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Trending in the Right Direction

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With educators, businesses, and legislators collaborating, signs suggest that therecognition of technology’s vital role in education is reaching critical mass.

The Tipping PointYOU PROBABLY HAVE heard of The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book about understanding change and why change happens quickly. As Gladwell writes on his website: “Ideas and behavior and messages and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious disease. They are social epidemics. The Tipping Point is anexamination of the social epidemics that surround us.”

Drawing a parallel to the way AIDS and other infectious diseases spread, Gladwell points out that the term tipping point “comes from the world of epidemiology. It’s the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the boiling point. It’s the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards.” In our own world, I sense that line is about to spike straight up—we are approaching a tipping point in the way technology is recognized as a force in education.

I came upon this notion after attending last month’s Education Forum: What It Takes to Compete, in Washington, DC, pulled together by the State Educational Technology Directors Association in conjunction with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. The collaboration among this “Dream Team” of organizations is what it takes to use technology as an agent of change to reform schools so all students are prepared to be productive citizens in the 21st century. If the curriculum people and technology people agree on a message for the chief state school officers and the state legislators, all it takes is a push from businesspeople to make it happen. (Or at least that is the theory.) And the push, in this case, seems to be coming from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

The Partnership consists of 25 corporations and associations with ties to education and/or technology. Its core concern is the “profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st-century communities and workplaces.” The Partnership is working with two states, West Virginia and North Carolina—and other states are now signing up to do the same—on revising their state curricula to ensure the development of 21st-century skills, which include:

  • information and communication skills
  • thinking and problem solving
  • interpersonal and self-direction skills
  • global awareness
  • economic and business literacy
  • civic literacy

Another organization having an influence in technology and education is NetDay. NetDay runs NetDay Speak Up, a national, online survey of students and teachers, now in its fourth year. The survey addresses a number of topics; most of the questions try to get respondents to envision schools of the future— what they could be, what they should be, what tools they will use. This year, NetDay will continue to ask those questions, but the company has created a survey for parents, and has added questions dealing with 21st-century skills and questions related to student technology use, including cell phones and online communities such as MySpace. The survey offers an important opportunity for various constituents—students, teachers, and now parents––to be heard, as well as the free data it gives to school districts, which can then use the feedback for discussion, planning, and decision making. It’s not only schools that will use the data. The city of Baltimore is looking at establishing a citywide WiFi capability; the NetDay Speak Up survey will be used to help planners in that effort. And ed tech vendors use the Speak Up data to keep up on what schools and students are thinking about for the future. More than 200,000 participants from 44 states have pre-registered to take the survey, which is open Nov. 1–30. (For complete information on the survey and to register your school, click here.)

Scanning for Change

So why do I sense a tipping point is coming in the way technology is being used in education? I credit environmental scanning. Environmental scanning is one of the tools used in futures research. It’s a method that involves examining information from disparate sources and noting unexpected connections or repetitions of themes. This effort can provide insight into the cause of many events and uncover trends before they become evident to the mainstream.

In my own environmental scanning, I am seeing strong indications that technology is starting to be viewed as a necessary component for change in schools—because both students and the world in which we all live demand it. If we truly want technology integrated throughout all of curriculum and instruction (as No Child Left Behind mandates), and if everyone recognizes technology is a critical tool that will be used by students throughout their careers, then all the factors I have cited—the Education Forum, the “Dream Team” partnership to help states design a 21st-century curriculum, and the Speak Up survey—bode well.

Other developments also seem to be adding up. The federal government is showing an interest in collecting data on the number of students who are technologically literate by the end of the eighth grade (see article here). Textbook publishers from the Association of American Publishers have met with digital content publishers from the Software and Information Industry Association. People are meeting, planning, collaborating. Vendors are talking to educators, and educators are talking to legislators. A movement is on.

I know I am an obnoxious optimist, and I know that the real work is at the local level. However, it is encouraging to have some positive things to point to when superintendents, school boards, and others ask if anyone is truly integrating technology. Sign up for the NetDay Speak Up survey and use the results. Watch what leading states such as West Virginia and North Carolina are doing. Become a part of the change. Help create a tipping point.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editorial director of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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