Tech trends school board members need to know

Every school district needs to have a strategy for ensuring that technology initiatives result in better outcomes for students, according to two speakers at a pre-conference session at NSBA’s annual conference in Boston on Friday. The session was “Setting a Course for the Future: What Board Members Need to Know About Technology Trends.”

“The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed,” said Larry Johnson, chief executive officer of the New Media Consortium, paraphrasing novelist William Gibson (inventor of the term cyberspace). To serve students, the nation’s education system as a whole needs to adopt new digitally based teaching methods that research shows are effective, he said. And a lot of research says innovations such as robotics, adaptive learning technologies, and wearable technology can benefit students if implemented correctly.

Devices are necessary but not sufficient for good outcomes, said Kecia Ray, executive director of the Center for Digital Education and former assistant superintendent in Nashville. “I talk with superintendents and technology officers every week who say to me, ‘We are rolling out a one-to-one computer program!’ Great. Then what? It’s not about having a device. It’s about what you do with that device.”

Schools need to be strategic and ensure that they are using approaches that are supported by research, she said.

For instance, seven studies show that students can have gains of 8 percent to 10 percent with “blended learning,” in which students learn online or digitally in addition to face-to-face learning.

Ray described blended learning as a subset of personalized learning, which the Gates Foundation and others have defined as an approach in which each student has a “learner profile”: a record documenting his or her academic strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and goals. Students should have a “competency-based progressions” in which students’ progress toward clearly defined goals is continually assessed.

Software and apps have built in formative assessments that make it easy for teachers to provide personalized learning, Ray said. And as devices and commercial programs become more sophisticated and user-friendly, extensive training for teachers shouldn’t be needed, she said. She noted that banks did not need to train customers on how to use ATMs. “That’s where we need to be.”

But with so many devices, apps, and software packages on the market, how can school boards know they are buying something that will work?

The speakers gave a variety answers. To truly move to a new future that fully integrates technology into education, institutions need to embrace some degree of failure and learn from it, Johnson said. 

Ray noted that the U.S. Department of Education gave a $3.67 million contract to Mathematica Policy Research to create a suite of tools that help districts evaluate within one to three months whether an edtech tool purchased with funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is actually helping students. The effort is called Rapid Cycle Technology Evaluation.

In the meantime, school boards should perform their traditional role of ensuring administrators who purchase technology have ways to periodically evaluate the effectiveness of technology initiatives and report to the board, Ray said.

One school board member in attendance said his district – Baltimore County schools -- will be spending $1 billion over seven years on a one-to-one computing initiative. He is concerned about his duty to ensure that money is well spent, especially with so many private companies seeking to sell technology to schools.

“Remember when Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex?” said Michael Collins, a former history teacher who served as state legislator in Maryland for 24 years. “I think we are seeing an education-technology complex. This seems awfully familiar.”


Eric Randall

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