Where is IT all going?
Technology evolution means a whole different way of learning
As technology has boomed during the past 20 years, the tools of education have changed along with it. Chalkboards have given way to white boards or screen projectors connected to computers that allow instant display of the information from either workbooks or the World Wide Web.
Students, too, are bringing more high powered gadgets into both the classroom and home study environments. The average student may find themselves Googling, IM'ing, texting, twittering and listening to music all while working on the day's assignment.
The questions many educators face today are what place should technology have in the classroom, and have teaching methods adapted to the change in technological level and the amount of information readily available to today's students?
San Ramon Valley Unified School District Superintendent Steve Enoch said he thinks incorporating technological advances as well as adapting the teaching model to better utilize those advances are crucial to preparing students for life in today's digital world.
"I don't want to have technology just to say we have technology," he explained. "I'm interested in making sure we prepare kids for a world that is much different than I grew up in."
Enoch said that world is one that is flat, a reference to books by Thomas L. Friedman, "The World is Flat" and "Hot, Flat and Crowded." Friedman paints a picture of a world where technology is creating a global economic environment.
"Our students are going to need to be extremely comfortable in a multi-cultural globally competitive environment," Enoch said. "That's what we're trying to do - prepare kids for the 21st century. I want to prepare our kids for the future, not our past."
Enoch, along with district Technology Director Bruce Chmielesky, envision a school system called 21st Century learning, an educational culture where in addition to working on the three R's, students are working toward the 3 C's: Communication, Collaboration and Creation.
"That is what our students are going to need in the future. Employers are looking for people who can communicate effectively and powerfully and collaborate with people who are both nearby and far away," Enoch stated.
Chmielesky said that what they are looking to do is incorporate the vast array of information available into the classroom, making learning more engaging and enticing.
"What we're wanting to be able to do with this 21st Century learning is to tap into kids' creativity and imagination," he said.
Enoch refers to the students of today as "digital natives," children who have grown up with the burgeoning technology movement and have already incorporated it into their everyday lives. At least in their home environment.
"I think a lot our kids live in two worlds," he explained. "They go to school and frankly it's a little bit of the Rip Van Winkle effect. You or I could be dropped back into high school and it looks and feels a lot like when you or I were in high school. Then they go home and their world is all about being digitally and socially connected through these digital neighborhoods."
Students are able to get access to information from myriad online sources, reference Web sites and blogs and come across thoughts and opinions and bring them into play. This gives them access to hundreds of thousands of ideas and concepts daily. Enoch said teachers need to be able to bring that accessibility into the classroom and channel it.
"I often talk about what I call 'the Google question.' How in the world can teaching not change when our kids have the ability to Google any single topic that is covered and bring down expert opinions, competing opinions, video, current events. Why would we pretend teaching wouldn't change in that environment?"
Enoch said the days of the teaching model where the instructor is the sole arbiter of knowledge are over, and will need to be replaced by a teacher who is more of a facilitator in navigating through the galaxy of information at students' fingertips.
He feels this model can work in the San Ramon Valley school district. "A lot of our parents make a living through technology. They recognize it is probably one of the few areas where the district is not where it should be."
He added that his statement was not intended as a dig at the district, but just an observation that in order for the district to be fully engaged in 21st Century learning it will need to adapt.
Reaction among the teaching staff has been mixed, with some embracing the idea of enhanced technology teaching, while others are reticent to move away from what they were trained to do and what they know as part of their jobs.
Enoch said such feedback is not cause for concern. Generally, he said, they give first crack at new systems to teachers who are enthusiastic about them.
"We like to take the wild horses who want to run and support them," he said. "We let them put in place models of the programs we want to have so that others can see how they run."
Technology was the focus of teacher concern at the Nov. 18 meeting of the school board. Among the concerns were a lack of training, time lost due to system crashes, and a huge increase in parent e-mails. What it came down to for many of the instructors was that the increase in technology was coming at the price of many additional hours of work for the teachers.
Chmielesky said that since coming on board in November the district has been working to ensure that their systems are solid and that teachers have access to help if there is a problem. As for the concerns of time spent with a deluge of e-mail, he said that is a product of the changing methods of communication.
"There is certainly the danger of over-communication," he stated. "Part of it is training the parents as to what is a reasonable expectation."
Both Enoch and Chmielesky admit there are risks inherent in increasing the presence of Internet and other media in the classroom, but they feel that if the students are engaged and are using the access they are given in the pursuit of expressing a topic or continuing a line of questioning, the incidents of abuse will decrease.
Already many schools have instituted policies against cyber-bullying and "sexting," where students utilize e-mail, instant messages or texting to demean or harass other students. Chmielesky said that they are aware of the concerns along those lines and they are quick to react when they get reports of it.
"We aren't cyber-cops," he said. "This is going to be a tough transition. But if we focus on the academics, the students will begin to see the Web and other media as powerful knowledge tools."
A major stumbling block to the school district making the transition to a more digital environment is a problem as old as civilization itself - money. With state and federal funds continuing to dry up and property tax resources dwindling as well, the available dollars in the district have to go toward maintaining the infrastructure of the school and paying salaries.
The passage of Measure C gave the district a small amount of breathing space, but the overall picture remains bleak. Without increased funding and the ability to make sweeping changes that would cost in the millions of dollars, how can the district continue to move toward this adaptive strategy and changed teaching model?
Enoch said there are no easy answers.
"Funding is a problem, for certain. But that doesn't change the fact that the world is changing, getting flatter, and our students need to be prepared to compete for jobs with people from all over the world," he said. "So the question isn't how can we make this change, it's how can we not?"
"How in the world can teaching not change when our kids have the ability to Google any single topic that is covered and bring down expert opinions, competing opinions, video, current events. Why would we pretend teaching wouldn't change in that environment?"
Superintendent of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District