Professional Learning

The Ubiquitous-Technology Dream: The Importance of Tech in Education

Fully personalizing the education experience.

February 1, 2007

Note: Guest columnist Tom Greaves, chairman of the Greaves Group, has worked for over three decades in the field of educational technology. In 2006, the Greaves Group and the Hayes Connection joined forces on a major syndicated research study titled "America's Digital Schools 2006," which 2,500 of the nation's largest school districts were invited to participate in. More than 900 people representing three constituencies -- superintendents, curriculum directors, and technology directors -- responded.

This article, which originally appeared the Strategic News Service newsletter, is the second of two installments; the first can be read here. Milton Chen's regular bimonthly column will resume November 29.

Whenever a school district or a state begins to move toward one-to-one computing, we hear concerns that there is no evidence that the programs are effective. The study "America's Digital Schools 2006" ("ADS 2006") found, on the contrary, that a considerable amount of academic-performance data correlates with technology initiatives.

Given the newness of the topic, it is important to learn from the one-to-one implementations that have failed, as well as from those that have succeeded. Clearly, some implementation strategies are better than others. From my own observations, I have come to the conclusion that a major factor in failure is the lack of formal processes in place to identify and address interdependent issues.

For example, classroom teachers are required to be able to run a specific piece of software. They are dependent on all the computers working. The school IT staff is dependent on the manufacturer. The manufacturer is dependent on a third-party service organization and parts suppliers. In a surprising number of cases, schools are putting up with epidemic failures of laptops, in which 100 percent need to be replaced. (This problem has affected many major laptop providers.) The net result of these complications is that the teachers are left without access to technology. Those involved are apologetic, but apologies aren't enough to guarantee students computer uptime.

Another example involves professional development: A software publisher knows that professional development, or training, is required to effectively use the product. The publisher is dependent on the school leadership to see that training occurs, but many schools fail to do so.

In schools with low success rates, often the individual in charge -- such as the principal, the IT director, or the superintendent -- does not take the responsibility to address these issues until the school year is over, and by then the academic results are unsatisfactory. Without a systematic approach to a large-scale change initiative such as this, these dependencies frequently tend to drop through the cracks.

Nevertheless, "ADS 2006" shows that 88 percent of districts that tracked academic results reported moderate to significant positive results, and the remainder reported no results or poor results. It appears that properly implemented ubiquitous-computing solutions can significantly help improve student achievement. In related interviews, many educators have pointed out that the effects of ubiquitous computing extend beyond improved high-stakes test results. Other widely observed effects include reduced dropout rates and improved attendance rates.

A Bandwidth Crisis Is Looming

According to the prevailing wisdom, we live in a world in which bandwidth is essentially unlimited. Download speeds of 5 megabits per second are commonplace in many homes, but schools aren't so lucky. Though bandwidth inside the school may be quite satisfactory, things slow to a crawl once traffic reaches the Internet service provider and goes out to the Internet.

Today, the average Internet bandwidth per student, according to the "ADS 2006" survey results, is 2.90 kilobits per second (Kbps). Furthermore, schools say they will increase this figure to 9.57 Kbps per student by 2011 -- a more than threefold increase. However, the "ADS 2006" team believes that demand may increase to as much as 40 Kbps in five years. As the number of computers in schools increases and the ways in which students use computers change, more and more bandwidth will be needed.

It is unlikely, however, that many schools are budgeting for such as massive increase, although technology directors are generally aware of the challenge. The hard costs of the bandwidth required to support the growth in online learning, home connectivity, and ubiquitous computing are unknown, and additional research is necessary.

The whole topic of bandwidth, both at home and at school, is high on the list of educators' concerns. Few of the connectivity suppliers we have talked to recognize the opportunity that awaits them, or the potential for new applications that are bandwidth hungry.

Online Learning Is Growing

Online learning has been around since the University of Illinois first started delivering electronic lessons over phone lines some forty years ago. But, until recently, this capability reached only a very small number of students. The development of the Internet, the advent of powerful learning-management systems, and the creation of courseware designed to exploit the capabilities of technology have brought the potential for online courses to most students. A number of states and many districts now run online virtual high schools. "ADS 2006" shows that 3.8 percent of students use online learning in the eight main academic subject areas. This figure is expected to grow to 15.6 percent by 2011.

This anticipated increase in demand has substantial implications across the school landscape. If almost 2 million students will be taking an online course in 2011, schools will need to purchase new materials, train teachers to work in the new environment, and upgrade their infrastructure to handle the increased demand while improving specialized instruction.

