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Technology Enabled Learning and Our Future

by Ann Caulkins

Technology Enabled Learning and Our Future

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Picture by Chris Cureton

April 5, 2012

In this technologically fast-moving era, the Charlotte Observer has navigated through dramatic change generated by online access, and it is our journey that fuels my certainty that our school system can and must do the same.

Baby boomers are among the most enthusiastic digital immigrants, jumping into Facebook  and buying tablets in unexpected numbers. They are adapting. But it’s our children who are the digital natives. Their view of the world is shaped and understood through interactive devices and instant conversations delivered by the Web. They are shrewd and creative and 100 percent comfortable with technology.

The Charlotte Observer wants to serve those young readers with a robust and interactive website that educates and informs -- that helps them understand their world in the way that is most relevant to them. That does not mean we have abandoned our print readers. Our traditional print and newer online products combine to give us more than 1 million readers in any given week. CharlotteObserver.com improves our reach and pushes us out to the world. And it is a medium that is growing. Younger readers see that version as theirs.

Our Public Schools and Technology

Just like our current journalists, our future journalists must have strong critical thinking skills. That is a quality that is essential in this profession, no matter the platform. But they also must be able to produce their stories in multimedia. They must understand the power of social media to communicate and share ideas; they need to embrace video and the power of the visual to communicate online; they need to understand the vast information available in online databases and use that to help our readers understand the bigger picture. They must never stop being good students of technology. These skills are very different from what I learned in Journalism 101, where building a news story in an inverted pyramid was the mark of a professional.

Our public school students must be prepared to use technology too, no matter what profession they choose. I cannot think of one business unaffected by the speed of information and the power and reach of the Web. The Observer’s Ann Doss Helms  reported that this August Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are going to have wireless access in all 159 schools. Students and staff will be invited to bring their own technology into the classes. They can bring computers, tablets, smart phones and e-readers, a dramatic sea change from when students were forbidden to use their cell phones, long feared as a distraction. The school district says it is getting students ready for the real world. The district has for years used Smart Boards, computers and laptops in the classrooms. That is not enough. Scott Muri, CMS chief information officer, says those remain important, but personal digital devices are defining our future. Demand for these electronics is outstripping the schools’ ability to buy them for all students and faculty. As Helms has reported in the Observer, the conversion started in January, when CMS gave iPads to principals and other school administrators. The district is spending $1.2 million to buy the devices and provide software that will help with classroom observations.

I can relate to the difficulty of transitioning from a paper culture to the online world. It requires that we investigate our new contextual world, then think through and test our place in it. Then comes perseverance.  We must examine what we do every day and alter long-accepted habits, a challenging process.  It is that cultural transition that must take place with our teachers and in our schools. Teachers need to be trained in how to best use the technology with their students.  Our region is home to a powerful example of technology in the classroom and its ability to help students with particular challenges. A recent New York Times article  reported how educators from all over the country have been visiting the Mooresville schools, a trailblazer in using technology to teach. Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District told the Times, “This is not about the technology. It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past.”

Salman Khan, educated at Harvard and MIT, has designed software for teachers that allows classroom work to flow between teacher and computers. Students can get their lessons online and move at their own pace and initiative. Teachers, in tracking each student’s progress, can see a child’s distinctive struggle or success and then provide individual attention. According to a recent New York Times article, Khan’s software made a difference in an Oakland, Calif., school. The limited study showed children “who had fallen behind in math caught up equally well if they used the software or were tutored in small groups.”

Technology in classrooms would be much less controversial if studies clearly showed superior results were closely linked to access to technology.  It would be much easier to justify the spending if improved test scores were a strong return on the investment. There has not been consistent proof that the technology improves overall test scores over time.  I think we can all agree, however, that our students must learn to use technology to be successful in this global economy.  It is also, ultimately, the most fair and democratic of values to share this asset among all children and watch how it levels their chances to compete.  It is crucial that we find a way -- any way -- to reach those students who risk their futures and ours by dropping out.

Facilitating Learning

Any mismatch between a teacher’s style of delivery and the learning styles of students can cause frustration on both ends.  Students often resist the lecturer.  Perhaps all of us did as young students, but my generation didn’t know of the opportunities that the digital natives recognize now. Our favorite teachers were always the ones who engaged us, who moved us, who brought in the real world to make the classroom relevant. Interactive learning is what Khan is designing.  Some researchers hypothesize that current teaching methods are not designed to take full advantage of technology. Teachers probably will need to become stronger as facilitators. They will be leading their students through self-paced learning. As Marc Prensky says in his book “From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning: ”the teacher’s role should evolve into becoming a guide so he or she helps students discover the world and provides context to what they are experiencing.

“Most of today’s teachers teach by delivering content, presenting and telling linear stories, one thing at a time, one size fits all, and in person,” Prensky writes. “Yet their students learn from being engaged, doing, game play, random access, exploring options, multitasking, having things personalized to them, and going online.” Prensky also says that before we can successfully introduce technology into our schools we have to ask teachers to stop lecturing and start allowing children to learn independently. Students learn better if they can research their answers. They also develop confidence that they can solve their own problems. It is empowering.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a comprehensive technology plan for 2012-14 that calls for devices and teaching methods to move beyond text and speech. The full integration of technology in the schools reflects the real world integration in students’ lives. The report also says that integration occurs when teachers know how and when to use technology to help children learn. Technology, the plan says, should not be just an additional tool. It should allow students to seek out content on their own, synthesize information and then use it to illustrate their understanding and points of view.

CMS is committed to teaching its staff members to effectively use technology. It must also be prepared to demand this from teachers. There is too much at stake to risk failure.

A Moral Obligation

At least once a week, there is some study reminding us that we are facing a national crisis in public education. I am most staggered by this: One in four students will not graduate from high school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The cost of that failure in lost income and productivity is tragic. We also have a moral obligation to make sure our children are given the chance to be successful, the opportunity to learn about their gifts and take advantage of them. This is also a value -- the free flow of information -- in our great democracy.

Paying for advanced technology is the responsibility of everyone in our community. CMS must not cut any more teachers to pay for the equipment, training and software. Our low-income children will especially benefit from the access that the Internet gives them and the personal attention of skilled teachers. They may not have books in the home, but they would have the ability to access a book or to get what they need online. What the school budget cannot afford must be paid for by the private sector. It is necessary for this business community to invest in the future of our children. These students are our future workforce, homeowners and taxpayers. A technology-literate workforce will help our community grow and thrive.

The next time you read that news article about a crisis in education, remember that you can do something about it. It is not an unsolvable problem. Do something tactical. Buy a laptop or a tablet or even software for a student or a teacher. Don’t presume or expect that the device alone will raise test scores. Buy it because it might reach a child who is bored and considering dropping out. Or it might inspire a teacher who is struggling to reach a struggling student.  Or it might help a child who is insecure in math conquer the material privately, giving her or him more confidence to solve problems independently. And remember, those students may one day be the adults you hire who make a difference in your bottom line or on your management team. You want them to understand the possibilities and power of information.  Don’t wait to contribute to what is morally right for our children and strategically right for our community.

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Scott Muri, chief information officer for CMS, advises that if you want to make a donation to CMS to please call his office at (980) 344-0022 to ensure you buy a device with the specifications that CMS needs. If CMS owns the equipment, it must meet certain requirements. However, he said, there are nonprofits in Charlotte that can serve as a conduit for your donation to students. In that case, the device just needs to be web-enabled.

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