In one of the more interesting current events this week, the US Congress announced 50 million dollar plans to back a National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies designed to reinvent American education for the 21st Century.

Feeling the pressure to compete with developing economies in China and India, American senators— including former Presidential candidate Christopher Dodd—recognize the importance of changing the nature of teaching and learning in our nation’s classrooms.  As Dodd sees it, “America’s reputation as an international leader rests in the hands of our youth.  It should be among our top priorities to provide our students with the tools they need to maintain and build upon this standing.”

The thinking that resonated with me the most in this article came from the Federation of American Scientists, who argue that:

“The creativity that developed extraordinary new information technologies has not focused on finding ways to make learning more compelling, more personal and more productive in our nation’s schools.  People assumed that the explosion of innovation in information tools in business and service industries would automatically move into classrooms.”

I’ve worked in schools for 16 years now and I can honestly say that despite millions of dollars invested in digital infrastructure, tools, software and support, instruction remains largely unchanged.  Unlike many educators, though, I actually believe the reason for this frustrating stagnation is pretty simple:  Instruction in our classrooms isn’t changing because few people seem to understand exactly what ’21st Century learning’ means.

For most, 21st Century learning means nothing more than digital toys for teachers.  Entire schools invest in laptops for teachers, banks of computers for every classroom, and ceiling mounted LCD projectors.  Superintendents and principals argue passionately for one-to-one computing programs, believing that putting computers on every desktop will revolutionize learning.

Whiteboards and student responders are probably the best examples of wasted cash in most buildings.  Convinced that these devices are indicators of progressive teaching, a “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality has broken out across districts.  If a neighboring system installs whiteboards in every classroom and purchases sets of responders for students to use, passionate pleas are made before school boards for additional funding in order to “remain competitive.”

Yet installing whiteboards and student responders rarely changes teaching and learning in classrooms.

Instead of getting a revolution in instruction, schools that blindly invest in these kinds of tools end up with nothing more than really expensive teacher-driven, broadcast model instruction—and lazy instructors who aren’t forced to change their pedagogy—-outside of learning which color digital pen they want to use when lecturing.

I know that I’m painting a pretty dismal picture here—but it is a dismal picture supported by facts.  Check out some of the findings from Access, Adequacy and Equity in Educational Technology, a 2008 report from the National Education Association:

“Only one-third (32.0%) of the surveyed instructional staff required students to use technology to research or solve problems in class at least a few times a week, and substantially fewer (18.0%) required students to use computers to complete projects together at least a few times a week.”

“Three-fourths (76.0%) of educators reported that they used technology at school daily to perform administrative tasks.”

“Fewer than half used technology daily to monitor student progress, for research and information, to instruct students, and to plan and prepare instruction (40.7%, 36.8%, 32.0%, and 29.2%, respectively).”

“About two-thirds of the educators surveyed reported that they had been adequately trained by their schools to use the Internet for research and information; to use technology equipment; to use administrative-type software (e.g., word processing, PowerPoint, graphics, and spreadsheets); and to use instructional software packages (71.1%, 68.3%, 68.3%, and 61.3%, respectively.”

Not too inspiring, huh?  From the looks of it, the majority of teachers surveyed by the NEA are using digital tools in pretty traditional ways.  It’s difficult to be inspired when “adequate training” involves introduction to office automation software packages like PowerPoint and word processing tools.

What’s even more frightening, however, is that the teachers surveyed are generally satisfied with the kinds of digital training and tools available to them.  Consider these NEA statistics:

More than three-quarters (79.3%) of the educators believed that the software for students’
use was adequate, and the vast majority (87.5%) also believed that the software for teachers and other staff was adequate

More than half (60.0%) of the educators reported their districts required them to participate in technology training, and more than three-fourths (76.4%) agreed that they were satisfied with their knowledge of how to use technology in their work.

How can we possibly see change when the practitioners closest to the problem seem blind to the need for reform and unready to embrace student-centered learning experiences facilitated by new digital tools?

What many teachers fail to recognize is that 21st Century learning is about far more than cash and computers.

It’s about learning, unlearning and relearning.  It’s about finding connections between diverse subjects.  It’s about communicating and collaborating—and managing the massive amounts of information generated in a world where publishing is possible for everyone.  It’s about setting one’s own pace and pursuing one’s own passions.

My hope is that the new National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies can begin to paint a clear picture of the kinds of skills that are necessary for success in this new and borderless world for policy makers, principals and parents.  I hope their work will take attention off of new digital tools and focus efforts on identifying pedagogical approaches that bring individualization, creativity and excitement back to our classrooms.

Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with another 50 million dollar failure!


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