FETC 2015 Coverage

Decisions Made Now Will Guide Education for the Next 20 Years

Educators and students could benefit or suffer intensely from the battles now being fought over education technology. Debates over funding and standards threaten to slow progress, a leading education advocate told attendees at the FETC 2015 conference Friday.

"We're still talking and fighting about the same things," former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise said during the closing keynote session of the FETC 2015 conference, held last week in Orlando, FL. "The next two or three years will be some of the most critical for education in our lifetime."

Wise is president of the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education, which pushes for improvements to American high schools so every student graduates ready to enter college and thrive in a career. The group also advocates for the states that have adopted Common Core State Standards for education.

At the convention where educators learned about the newest software, hardware and teaching techniques, Wise spoke about smoothing the path to a better future. While advances in education technology have exploded, Wise said, decisions on how to use that technology and whether to purchase it are unresolved.

"Decisions are going to be made in the next two to three years that will shape American education for at least the next 20 years," Wise told the final gathering of FETC 2015, a 35-year-old organization that helps educators bring technology to the classroom.

Former Gov. Bob Wise (right), with Lucien Vattel (center) and Adam Bellow

Former Gov. Bob Wise (right), with Lucien Vattel (center) and Adam Bellow

Several fiscal and philosophical issues could hold back advances. There's political opposition to the Common Core standards. Budget cuts implemented during the recession have been slow to bounce back. States have even proposed more education cuts to fund tax breaks. In some states, educators have faced battles over the content of textbooks. And many districts are shuffling students to for-profit charter schools that have not shown improved outcomes.

All these distractions come when education is at a rare tipping point for massive change, which could allow education technology to transform American schools and the economy, according to Wise.

"This is one of those times," Wise said.

4 Factors for Change
Educators face these issues, and how they deal with them will determine the nation's education standard:

  • Higher expectations;
  • Funding shortfalls;
  • The changing role of teaching;
  • Technology in the classroom.

"In the last five years, every state has raised expectations," Wise said. "They apply to all students."

While expectations have risen, teachers face flat budgets and see a growing number of students who might not be prepared for the classroom.

"Half of our children are minority children and half are low-income," Wise said. "All children have to be taken care of."

Though the economy has recovered, stagnant budgets keep many schools from expanding programs to perform at the highest level.

"Many of our states are at [funding] levels they were at 12 years ago," Wise said. "The resources are constrained."

The changing role of teachers has given many educators more independence to adopt technology, but often they shoulder the burden without broad support.

"The teacher is still the single most important factor in a school system," Wise said. "The teacher is now is enhanced. With the technology now, every teacher is an educational designer."

The fourth factor, technology, can help students connect with the world's knowledge base on the Internet, but teachers can't perform this miracle if they don't have the hardware and software, due to a lack of funding.

"It's about transforming what we're doing," Wise said. "One of the issues of this in is making sure you have this infrastructure. Higher standards have to reach all schools."

Wise said that school systems must pledge to adapt to the future. Some 1,400 school districts serving 11 million students have taken the the United States Department of Education's Future Ready District pledge, he said.

"Future Ready is the way all of working together so we can can put on the table what we've learned," Wise said.

"The real importance in the next two to three years is planning for that future," he said. "How many of you have been in a district where some sort of Internet device showed up and there wasn't a plan for using it. My motto is 'Plan before you purchase.' It's not about what technology you want to buy, it's about what you want to accomplish with the technology."

The introduction of computer technology also creates an issue for parents who are concerned that their children's digital information can be stolen.

"We have to make sure the public is confident there are good policies for the use of that data and that there's good security," Wise said.

The future certainly will be filled with amazing technology, but educators must be fully funded and trained to use the more powerful tools and face the higher expectations of the future.

"It's not the future. It's here's it's now," Wise said. "It's you."

Closing Keynote: Industry Perspective

The CEOs of two education companies join former Gov. Wise in the FETC 2015 closing keynote.

GameDesk CEO Lucien Vattel painted a verbal picture of the future, which he called "Earth 2.0," where kids use education technology to learn by doing more often than by reading.

"All the kids in Earth 2.0 say they love algebra," he said. "They create their own universes.

"They're able to experiment with their ideas and share them with other students. They build their own technologies," he said. "They're able to intuitively move through mathematical systems."

Vattel's company, GameDesk, creates game and play-based curriculums in Los Angeles and focuses on struggling students to help them thrive in science and math courses. Earth 2.0 is the future society Vattel said he imagines. It will be created with the help of education technology.

FETC 2015 in Orlando showcased the newest software, hardware and devices available to educators, such as 3D printers and giant touchscreens, which will soon make their way into nearly every classroom. While school systems struggle to provide these technologies to students, many young people have already embraced the technical advances and the new mindset that technology creates. They are waiting for great teachers to show them how to better use these tools.

"They learned how to become passionate and persistent individuals and to overcome any obstacle," Vattel said. "They learn how to collaborate, communicate and work with each other. They empathize with each other.

"This is not only happening in the school," he said. "This is happening in the home. This is happening everywhere."

During his presentation, eduTecher CEO Adam Bellow summed up what he said he sees is wrong with education in one angry sentence.

"It's unconscionable," he said, "that we can get free WiFi in Starbucks, but we can't get it in a classroom." The crowd attending the closing keynote applauded loudly.

Bellow founded the Web site eduTecher in 2007 to track Web tools for the classroom and to help teachers bring technology into their schools.

"We live and teach in a ridiculously amazing time," he said. "But it is our present."

He told educators that simply moving a standardized test onto a mobile device is not an improvement in education technology.

"This is not innovation," he said as a video screen showed an image of a mobile phone with a bubble sheet from a standardized test. "We have to remember that technology use is not just digital replication."

He said the focus of education is in danger of turning away from creativity.

"There is no one who sat down in a room and said, 'Let's screw up education for everybody,'" he said. "Kids have better technology at home than they do in the schools."

Despite obstacles, he said he believes educators will embrace new technologies and bring students the gift of new kinds of education.

"We will see a more personalized and highly competent professional development," Bellow said. "If you're doing something amazing, share it."

—P. Peterson

About the Author

Patrick Peterson worked for Florida Today, a Gannett daily newspaper in Brevard County, Fla., from 2005 through 2013, and earlier was embedded with U.S. Marines as a reporter during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In Biloxi, Miss., he was a reporter for The Sun Herald newspaper and also founded and ran a charter boat company. He is a journalism graduate of Louisiana State University.