Students take online courses for many reasons -- some surprising. For example, I know of one district where online courses are popular among football players who want an extra period in the regular schedule for physical education and weight lifting. Also, in many districts, they serve as an escape valve for students missing a required course for graduation.

In addition, online Advanced Placement courses are proving to be popular among districts that cannot justify AP classes based on enrollment. Finally, in some districts, an online course is the last chance for students who have failed a traditionally taught course more than once -- usually algebra. In almost all cases, students and teachers report excellent academic results from online learning.

Professional Development Is Key

Skimping on teacher and administrator professional development generally leads to failure. "ADS 2006" shows that schools that have implemented one-to-one computing think differently about professional development than do schools in the preliminary stages of a one-to-one implementation. According to the survey, only 17 percent of district curriculum directors believe their current professional-development program is prepared to support one-to-one computing effectively. By contrast, 73 percent of superintendents rank professional development as extremely important in successful efforts to introduce one-to-one computing.

For the first time, districts have quantified the cost of professional development required for successful implementation of one-to-one computing. The answer -- $94.75 per student per year -- is a substantial amount. However, it is consistent with anecdotal evidence of what works.

Professional development is perhaps the single largest factor in the success or failure of a digital school. To be effective, professional development needs to address training for administrators as well as teachers and adapt to the needs of the school or district. The focus must shift to a rigorous process of curriculum integration, data-driven decision making, and capacity building.

Low Total Cost of Ownership Is Increasingly Important

According to "ADS 2006," superintendents rank low total cost of ownership as one of the most important factors in a successful ubiquitous-computing implementation. As districts consider moving toward such an environment, TCO becomes increasingly important. When every student has a computer, every added dollar of support cost per computer becomes an added $1 per student, versus $0.20 per student in an environment in which there is one computer for every five students.

There is often a puzzling disconnect in schools. Although more and more educators and administrators talk about TCO and claim to understand its importance, very few purchasing decisions are actually based on the principle. Fewer, still, measure the real TCO, including in-classroom support of technology by teachers. In a tight budget environment, a strict focus on TCO is essential.

Certain Product Categories Will Grow Rapidly

Although change is generally slow in schools, in the last few years we have seen the adoption of a number of new technologies. "ADS 2006" shows that student appliances, tablet computers, and interactive whiteboards will be some of the fastest-growing product categories among mainstream products over the next five years.

The results show use of significant increases in student appliances (104 percent), tablet computers (78 percent), and interactive whiteboards (24 percent). The projected growth in mobile computing is also significant; PC and Macintosh laptops are expected to grow at annual rates of 27 percent and 25 percent respectively. For fairly expensive products, these growth rates appear robust in a market known to approach change cautiously.

In the student-appliance category, 85 percent of districts say that within five years, they are likely to adopt an appliance-type device that will provide educational functionality, but at a much lower TCO. In five years, the current-year sales of these devices will surpass those of laptops in schools. This total equates to about $1 billion in sales.

Facing the Future

This is a pivotal time for America's schools. The pressure from parents, government, and business has never been more intense. At the July 2003 Education Commission of the States meeting, some states predicted that as many as 70 percent of their schools would be labeled as "failing" within three years. Indeed, many schools in affluent communities are now so stigmatized for the first time, because they, too, must make Adequate Yearly Progress, according to the mandate of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The AYP pressure is immense; no politician wants his or her state or city to be labeled as failing. Most of the easy fixes have already been tried, and the easy gains have been made. For many years, politicians have attempted to fix the problem by throwing money at it. This approach is no longer economically viable. Governors are searching for more cost-effective and innovative approaches to improving student achievement.

The promise of ubiquitous technology is full personalization of the educational experience, which cannot be provided by the traditional combination of textbooks, and teachers who lecture to the whole class. The only way to leave no children behind is to engage them exactly where they are, enabling them to work at their individual paces -- including accelerated paces -- by providing the required tools, knowledge, and resources in the language, complexity, and capacity that are most beneficial.

The technologies, products, and methodologies have been available to make this happen for some time now. Armed with the latest information provided by the "ADS 2006" survey -- a substantial body of research on the digital future of schools -- we have now reached the point where we have the experience, knowledge, technology, and data to make lasting and effective change in schools. A generation of students is counting on us.

If you missed part one of this column, click here.
Tom Greaves is chairman of the Greaves Group, has been the CEO of two educational companies, and has served on the boards of many others.

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