The new national educational technology plan highlights the Maine and Henrico County, Virginia, laptop initiatives as models other K-12 schools should consider following.
What impressed many of those awaiting the release of the National Education Technology Plan was that the real experts -- young people for whom technology is a dominant part of their everyday lives -- were consulted.
"Hire more people to keep the computers running, give us more bandwidth and less firewall, enable hookups from home, give the teachers more training and give us more computer classes," suggested one student. "Students should have laptops to do everything in class," said another. "We can type our homework, schoolwork, copy notes. We should not have to carry heavy books all day long and bring all of our books home." Added a third: Schools "could give technology classes to students and teachers because our teachers are falling behind the students, as they aren't good with computer programs and software."
Including the voices of the students drew high praise.
"It's very compelling," says Linda Roberts, director of the Office of Educational Technology during the Clinton administration. "You get the sense that they are really using technology and the Web and are adroit in terms of what they know and can do." Dan Pullen, state director of educational technology for North Dakota, agreed. "The report made a real effort to speak to the issues raised by the voice of the generation that's now in our schools."
The seventy-two-page report (plus vast Web offerings) very much addresses the concerns of students, whose observations were culled from a NetDay survey of almost 400,000 kids. Those issues include more computer and Internet access, better teacher training, less reliance on textbooks, and the need for ongoing maintenance and updates. As outgoing U.S. education secretary Rod Paige observed, "Education is the only business still debating the usefulness of technology. Schools remain unchanged for the most part, despite numerous reforms and increased investments in computers."
The EdTech plan, as it is known, includes an assessment of computer accessibility in schools as well as recommendations for making its title, Toward a New Golden Age in American Education: How the Internet, the Law, and Today's Students Are Revolutionizing Expectation, come true.
Recommendations for states, districts, and individual schools include improved teacher training, support for e-learning and virtual schools, stronger technology leadership, a move toward more digital content and away from reliance on textbooks, better use of broadband, and integration of data systems for such uses as online testing, understanding relationships between decisions, allocation of resources and student achievement, and tailoring instruction to individual students.
One of the major criticisms of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative has been that it fails to deliver the funds districts need to boost achievement. Some are particularly concerned that not enough additional funding is being made available to support technology-based solutions to the achievement gap. The new report recommends "innovative budgeting" and suggests several general strategies to help states and school districts pay for new technologies.
Though innovative budgeting may free up funds for some schools and districts, it may be impractical for many to apply, say observers.
"I would have to say that ambitious goals need some level of ambitious funding," responds Barbara Thalacker, administrator of the Education Technology Office for California's Department of Education. North Dakota's Dan Pullen says, "If you're going to make a major shift toward using high-quality technology resources to improve student learning and you're going to do it without major funding, you are going to have to make major changes. And that is very difficult."
"The argument about redistribution of funds is an important argument to make, but in some districts, there is nothing to redistribute," adds Linda Roberts, the former federal educational-technology director.
Still, she, as well as Pullen and Thalacker, praise the report overall and see it as an important element in bringing the kind of technology and technology training to schools that they need. It shows policymakers and teachers what is being done -- from Maine's and Henrico County, Virginia's laptops for all student programs to Florida's Virtual School -- and what can be done. It also speaks, as Thalacker puts it, for "a unified effort across the nation." Both state directors said they would use the report as a blueprint for their own state technology plans.
"I hope that this report becomes a catalyst for a renewed and very deliberate investment in technology that supports education, and particularly teaching and learning," says Roberts. "It's very possible this could happen."
Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.