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Fulfilling Technology’s Broken Promise: A Perspective on Educational TechnologyBy Robert Bilyk

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I started my career in education in the early ’80s as a high school language arts teacher in the affluent community of Mendota Heights, Minnesota. The experience that encouraged me to use technology in the classroom related to a basic-level language arts class that I taught. All of the students in the class could not read or write very well for widely different reasons. A third of the students were limited English proficient, a third had specific learning disabilities, and the remaining students were low achievers. Although I had one classroom of nearly 40 students, I needed different strategies for each subgroup. Essentially, I needed three separate lesson plans. At the time, I turned to the Instructional Materials Center (IMC) staff for advice on how computers and software could assist me in the classroom.

Two decades later, teachers are still faced with similar challenges. The classrooms of today are a composite of special-needs students, English-language learners, high achievers, the gifted and talented, visual learners, kinesthetic learners, transferees, the list goes on. Some would also argue that the challenges have become inherently greater in the last two decades because of larger class sizes, reduced budgets, and bigger social problems.

The Broken Promise of Technology
The one inarguable difference between now and then has been the promise that technology holds for the classroom teacher. In the early 1980s, I worked with stand-alone machines that could render stick figures on the screen and display text and numbers. The state of the art in audio was a few timely beeps. Nevertheless, I could envision the promise and began creating things that I could use in the classroom to help kids.

Over the course of time, more and more educators have turned to technology to help kids—but only to be disappointed time and again. Computers were expensive, they broke or became obsolete, they didn’t talk to one another, and they divided teachers’ allegiance through the great schism of Macs vs. PCs. Then there was the software that sat in shrink-wrapped packages unused. Integrated Learning Systems (ILS) were also expensive and inflexible. If a teacher didn’t like the pedagogy or content of a particular lesson, she could do little to change, add, or delete content. Teachers had to accept the bad with the good: ILS perpetuated the existence of the stick figure; computers threatened the existence of the teacher. At least, that was a common apprehension.

And despite the greater use of technology, studies such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study from the National Center for Education Statistics have shown that our students still weren’t achieving well in math and science compared to their European and Asian counterparts. Fortunately, today’s educators are on the cusp of a tremendous realization: The promise that computers held for increased student achievement are finally being realized.

The New Promise of Technology
A teacher today who dares to imagine the possibilities that current technology affords won’t be disappointed: The total cost of ownership of a computer continues to decrease. Software is cheap and oftentimes free. Access to the Internet and all of the educational content that it holds is practically ubiquitous in American schools. Standards permit dissimilar computers to communicate with one another, and for educational content to be searched and shared.

Therefore, technology needs to be met halfway. Lead teachers, mentor teachers, curriculum directors and administrators—teachers in general—must dare to dream again. Schools must place networked computers in classrooms, libraries, lobbies, and wherever else they can be safely accessed. Accessibility to computers is essential. Teachers need to be trained—not once but often. Professional development is also essential because teachers need to support each another. Ideally, teachers from common disciplines would network with one another. The use of instructional technology by teachers to improve student achievement must become habitual. And finally, all roads must lead to the teacher. That is, all student performance data must flow effortlessly to the teacher.

To fulfill the promise, computer use by teachers must become habitual, and computer use to improve student achievement must become habitual. The advent of learning management systems like Microsoft Class Server, Blackboard and Desire2Learn has enabled teachers to manage the student online learning experience. Often, school districts direct this usage to the exception—offering activities to children who are ill, replacing snow days with online days, and providing a class to a home-schooled child.

The snow day example was my favorite. The online snow day was designed by well-intentioned educators, but it had its flaws. In this example, the school trained its entire staff on an LMS so that one day, when it snowed, students could access their courses online. On the day it snowed, the untested system failed; staff were out of practice in creating, assigning, and grading; and students could hardly remember how to log on. This example might seem a little extraordinary, yet variations on this same theme are commonplace. Rather than integrating online curriculum into the example, schools flirt with technology at the edges, addressing the “unusual situation” so that the business of integrating the class with technology does not become “habitual” and second nature for teachers.

