While some technology enthusiasts celebrate new gadgets as the solution to the many challenges faced in the classroom, some educators say the answer is not the shiny new devices themselves, but how teachers use them.
Education experts met Thursday in Washington to discuss both the potential of technology as a tool to help redesign teaching and learning, and the challenges of innovation in a static system with set routines.
Among the panelists at the conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research was Superintendent Mark Edwards of North Carolina’s Mooresville Graded School District, His schools have captured national attention, as well as a visit from President Barack Obama, lauding the technology-infused curriculum.
Edwards, the 2013 North Carolina Superintendent of the Year and the Association of School Administrators national superintendent of the year, spearheaded an initiative in 2007 to issue laptops to students in grades 4-12, provide 24-hour Internet and install interactive whiteboards in all kindergarten through third grade classrooms.
Since then, Mooresville ranked third in the state for graduation rates and second in student test scores in the 2011-12 school year and was named the best school system in the country in the Scholastic Administrator magazine this year.
Edwards said people from across the country visit Mooresville schools to observe how technology propelled the district’s success, but soon notice gadgets are not the only ingredients.
“They come in wanting to see the technology, and they leave talking about the culture,” he said during the panel discussion. The overall culture, Edwards said, is one in which students see how school is relevant to their futures, teachers show students they care and technology enables educators to rethink school to prepare students for the demands of a 21st century workplace.
Bror Saxberg, the chief learning officer at Kaplan Inc., an educational testing and training corporation, said such school innovation will not stem from technology alone, but from “learning engineers,” education professionals who think deeply about the science behind learning, particularly cognitive science, and apply it on a larger scale.
Those learning engineers are likely to face limitations on their reinvention efforts, said Rick Ogston, designer and founder of the original Carpe Diem school in Arizona, a charter school that emphasizes learning through technology, and its nationally-recognized “hybrid” onsite and online education model.
Ogston said state-mandated testing makes teachers reluctant to stray from preparing students for assessments, leaving little flexibility to tailor curriculum to accommodate students who demonstrate ability above or below their grade levels.
“How do we turn the Titanic of assessment-driven education to actually talk about critical thinking, problem- solving and real learning when accountability is so high that, to me, it has stifled innovation?” Ogston said.
Saxberg and Frederick M. Hess, the American Enterprise Institute’s resident scholar and director of Education Policy Studies, said state legislatures could take several steps to encourage a technology-enabled reinvention of schools; among them: loosening online-learning restrictions, revisiting school spending rules and relaxing teacher evaluation policies.