In November 2010, the U.S. Department of Education released the National Education Technology Plan. As we’ve mentioned in earlier Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 this plan is a broad vision for schools and districts to implement technology for learning. In this post, we will look more closely at the implications in the Plan for infrastructure and the actual structure of the learning process.
The Plan’s 5th goal is: Our education system at all levels will redesign processes and structures to take advantage of the power of technology to improve learning outcomes while making more efficient use of time, money, and staff.
The Need for Infrastructure
The Plan says, “A comprehensive infrastructure for learning is necessary to move us beyond the traditional model of educators and students in classrooms to a learning model that brings together teaching teams and students in classrooms, labs, libraries, museums, workplaces, and homes—anywhere in the world where people have access devices and an adequate Internet connection. An infrastructure for learning is necessary to support a learning society in which learning is lifelong and lifewide.”
To achieve this, five things need to happen, according to the Plan:
- Broadband has to be available everywhere, including WIFI in school buildings.
- Access devices must be available for every student and educator. Such access is needed in and out of the classroom. The state of Maine launched a statewide effort in 2001 to provide laptops for every student, starting with middle school students. The use of mobile devices, owned by the students, is also recommended – with agreement on proper use within the school.
- The use of open educational resources is also a consideration. These are free public domain software programs and courses that can provide high-quality learning environments.
- Hardware and software that can talk to each other is needed. This is called interoperability.
- Cloud computing offers the potential of cutting costs for districts by eliminating the build-out of many servers and the requisite tech support. By running data from the cloud, for both academic and administrative uses, schools can offer a wider range of services at lower cost than ever before.
The Need to Re-structure
Productivity (achieving goals with minimal cost) is a big challenge in business, and is measured rigorously. In education, measurement hasn’t been as rigorous, partly because it’s hard to define learning outcomes, and schools have not risen to the challenge of maximizing productivity through technology.
The Plan notes that when businesses first introduced technology into the marketplace, there was no gain in productivity. That’s because, at first, technology was used simply to automate existing processes. Later, productivity was increased by re-structuring business processes through technology. The Plan suggests that education can learn from this, and re-think the roles of schools, educators, and the system itself to better use technology to attain the learning outcomes we want.
To improve productivity, and thus achieve continuous improvement of our educational system, means that we first have to define and measure our learning outcomes. And we have to be able to track the ratio of outcomes to costs. The Plan attempted to define learning outcomes in Goals 1 and 2 where we “measure what matters,” but other pragmatic outcomes mentioned here include: high school graduation rates, readiness for postsecondary education, and college degree completion.
The Plan suggests that we move away from funding by projects and programs to cost accounting, which tracks the costs per function or service.
The Plan also suggests that, depending on the infrastructure, we need to get to a point where we are using current, real-time data for decision making.
The Plan also suggests that we start gathering data, not just on purchases and types of computers, but rather on how data is used for learning. These kinds of metrics, they believe, will lead to a true understanding of how technology makes a difference to learning.
Towards Learning Efficiently
The Plan states, “In a time when we have the capability to support learning 24/7 and personalize the way a student interacts with digital content, it no longer makes sense to give every 13-year-old the same set of 45-minute American history lessons.”
It is explained that time-based or seat-time measures of educational attainment were useful when started in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But today, with online learning and blended learning more available, time-based measures only frustrate efficient learning. Other impediments to flexible learning include: age-based groups, separate academic disciplines, classes of equal size with the same content at the same pace, and the same class all year.
The Plan notes several examples of radically re-designed schools which are moving toward competency-based or performance-based systems:
- The Chugach School District in Alaska won the Baldridge National Quality Award for remarkable gains in student outcomes after identifying competencies for high school graduates and then awarding diplomas based on their performance.
- The state of New Hampshire is implementing a competency-based approach to secondary education. Local districts are working out the details.
- The Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago awards course credit based on proficiency ratings on specific competency-based learning objectives. These ratings are tracked by a database and updated daily so everyone knows who is proficient at what. The school converts proficiency ratings into grade point average equivalents so that the students’ progress is recognized by colleges and financial aid groups. Result: 90% of 2009 graduates were accepted to college.
Other examples of re-structuring involve extending the learning time. Some Massachusetts districts are adding 300 more instructional hours to the school year. Some charter school networks believe the school day should run from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm.
Online learning is another to way to “extend” the time a student spends in learning. Schools can provide “lessons” on demand anytime and anywhere by giving students guidance to educational opportunities available online. Teachers and districts will have to determine how these online classes reflect the target competencies.
The Plan envisions big steps for America’s educational system. To take full advantage of the speed, savings, and efficiencies of technology, the infrastructure has to be set up right so that schools, districts, teachers, and students have the tools they need. Essentially, we have to enable access to the Internet for all. And to do this most efficiently, the Plan believes we need to re-think what “school” or “learning” really means. It suggests we have to move towards competency and continuous improvement – and use technology, not just to help kids learn, but to create new kinds of learning environments that measure real outcomes and achieve real productivity.