Before school, Adam Canady will check the weather using his iPhone. After school, he’ll use a computer to do homework. During school, however, those devices are often put away.
While some of the 18-year-old senior’s classes at Iowa City West High School incorporate technology, it’s a lot less prevalent than in his life outside school.
“If (educators) could realize the value of technology, I think that would contribute greatly to the amount of learning that could be done,” Canady said.
Technology has changed our lives in countless ways, but local, state and national education experts say America’s K-12 education system has largely failed to adapt. As a result, they said, students are not being adequately prepared for an increasingly tech-driven world.
“We live in a digital, global world. Schools are usually neither of those things,” said Scott McLeod, founding director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, based at the University of Kentucky.
This is the case in Iowa, too. For example, two recent audits of the Iowa City school district found woeful shortcomings, including the inability at times to even access the Internet from a classroom computer.
The interest, however, is not just in using computers, tablets or the Internet more frequently. Technology advocates believe classroom technology should fundamentally transform the way teachers teach and students learn.
In place of forward-facing desks with the teacher leading a discussion, they say, students should work in small groups or on their own, using the Internet to access information and even consult with experts outside the classroom. Critical-thinking skills and the ability to find information and verify its accuracy should be stressed over memorization.
“If technology can bring about the Arab Spring, you can imagine that it’s really changing education,” said Lance Wilhelm, director of technology at the Heartland Area Education Agency in central Iowa.
Shift faces obstacles
There are challenges to overcome, however, and the audits of the Iowa City school district offer examples.
Dell Inc. and education firm Synesi Associates found the district lacked adequate bandwidth, had a technology plan that expired five years ago and was greatly understaffed in the information technology department, among other problems.
An anonymous survey of teachers logged complaints about the Internet running at a crawl, computer labs with not enough computers, long waits for repairs and a lack of training.
J.P. Claussen, a special-education teacher at West High, believes the situation stems not just from neglect but a generational shift that found older administrators and school board members oblivious to the potential of technology.
“Any time you have an institution, specifically a bureaucracy, you get stuck doing things the same way,” he said.
David Dude said that when he took over as the Iowa City school district’s director of information services last school year, there had not been a focus on what should be funded.
Discrepancies are large between schools in what equipment they have. Parent organizations have been relied on to buy items, and money from a national settlement with Microsoft also provides funding to schools with a certain percentage of low-income students.
The district’s priority now is to get three pieces of equipment in each classroom: a multimedia projector, a document camera that displays documents and 3-D objects, and an interactive whiteboard known as a Smart Board.
Dude said the district also is working to expand its fiber-optic network for Internet service, to which only about half of the district’s schools are connected. He also wants the district to establish a separate line item in the budget for classroom technology.
Funding sources few or dwindling
Iowa City’s problems are hardly unusual.
The use of technology in classrooms is uneven nationwide and globally, said Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, based in Washington.
He points the finger at declining support from the federal government, saying it set classroom technology aside a decade ago with the No Child Left Behind law’s emphasis on standardized test scores.
The federal Enhancing Education Through Technology program provided states $700 million in grants for technology purchases and professional development for teachers in fiscal 2002, according to Knezek’s organization. The amount dropped for most of the past decade and was eliminated completely last year and this year.
Iowa’s public schools spent $49.5 million on computer software and hardware in the 1997-98 school year, according to Iowa Department of Education data. Spending stayed below that number for the next 11 years and dipped as low as $27.6 million in 2002-03.
To look at it another way: During a period in which technology improved so much that many of today’s cellphones have faster Internet speeds and more features than desktop computers did at the turn of the century, Iowa’s public schools were mostly spending less on technology.
Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said technology is important but expensive, and his focus currently is on Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposed education reform package. That plan is mostly silent on technology, except for encouraging online schools.
Glass said that when the time comes to address technology, throwing new dollars at the issue should not be the only answer.
“We have to start making some hard decisions about how can we redirect and repurpose existing money that we have in the system toward education technology,” he said.
Several school administrators interviewed for this story said that’s what they do now.
The Washington school district doesn’t have the money to do all it wants to with technology, Superintendent Mike Jorgensen said. Finding the funds is a matter of prioritizing, and Washington has used money designated for building infrastructure on technology.
Next school year, all Washington High School students, about 550 of them, will get laptops. The district expects to pay $175,000 annually under a four-year lease.
Changing culture in the system
It’s about more than money, though. A culture change also is needed, experts said.
“My overall perspective is our K12 education has been painfully slow to adopt technology, that students and teachers aren’t taking advantage of technology to nearly the extent that they could to the benefit of students,” said John Chubb, CEO of Leeds Global Partners, an education consulting firm headquartered in New York.
He said a major reason for that is resistance from teachers, because some technological innovations have the ability to replace them. He points to online schools and what’s known as blended learning, in which students spend time learning from teachers as well as on computers, allowing for larger class sizes and fewer teachers.
Chubb, a former Stanford University professor, said technology lets kids learn at their own pace, provides multimedia opportunities and allows for quick feedback on whether a student understands a lesson.
Teachers, of course, disagree that they are resistant to change.
“I find teachers really open to doing new things and using (technology) as a tool to enhance learning, and we can get more information into the brains of students quicker,” said Erika Derrick, a Cedar Rapids Washington High School math and English teacher.
She cites as an example a student with Asperger syndrome whose test scores shifted from the 16th percentile to the 72nd percentile after one year of computer-based math.
John Achrazoglou, director of the Education Technology Center at the University of Iowa, said teachers can get set in their ways, but they’re willing to change if shown the benefits of technology. A new generation of teachers will help do that, he said.
He’s looking beyond laptops to handheld wireless devices, like smartphones.
“I see wireless and these small devices; they will break down that barrier and incorporate some of these modern strategies of self-paced, self-directed instruction, investigative problem-solving strategies,” he said.