Illinois: Building Support for Illinois' 'Digital Age Learning' Technology Plan

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The "Digital Age Learning" five-year state technology plan is the cornerstone of the Illinois State Board of Education's (ISBE) effort to restore momentum to its technology programs and initiatives. Approved in November 2002, the plan called for funding support of $21.2 million per year. Despite ISBE's continued emphasis on the importance of technology in schools, this area of education funding has repeatedly been cut by the state over the last three years (see chart below).

Several months after ISBE first adopted its five-year plan, recently elected Gov. Rod Blagojevich unveiled his fiscal year 2004 budget. Absent from the budget was any technology funding for schools. What started as a potentially disastrous situation for the previous progress made in education technology within Illinois schools, resulted in a collaborative effort that reinvigorated the parties who understood and supported the importance of technology in schools and, consequently, reinstated some of the funds.Over the course of several months, legislators and the governor's office agreed with advocates who recognized the importance of educational technology funding and restored $11.5 million to the technology program in the 2004 budget.

The Illinois Computing Educators (ICE), an organizational affiliate of the International Society for Technology in Education, helped to inform the school districts of the situation and suggested actions that could be taken to change the funding. The Learning Technology Centers/Regional Office of Education also helped to increase awareness about the importance of technology funds for schools. Through this combined effort, the Illinois General Assembly recognized the importance for technology funds in education and restored $11.5 million not only for mainframe computers, but also to prepare students and teachers for the 21st century.

However, ISBE was still left with a 50% decrease in funding. The cuts were understandable as lawmakers attempted to focus available dollars on general state aid for schools at a time when the state was dealing with a multibillion dollar budget deficit. Nevertheless, the cuts were still difficult to grapple with since they came just months after the state board approved the state technology plan. However, the restored $11.5 million did result in the following:

  • Retention of e-learning staff members;
  • Funding for the Learning Technology Centers (LTC), which provide technology support for local schools; and
  • Funding of the Illinois Virtual High School at the same level as the previous year.

The funding cuts, oddly enough, helped energize other groups to get involved with the state technology initiatives for local schools. Many different factions of people emerged and, in concert, voiced their concern for Illinois to have a 21st century economy. These individuals included parents, taxpayers, senior citizens, businessmen, legislators, and even students. They recognized that schools must do more to enhance teaching and learning through the use of technology than simply teach the core of education. While the core of education obviously is critically important, students must also utilize technology to communicate, collaborate and create. This coalition realized that their involvement in raising awareness about educational technology funding was essential for any progress in education.

The reality, however, is that partial restoration of the technology funds from the state d'es not meet the needs of local schools. The Digital Age Learning Plan from ISBE called for 20 times as much funding.

Inventing Illinois' Future Summits

According to the Digital Age Learning Plan, a necessary first step in implementing it was to build the stakeholder support for the state technology plan. ICE and ISBE led the way by holding an "Inventing Illinois' Future" summit in November 2003. ICE, under the leadership of Sharnell Jackson, retained Cheryl Lemke of Metiri Group Inc. to facilitate the event. Major sponsors included Apple Computer, Texas Instruments and Wireless Generation. Additional contributors consisted of Pearson Digital Learning, Dell, The Center for Teaching and Learning, Synchronous Solutions Inc., CompassLearning, Bast Services, Encyclopedia Britannica, CDW, Educational Resources, and palmOne. This event brought together 150 of the leaders in education, government, business and community to provide the big ideas that are the rallying points for funding the Digital Age Learning Plan. After two days of intensive work, the summit culminated in a call to action to create vibrant 21st century learning communities in all parts of the state. Participants sought to add 21st century learning to the agendas of the governor and general assembly with the following three key recommendations:

  1. Close the digital divide in Illinois schools and rapidly move toward equality for all students by providing one-to-one access to technology such as mobile tools, Internet access and a portal to virtual learning.
  2. Transform Illinois schools, communities and homes into 21st century places of learning by amending state tests and learning standards to incorporate 21st century skills. Also, develop a centralized digital information system to monitor student achievement.
  3. Provide all teachers and administrators with the professional development, accountability tools and support necessary to create 21st century education in Illinois. The eLearning Division made a commitment to continue the two-day effort by supporting the funding of 13 regional Inventing Illinois' Future (IIF) events. These events were completed in April, with hundreds of Illinoisans participating. A final report will be available on the ISBE Web site that will reflect the regionalization of the big ideas developed at the state IIF summit. The report will include a call to action in support of elimination of the digital divide, transformation of schools and empowerment of educators.

TECH2004

Another important activity that helps to increase legislative support and awareness for the integration of technology into teaching and learning processes took place on April 21, when students from all over Illinois met in Springfield for Tech 2004. This yearly event, which has support from many agencies, associations, school districts and corporations, demonstrates to lawmakers how classroom technology is helping them achieve and acquire the 21st century skills needed by everyone learning and working in the information economy. Teams of students were selected from each legislative district who demonstrated how learning environments were improved through technology. Tech 2004 is a nonprofit initiative supported by a broad range of educational and business organizations. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the critical role technology plays in preparing students to succeed in today's world and to show the need for increased funding for classroom technology. This year's co-chairs were Guy Ballard, director of technology at Niles Township High School District #219 and Glenda Bequette, principal technology consultant at the Illinois State Board of Education.

From kindergarteners who were using digital cameras to make picture books, to high school seniors doing GIS/GPS community projects, these students filled the halls of the capitol in Springfield. Legislators were invited to visit the students and talk with them about their projects and the impact of technology in their classroom. Tech 2004 provides students with an avenue in which to see democracy in action and showcase their 21st century skills of collaboration, communication and creativity through technology.

Leadership

Leadership is not about the person assigned to the task at the state level, but the help that is provided by leaders across the state who come from our schools, homes, businesses and the general assembly. Illinois is fortunate to have so many talented and dedicated leaders. Their support helped to restore technology funding to the 2004 budget for local schools. The state board and the state superintendent remain committed in working toward adequate funding education. Together we will successfully implement the Digital Age Learning Technology Plan in Illinois. When this happens, Illinois will be ready for the 21st century with students who are prepared to meet the challenges of the technological future with an optimism borne from the drive and vision of state and local leadership from across the state.

Online Resources

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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