Technology Directions | Q&A

Education in the Palm of Your Hand: 5 Questions with Brent Williams

Brent Williams on PCs in education: "When a teacher has to take the kids to a computer lab, that's not real integration."

For the last decade, according to futurist Brent Williams, schools have been doing a disservice to students by failing to give them access to the most advanced technologies that budgets will allow.

"Whatever technology is affordable--if we can adjust our policies for it--we have the responsibility to get that in the hands of kids," he said. "I think we've failed in that in the last 10 years, but we're reaching the point where the technology and budget make it possible."

Williams, director of the Educational Technology Center at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, has more than 25 years experience in private and public sector technology leadership, analysis, management, and training. In his work, he has focused primarily on evolving educational technologies, computer forensics, wireless network security, and Windows operating systems.

Williams offered THE Journal a glimpse into what he sees as some of the technologies schools should be looking forward to adopting for their students, with tablet PCs and Apple iPads leading the way in significance and potential positive impact for education. He also explained why he thinks one technology--the PC itself--hasn't lived up to expectations.

Williams, who also has a Ph.D. in educational leadership, will be speaking at three sessions at the FETC 2011 conference, being held Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, 2011 in Orlando, FL: "Technology Directions and Doing More with Less," "Computer Safety and Security Threats Teachers and Students Face," and "CSI FETC: Computer Forensics and Data Recovery for Educators."

THE Journal: What do you think are some of the more effective technologies that are currently widely adopted in schools? What makes those technologies effective? What really engages kids?

Brent Williams: Electronic whiteboards and student response devices tend to encourage student interaction and activity. Both are good things. They are established as standard classroom devices. In our area, 70 [percent] or 80 percent of elementary classrooms have them, and a little less for older grades. Electronic whiteboards are great for getting kids to participate. They, like everything with technology, are getting cheaper and better. Audio reinforcement systems also seem to help keep students engaged.

However, one-to-one devices like [iPod touch] and iPad offer more promise. The tablets are just starting to appear, and the iPad is heading the way. They are the perfect device for kids. [Kids can use them to] surf, type reports, create reports. It takes kids struggling in, say, algebra and gives them access to the best experts. The tablet concept is so new, school systems are just beginning to try it and test it. There will need to be two or three years before there will be this shift.

THE Journal: Are there some technologies that should be more widely adopted in schools but are held back in some way?

Williams: One-to-one devices are absolutely essential to improving student achievement and retention. Laptops have been so-so due to expense and their fragile nature. The coming onslaught of tablet devices is exactly what education has needed. They are small, light, last all day on a charge, are great as book readers, and more. The tablet is the future.

The only thing holding it back is getting a product in the market, which is really starting in the next month or two. I think we'll see 25 different tablet models coming into the market, and the game will really be on then. Also, there aren't policies; teachers haven't been trained. We're still at a point where teachers don't know how to integrate technology into their day. They have to get used to assignments on the computer, books on the computer. The adoption level will vary, like a bell curve. Time also will take care of that.

THE Journal: What are some educational technologies that really haven't lived up to expectations?

Williams: Due to cost and support requirements, the PC has not "revolutionized" education, test scores, or retention. Part of the problem is that you can't expect three PCs in a classroom to be a life-changer for 25 or 30 students. When a teacher has to take the kids to a computer lab, that's not real integration.

I've watched schools and school systems struggle with implementing PCs in the classroom and networks, and in the last 20 years, everyone was so hopeful that technology would finally be the big boost for test scores and retention, and it really hasn't happened.

THE Journal: What do you think are some of the major technology trends in the near term, in the next one to five years, including trends with ultramobile and handheld technologies?

Williams: Tablet devices will change everything. Most paper books, PCs, laptops, and traditional teaching methods will be toast.

The iPod touch is the only significant [additional trend to note]. It's funny, the iPod touch has a smaller screen; we might have trouble reading books on them, but students don't seem to mind. It has a lot of positives that make it almost as good as a tablet--the main thing is the size. When you're thinking about serious writing or podcasts, it makes sense to have a 10-inch or even 7-inch screen. There are many schools using them as an experiment.

THE Journal: Are there really different directions that schools can take with educational technology at this point?

Williams: Tablet devices can really, finally, make a huge difference for all students. It will level the playing field for students sufficiently motivated to seek their best possible future. The only other real direction would be netbooks. [The netbook isn't] as good a book reader, but it has a place. It's an alternative.

All you can do [for now] is pick a classroom or a small school and put tablets in there, train the teachers, and observe the technology. And, [all] the while, watch the marketplace for new devices, watching the price fall.

Williams will be speaking at the FETC 2011 conference in January and February 2011 in Orlando, FL. Further information can be found on the FETC's site here.

About the Author

Natasha Wanchek is a technology writer based in New York.