School leaders who are trying to use technology to promote innovation in the classroom should consider five critical questions, according to Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education.
Culatta spoke this week Summer Connection 2013, the Mooresville school district's three-day intensive training on digital conversion that attracted 400 school officials from across the country.
"How can we leverage tools and technology to completely reimagine, rethink and redesign learning?" Culatta asked. The federal official cautioned against schools making what he called "pencil-sharpening innovations" that represent nothing more than a techy version of the same-old way of delivering education.
"If we're not careful, if we don't have our eye on the ball, we're going to have a complete digital replica" of the current model of education, he said. Schools need to get beyond merely using digital worksheets to replace paper ones, he said, or using smartboards as glorified chalkboards, or using digital texts in the exact same way that they use hardbound texts, he said.
For technology to be truly transformative, educators need to consider a number of questions, Culatta said:
1. How are we using data?
"I want to think about data in ways that can transform learning," he said. From his own experience, Culatta explained that Netflix made it easier for him to choose movies by recommending films based on his previous selections. Similarly, Amazon uses an individual's purchase history to customize his or her online experience.
In education, Khan Academy offers a "learning positioning system"—a kind of educational GPS—that helps show students where they can go with their learning, Culatta said.
In much the same way, he said, schools can learn to use data about individual learners to improve student learning.
2. How are we using "open" resources?
Sorting through the myriad of resources available to teachers can be challenging. To address that issue, the Education Department is beta-testing a "learning resource repository" called the Federal Registry for Educational Excellence (FREE). At free.ed.gov, teachers can discover digital content that is available at no cost, or share their favorite free resources with others. He invited educators to visit the Website and try it out.
3. How do we personalize learning?
"Learners come in with all different backgrounds and interests," Culatta said. "The worst thing we can do is to treat all learners the same." With personalized learning, students can advance at their own pace. "Personalizing gives learners agency. It empowers learners," he said.
Seeing personalized learning in action was eye-opening, he said. On Culatta's first visit to Mooresville classrooms, the director said he noticed something odd. He realized that he couldn't identify where the front of the classroom was, since students were engaged differently in learning on their laptops than in other schools he had visited.
"Students were working together; teachers were walking around and supporting them. It was an interesting experience to see how empowered learners in this district are," he said.
4. What can we stop doing?
"What are the things schools using technology don't need to do anymore?," Culatta asked. Could schools "stop using textbooks?"
Utah has begun a statewide open-resource education project, he noted. He also described a school that had paid for its conversion to using iPads by virtually eliminating the use of toner and copiers.
"Can we stop building computer labs?," he asked.
5. How do we think about, and rethink, how teachers learn?
"In our zeal to help improve learning for students, let's be cautious that we don't forget to rethink how we're helping teachers learn. What are you doing to help train your teachers?" he asked the audience.
Empowering teachers to become connected to technology is crucial, Culatta said. He pointed out that the department has declared October "Connected Educator Month," and said that teachers across the country are invited to connect online at ConnectedEducators.org.
A pilot of this program held last August resulted in educators seeking 100,000 hours of online professional development, he said.
"We have to pour gasoline on the flame of teacher collaboration online to make sure we're taking advantage of all these great technologies," Culatta said.