WE walk around with computers in our pockets. At a moment's notice, you can find the address of the nearest Chinese restaurant, learn whether snow is in tomorrow's forecast, or get a reminder of how to calculate circumference in case of a geometry memory failure.
The truth is we don't generally have an urgent need for all of the information now at our fingertips. We have, however, come to expect it. As they always have, schools are playing a furious game of catch-up, trying to figure out how to harness the power of technology to improve student learning.
Patrons of Putnam City Public Schools will vote next month on a $6 million bond issue dedicated exclusively to technology. If approved, the district plans to buy 10,000 iPads for distribution across the district. The money also would pay for technology for special-needs students and projection equipment for some schools.
The bond proposal follows a privately funded effort last year to provide iPads and related teacher training to some of the district's fifth-grade classrooms. The effort got rave reviews from teachers.
Tulsa Public Schools may not be far behind in putting forth a technology-centered bond issue. A survey of teachers rated the district's technology as “less than acceptable” while describing the importance of classroom technology as “very important” for student achievement. Teachers responded they want Internet access for all classroom computers, a printer/copier/fax/scanner, an iPad for each teacher; a laptop for each student desk or table, and electronic textbooks.
Tulsa teachers are concerned the district is lagging its suburban counterparts in technology. A committee is using the survey feedback in formulating a bond proposal.
“I have long suspected that there are growing disparities in the availability of technology resources at TPS when compared with neighboring school districts. Our students will pay a heavy price if we don't do something to catch up,” Tulsa schools Superintendent Keith Ballard said. “With the right tools, I believe our teachers can leverage classroom technology to improve student performance and substantially improve achievement.”
Bond issues for technology have inherent challenges. Technology is fast changing and can easily become outdated even before a five-year bond issue is paid off. Parents and taxpayers also understand that technology is a tool, not a panacea, for improved student learning.
The effectiveness of such tools relies heavily on a teacher's ability and commitment to integrating technology into instruction in a compelling and relevant way. Even more important is whether the teacher is an effective educator regardless of the tools available. The teachers who are already at the top of their profession will no doubt present compelling lessons with the technology. But where does that leave students with less-capable teachers?
Ballard's concern about a digital gap is valid. Inner-city children already have significant challenges to overcome compared with their suburban peers. A digital divide in the classroom shouldn't be one of those challenges, but we fear the gap will only widen for students with technology-averse teachers.
School districts are often criticized for their antiquated ways. They must invest in technology to make classrooms real-world places of learning. Still, taxpayers shouldn't be afraid to pose the tough questions as they are asked to pay for this technology, including how school districts plan to maintain the investment, how they'll make sure teachers are prepared to make the best use of the technology and how students will be the main beneficiaries.