However, it’s important to remember that every class has the potential to be expanded with online learning. Here are just some of the possibilities:

  • A science teacher chooses a photosynthesis simulation from a curriculum library and assigns it to the class. Students access the simulation from one of several locations—the few computers in the classroom, the library, the computer lab, the community library, or from home.
  • A social studies teacher posts a discussion topic on a controversial current issue. Each student is required to respond to the teacher and to other students.
  • A civics teacher requires students to work on an essay and return it online. The teacher efficiently critiques each paper with a built-in evaluation rubric and prepared best-practice examples that she pastes easily into the paper.
  • A language arts teacher assigns grammar and sentence combining exercises that match the individual student’s needs. One student in a composition class receives instruction on basic sentence combining using conjunctions; a second student receives instruction on combining with subordinate clauses.
  • A mathematics teacher identifies students with deficiencies in basic math skills. The current lesson relates to simple algebraic formulas, but several students have difficulty dividing and multiplying fractions. The teacher consults the curriculum library and is given a choice of four fractions lessons from four different publishers. She chooses the module with the instructional strategies that best matches the students’ learning style and current need.
  • A technology teacher requires that students collaborate on the design of a Lego Dacta robot. Students are given a document workspace. Each student views the other students’ designs and contributes to them. This document workspace is accessible online; each student’s contribution is identified to the teacher.
  • A Spanish teacher quickly creates a pack of electronic flash cards to rehearse students on the week’s new vocabulary list. She then imbeds the flash cards in an assignment and posts the assignment electronically for the entire class.

In all of these scenarios, the student performance data is directed to the teacher—to one gradebook and data-collection tool—and the school has the opportunity of communicating the complete results to the students’ homes. Student work, teacher comments, and grades are all preserved for however long they are needed.

None of the examples listed above are beyond the ken of ordinary teachers. All of the examples are supported by the state-of-the-art instructional management systems that are on the market today (some for free). In fact, most of these examples are downright prosaic. The technologies have been available for years: shared workspaces, discussion threads, managed assignment workflows, curriculum libraries, learning objects, etc.

Preparing for New Instructional Opportunities
Our vision must also embrace newly emerging technologies, as well as connect the teacher to those technologies in simple, quick-to-learn ways. Educators and students, for example, would benefit from blogs and wikis, from Web services (provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) and syndicated feeds, from new forms of interactive video and entirely new media. Our vision is to allow teachers to quickly utilize these emerging technologies without having to become technologists or programmers, or having to “give up their day jobs.”

We needed a common interface for all sorts of new technologies, so in 1997, I and a group of educators were granted a charter to start a new school founded on the promise of technology. We developed the school and extended its services to 18 other schools through an ASP model. Then in 2001, we began work on a separate project, and founded a separate company that would create that common interface for teachers to new technologies. That project and company has become lodeStar (http://www.lodeStarLearning.com). To date, lodeStar guides teachers on creating IMS-compliant interactive learning objects, branded as Star Interactions. LodeStar seamlessly integrates a host of technologies into the educational experience, including Web services, XML, robotics, and new media.

But technology doesn’t stand still, nor does our visioning process; opportunities for new learning experiences abound. In the future, we see ourselves building teacher-friendly user-interfaces for blogs, wikis, sharepoint services, MPEG-4 authoring, new Web services, and so on, all for the benefit of students.

The LMS as the Central Organizer
The central organizer for all of these technologies at our school has been the LMS. Cyber Village Academy was the first school in the nation to purchase Microsoft Class Server, one of the first to offer an application service for Class Server, and one of the first schools in the world to implement Class Server integrated with Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) technology. I was awarded Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professional in 2005 for our work with schools and assistance to others in adopting this technology. And recently I traveled to schools in Europe to introduce and train them on Class Server, WSS, and lodeStar.

Students are at the center of our universe, but very close to the center is the LMS. We imagine a day when all things tie into the LMS for the benefit of the students: the student information system, the gradebook, the curriculum library, the Office productivity suite, as well as the document libraries, discussions groups, survey instruments, and task lists. Our tool, lodeStar, publishes to the LMS as do the Encarta Encyclopedia and Microsoft Office products.

Many of the challenges that face schools today are addressed by a well-managed and expertly used LMS. These include individualized instruction for underachieving subgroups, school-to-home communications, rigorous science and technology instruction, and the demands of a media-oriented learner.

The strength of our LMS and our application service is built on hardware, software, bandwidth, security, professional development, and technical know-how. When Cyber Village Academy gets it right, it makes that available to other schools as a turnkey solution. We then play a key role in training teachers to make wise use of the technology. When lodeStar Learning gets it right, it makes its know-how available to teachers as a simple template. Teachers then simply fill in a form and publish to their LMS of choice.

The Result
The end result for our school has been improved student achievement for all grades and nearly all students regardless of disability or ethnicity, as well as improved school-to-home communications. The LMS has allowed teachers to individualize assignments, increase student learning time, expand student access to learning, host discussion groups, and make learning fun and possible for everybody.

Robert Bilyk is co-founder of lodeStar Learning Inc. (http://lodestarlearning.com) and Cyber Village Academy (http://cva.k12.mn.us).

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