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Planning for Intended Consequences for Education Technology

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By Jim Kohlmoos, Executive Director of the National Association of State Boards of Education

Before Susan B. Anthony became a famous abolitionist and suffragette, she was director of a girls' school in upstate New York. Indeed, she combined her passions to agitate for including more women in education professions, and for better pay. Now, for all of her accomplishments, she is best known by many people as the face on the most reviled piece of U.S. currency in the 20th century because no one in the design phase considered deeply what would happen if they minted a dollar coin that looked and felt just like a quarter. The motivation for putting a notable woman on the dollar was laudable, but without thinking it through all phases of implementation, the goal of making it a coin for everyday use was never close to being achieved.

The Susan B. Anthony does not stand alone in the realm of decent ideas that fail for lack of a plan. In schools, we see this all too often in technology. As we all know, technology, as an idea in and of itself, is meaningless. Purchased without a hard goal, hardware usage in everyday life goes from heavy to moderate to occasional to rare to dust collector to trash (or, for the more responsible, recycling).

The U.S. Department of Education has been grappling institutionally with what to do with technology in schools since the opening of the Office of Education Technology in 1993. With the release of the most recent National Education Technology Plan in 2010, the Department made a host of recommendations on how such usage could be implemented, ultimately concluding that collaboration among all key stakeholders is critical to making the ideas work.

Flash forward to the last six months, as state board members from 15 states have been meeting to ascertain not just the role of technology in education as we move forward, but its effects on students as well. The work of this panel, our study group on The Role of Technology in Schools and Communities, is in other words to determine what evidence is out there as to the effects of technology in/on education, and how policy should reflect this information.

To be honest, the jury is still out. Not about whether technology should have a significant role in learning and instruction — as a culture we made that decision a long time ago. Rather, we still need to take a long, hard look at what works and what doesn't work. In other words, a plan.

While the study group will release its report — complete with policy recommendations for all state boards — at our annual conference this October, two intersecting themes that have come up resonated with me to the point where I do not think they can wait until then to be discussed.

First, though it may seem obvious, no education policy should be approved or implemented without first determining its implications for educators, administrators, and students alike. (Such steps are also outlined in the National Technology Plan recommendations.) The purchase and use of classroom and administrative technologies should be no different. Ergo, before policies are crafted, policymakers and staff must have a plan for how the technologies are going to be used.

Before any plans are even laid, however, some deeper thought about the nature of technology is in order. The technologies being marketed toward education today are far different from any that came before. In the past, it was no big deal in the scheme of things when ballpoint pens made their way into classrooms. They eventually became cheap and disposable tools used by most students, teachers, administrators, et al. in most classes. Computer hardware and software seemingly reaches obsolescence in less time than it takes to use up a pen's supply of ink, but at a much greater cost. With that in mind, strategies must be devised that breaks down the walls between technological functions; the silos in education must fall before truly meaningful changes can be advanced.

Put another way, our own prejudices or preconceptions — silos of the mind — about specific uses for these tools must be erased and education technology needs to be addressed holistically. It is not enough anymore to have computer labs for some classes and not for others because that is not how we live as a society. We are surrounded by technology in daily life, and students do not build mental silos between their everyday activities. Technology is pervasive in every element of their lives and always has been. Any technology plan must consider how these tools — and it is important that hardware and software be considered tools and nothing greater — can be integrated into most facets of education.

What does that mean for planning and policy? It means everything. It is an area in which policies from the top are deliberately informed by evidence and practice rising from the ground level. It entails data gathering; teacher preparation and development; academic instruction; instruction on responsible digital citizenship and media awareness; ensuring equity in access and instruction for all students, which includes finding ways to reach students in remote areas as easily as those in urban settings and making sure they all have the tools for success; and more areas than I can think of in one sitting.

The future is here. So is the time for thinking big, and critically, about how we want to equip our schools for the times to come.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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