Hands-on technology,hands-on education

08/09/2011  |  Barbara Myerson Katz

It’s no secret that educators, administrators and IT staff have a tough job. They are balancing resources and responding to state and national mandates, all while trying to focus on helping students learn and become successful outside of the classroom. Accomplishing these goals requires prioritization – and that job is not an enviable one.

During the last year, school districts have made important strides in adopting technologies to help engage students in the classroom and convey important lessons. The second annual CDW-G 21st-Century Classroom Report (www.cdwg.com/21stCenturyClassroomReport) asked 1,000 high school students, faculty and IT professionals their opinions on how technology is integrated into their high schools.

Almost all students and faculty — 94 and 97 percent, respectively — noted that learning and mastering technology skills would improve students’ success in college and/or the workforce, which is why it is surprising that only 41 percent of students say they are encouraged to use technology throughout the day. Given that number, it’s probably not surprising that just 46 percent of faculty members regularly assign homework that requires technology use.

High school expectations evolve

New technologies have the ability to energize students, teachers and the learning experience. When asked about essential technologies for the modern classroom, the report found that faculty expanded their view this year to include interactive whiteboards, digital content and personal computers. The report also found that more districts provide the IT support for those technologies. On a grading scale that spans from “cutting edge” to “in the dark ages,” 64 percent of IT professionals rate their district’s technology as “cutting edge” or “current,” up from 41 percent last year.

More students than ever before report they are connected at home and they expect that connectivity to translate into the classroom. But faculty and IT professionals are less optimistic. Though a third of students believe that mobility devices like smartphones and MP3 players are essential to a 21st-century classroom, less than a fifth of faculty and IT professionals agree.

An even larger gap exists with digital content – defined as a collection of textbooks and other curricular materials online or in digital form – which is a “must have” technology for 73 percent of faculty members. Digital content offers students instant access to current information, reducing districts’ need to regularly purchase expensive print textbooks. However, only 11 percent of districts have active digital content programs, according to IT professionals.

New technologies are accessible

Each of the survey groups in the report noted that lack of budget was the primary challenge to increased classroom technology, but what if that wasn’t the case?

The IT infrastructure is the backbone of any classroom technology and requires extensive investment – both in financial and manpower terms. For many districts, IT resources are spent on supporting the IT infrastructure, including servers, hardware and software. Districts struggle with antiquated systems that they are unable to expand in order to provide the latest technologies to their students, often only because the infrastructure will not support it.

In Illinois, however, 150 school districts are proving that new technologies are not reserved solely for the businesses, universities or districts with big budgets. A non-profit cloud computing consortium called IlliniCloud enables districts to pool resources in an on-demand and pay-as-you-go environment.

Delivering cloud-based disaster recovery solutions, Software as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service, IlliniCloud simplifies IT management and provides districts with secure access to their data from any location with an Internet access. Critically, IlliniCloud affords districts the opportunity to reallocate their IT resources, taking what they would have spent in the data center and spending it instead on the priorities that meet that district’s goals, which often means more classroom technology.

Whether the district fortifies its infrastructure or, like IlliniCloud, leverages the community’s resources, the IT infrastructure is the backbone for effective classroom technology, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

Find the right fit

We know that when it comes to classroom technology, one size does not fit all. Choosing the right hands-on technology solution for the classroom requires a mixture of visual, audio and interactive technologies that maximize the district’s investment and address multiple learning styles. But how can schools find the right mix to meet their needs?

Every district should start with an educational technology assessment, which will help administrators understand their teachers’ and students’ needs. By surveying teachers, students and IT staff, schools can answer key questions about how the technology is currently used and how stakeholders would like to use it in the future – a key to long-term planning.

Many districts want to survey stakeholders, but do not know where to start. What topics should they ask? What technology options should they give the community? Important questions to consider for any survey include:

  • What technology tools do students study with outside of the classroom? Can or should students be allowed to bring those tools, including smartphones and laptops into class?
  • How do teachers create their lesson plans? What technology would teachers most like to have in their classrooms? Do teachers use existing technology to augment the curriculum or does it go unused?
  • How does IT support teachers and students? How can IT help the administration tie technology to educational outcomes? Is there room to expand technology, or does the IT infrastructure need to be addressed first?

To help schools, CDW-G offers an online assessment tool districts can use in its entirety or as a starting point for their own survey. The no-cost tool is available for download at www.cdwg.com/21stCenturyClassroomReport. CDW-G recommends creating parallel, but separate survey instruments for each segment of the learning community (e.g., students, faculty and IT staff) so that districts can address each groups’ individual needs, while still identifying trends across all groups.

Technology, though a powerful tool, cannot do anything on its own. Sitting a student in front of a computer with the latest technology will not magically improve education. But, technology is uniquely qualified to equip teachers and make their tough jobs a little easier.

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  1/20/2012 9:47:28 AM

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