Don't get stuck in Edu 2010

A literal adoption of the National Education Technology Plan could undermine future tech use.

Business entered the computer age in the 1980s. Every department had at least one computer, often more. Laborious tasks such as collecting, tabulating, and representing data were completed in an instant by modern applications such as Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase III. We began to infuse the workplace with more and more computers, dazzled by the productivity gains we were about to realize. But dramatic gains never came from just automating our existing work processes; they materialized when we transformed the way we worked. When real-time information allowed us to virtually eliminate inventory through just-in-time delivery. When we learned to collaborate across time zones and geographies. When we began to become productive in “snippets of time” thanks to e-mail in our pockets. When real-time access to information and communication enabled teams to self-organize and take ownership rather than wait for instructions to flow down the low-bandwidth, noisy and lossy channels of hierarchical communication.

In many ways, education technology is today where business was thirty years ago. Almost no one questions the promise of always-available computing and broadband connections yet we are puzzled when infusing the schoolhouse with more and more computers doesn’t always yield dramatic gains. As with business, education will see the radical impact when we move from automating existing processes to transforming the way we teach and learn. When real-time information on student progress will allow just-in-time delivery of the right lesson. When students become productive in “snippets of time” thanks to on-line learning tools in their pockets. When real-time access to information and communication enable students to collaborate, research, peer review, and mentor each other rather than only waiting for information to flow down the low-bandwidth, noisy, and lossy channel of one-size-fits-all lectures.

The National Education Technology Plan (pdf) gets to the heart of this, calling for “revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering.” The plan outlines models and specific recommendations for learning, assessment, teaching, infrastructure, and productivity. It offers the U.S. Department of Education a vivid sketch of education powered by technology and shaped by the learning sciences. A careful read reveals a deeply informed picture of teaching and learning that is both aspirational and achievable and that is grounded in the most current capabilities that technology has to offer.

But technology can offer more.

In the last decade, the technology investments we made in computer literacy were largely variations on shared computer labs with desktop computers hard-wired to the Internet. More recently, some schools that can afford it have started providing a wireless laptop for each student (1:1 laptop programs). This learning experience is different in kind, not just degree, from limited hours spent in a computer lab. But it requires a whole different infrastructure — more robust WiFi on campus, for example — and re-architected systems that don’t lose student work when the connection goes down. Consequently, much of the innovative work developed for the computer lab model doesn’t translate to the 1:1 laptop model and needs to be either drastically modified or recreated at great expense and effort.

Today a few schools are beginning to experiment with technologies alluded to in the National Education Technology Plan: cloud-based services accessed by connected devices such as cell phones and laptops with mobile broadband modems. Once again, the learning experience changes in kind, not just degree, and once again the requirements on the infrastructure change, requiring re-architected systems that support devices that move across networks and are sensitive to bandwidth usage. In the business world we went through a two-stage process: first we reinvented our processes as we moved to a wired computer experience, then we transformed again as we went to using always-on, always-connected mobile devices. In education, we have the opportunity to leapfrog that intermediate step.

The plan envisions:

… a model of an infrastructure for learning [that] is always on, available to students, educators, and administrators regardless of their location or the time of day. It supports not just access to information, but access to people and participation in online learning communities. It offers a platform on which developers can build and tailor applications.

The plan also points out that both the learning sciences and technology will continue to evolve. With investments being made now in education that may not be repeated for decades, the challenge presented to technology is one of developing platforms that will not require massive tech do-overs and reinvestment as new technologies come on line.

What will happen if we merely implement current technology as a one-off investment? Will additional networks (such as peer-to-peer, personal area networks, and body area networks) soon require re-architecting the applications and services about to be developed for traditional cloud and mobile device environments? Will breakthroughs in assessment, analytics, and data visualization require re-writing content and curriculum to capture data? Will newly re-developed back-end data systems need to be thrown out and recreated from scratch to support that data capture? Will trends toward using student-owned devices in school quickly require a complete rethinking of privacy and security?

The National EdTech Plan aspires to bring together the best of what we know of teaching and learning with the very best technology has to offer in 2010, yet we can be certain that technology will offer even more in 2012, 2015, and 2020. A literal interpretation of the plan could end up doing no more than codifying the best practices and technologies of 2010. Is it possible, instead, to codify the spirit of the plan and implement the technology infrastructures that will allow education as a platform to drive innovation for decades to come?

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