overhauled its teaching and learning strategies as part of its plan for integrating technology in classrooms. Along with Edwards, the panel included Rick Ogston,  the founder of the Carpe Diem Schools in Arizona, and Rosa Atkins, Charlottesville, Va. City Schools' superintendent. 

"Our classrooms do not look like regular classrooms," Edwards said. "Instead of telling children to sit still and be quiet, we said get up around and move, make a lot of noise, talk and show each other your work." 

So far, Edwards said the results have been encouraging. The superintendent noted that while his districts has relatively little education funding to rely on, it ranks near the top of the state in graduation rates and student achievement.  In the six years since Moorseville began their laptop program, African-American graduation rates rose from 67 percent to 95 percent. The school's successes are widely discussed in the new book and in June, President Obama announced his proposed overhaul of the federal E-Rate program from a Moorseville middle school to showcase the school's achievements. 

Some have criticized the increased emphasis on technology as a way to take the teacher out of the classroom. But the panelists disputed that assertion, arguing that having skilled teachers is essential to the successful use of technology in classrooms.

"If you think you could be replaced by a computer, then you probably should be," said Rick Ogston. "It really isn't about replacing teachers, it's a false argument. It's about repurposing them and very strategically, because the role of the teacher changes in a digitally leveraged environment." 

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