Friday, January 07, 2005

Technology in Schools

It’s become almost a cliché, businessmen and women darting around all over the country carrying there tiny notebook computers, cell phones, and personal digital assistants. Then there are the kids. It’s long been known that young people tend to assimilate technology into their lives better than their parents.

Most businesses incorporate computers and technology into nearly every aspect of their daily workings, and today’s employees know they must adapt or seek employment in what few low-tech fields remain.

Unfortunately, there is one American business that remains far behind the average in making use of computers and technology. It’s the business of education.

A government report says that schools lag far behind much of society in incorporating technology. Education secretary Rod Paige said that training and understanding about how computers can be used to help students is still lacking.

In the National Education Technology Plan, Paige said, “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.”

Nearly all American schools are connected to the Internet. But many teachers still lack the skills necessary to incorporate it into their daily lesson plans, or in using it to communicate with parents.

Colleges are ahead of elementary and secondary schools in the assimilation of technology into the daily flow of information. For example, Franklin College is well wired. It uses the Internet, or its own intranet, to facilitate nearly every aspect of campus business.

Professors still teach students face to face in the classroom, of course. But the Internet is used to make assignments, give and grade tests, distribute grades, and communicate with students when they’re not in class. Students, in turn, use campus computers or their own computers connected to the campus network to research their assignments, write their reports, and submit them to their instructors.

For at least the last 10 years, it has been technologically possible to almost eliminate paper from the classroom. But in that period of time, the use of paper has actually increased. E-mail is used more and more to facilitate communication between teachers and administrators. But, teachers find it hard to let go of paper documents. The first thing many of them do when they receive an e-mail is to print it out on paper.

Indianapolis Public Schools introduced its IPS Online system this year. It is an integrated online system that allows teachers to keep track of daily attendance, grades, and reports. It can be used to communicate with parents and to post assignments.

Yet the only thing it is typically used for is to keep track of attendance. Few teachers and administrators use the more powerful features of the system.

Ideally, computer technology could be used to replace bulky textbooks and student notebooks. Teachers could issue all classroom assignments via the school’s network. Students and parents could access these assignments at home, where the students could complete them and submit them to be graded, all without paper.

Schools often say they lack the money for technology and training, but the government report essentially rejects that idea. Money for technology can come from reallocating existing budgets and basing all spending decisions on whether they support learning.

It seems logical that the institutions charged with providing the best education possible to America’s youth would be ahead of the curve in matters of technology. Ironically, they are behind the students they teach in many cases.

A few schools are meeting the challenge. A handful of schools are now replacing printed textbooks with laptop computers containing the digital counterparts. Some schools are even issuing laptop computers to all students in the system.

Eventually, it will be commonplace for students to be issued laptops instead of textbooks. Teachers will no longer use blackboards or overhead projectors; they will use electronic drawing pads, capable of sending information directly to the student’s computer. And all assignments will be made and graded online. Communication among faculty, parents, and administrators will be done online.

Unfortunately, all that should be commonplace by now. Technologically, most schools are about 10 years behind where they ought to be.

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