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April 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 7

Teacher-in-Residence at the White House

Decisions made at the highest levels about use of technology will ultimately play out in the schools.

In February 1993, President Clinton and Vice President Gore issued a new plan designed to guide America's use of technology. One of the plan's initiatives is to “improve technology for education and training.” Ed Fitzsimmons was invited to manage this initiative in the Executive Office of the President. Ed, in turn, asked me, his neighbor and a high school teacher, to join him for the summer as a voice “from the foxholes.” So began my summer as a “Teacher in Residence,” an experience that has given me an invaluable perspective on how decisions made at the highest levels about use of technology will ultimately play out in schools.
For me, it was a summer full of wonder. I was given time to work with many new technologies that have the potential to change learning. For example, the ability to unify text, graphic, video, and audio data into seamless, multidimensional formats will forever alter the way we communicate, and thus the way we think, learn, and teach. Multimedia software, with its capabilities to merge text, audio, and video, will make obsolete the lecturer's reliance on slides or overhead projector, and it will invite students to explore better ways to convey information.
Some of the most compelling demonstrations I saw utilized “virtual environments.” Already in use by the military, these environments will ultimately permit learners from far-flung locations to come together to conduct experiments, crawl around inside a strain of DNA, manipulate the ecology of a pond, and so on. One project, for example, used the military's networks to give teams of students in four high schools around the world an opportunity to redesign the Wright Brothers' plane. They then simultaneously raced their models along the same virtual course. Virtual reality is destined to change the very idea of school.
Moreover, the ability of users to access digital information at the touch of a button demands new approaches to the problem of infoglut. Educators must help students navigate this information superhighway.

Will Schools Adapt?

The pressing question is whether American education can adapt to changes made possible by technology. Unless we are willing to confront substantial barriers, the answer is No! Economics, politics, our organizational structure, and the culture in and around schools combine to erect a formidable bulwark against change. If history is any guide, we'll tinker around the —s, layer some equipment purchases on top of a few minor curriculum changes, and then we'll try to sell ourselves and the public on the success of our modest efforts.
If real change is to occur, the first challenge is to build the political consensus necessary to invest a greater share of our Gross Domestic Product in education. At this time, many seem convinced that technology will save money by making teachers more productive (for example, by increasing class size). However, the changes in teaching I envision, in which teachers move from being the “sage on the stage” to a facilitator of student exploration, will increase the need for investment in equipment, staff development, and teachers. We as educators need to build coalitions to fight for this greater investment.
In addition, we need to think carefully about whether the current curriculum and school day are well suited to taking advantage of promising new technologies. The “classroom model” inherited from the Agrarian Age—direct instruction in separate subjects—has little place in the Information Age, where learning becomes more team- and project-oriented and is less divisible along disciplinary lines. Yet, our typical schedule and educational organization have survived the Industrial Age without significant alteration. Will they be equally resistant to the changes required by the Information Age?
One reason for the resilience of these two organizational features is that they help us accomplish one of our primary missions, which is to account for students during the day and assure their safety. Indeed, most of our resources are dedicated to this mission. If we're ever to effectively use Information Age technology, however, teachers need more time to learn and experiment unencumbered by the demands of having to supervise students.
One attitude I hear expressed repeatedly is that teachers are disinterested in technology and reluctant to change. This attitude reflects the fact that few people who haven't taught for a sustained period have any appreciation for the amount of time and energy that must be devoted to accounting for students and delivering instruction, and consequently how little time is available to do anything else. Training for technology simply can't be done on the fly or after hours.

A Coordinated Effort

Clearly, both the federal and local governments have roles to play to improve the odds that schools will begin to take better advantage of new technologies. Besides his technology-for- education initiative, President Clinton has established the National Science and Technology Council to provide better coordination for federal technology policy. The Department of Education is gaining credibility and a new sense of purpose under Secretary Richard Riley. And groups from the education, school-to-work, training, and industry communities have joined in a National Coordinating Committee for Technology in Education and Training. This project, which I had a chance to work on during my summer residency, will disseminate timely information and build coalitions to support educational technology.
Fundamentally, however, all education is local. Our success or failure in applying Information Age technology to education is in the hands of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the 15,000 school boards, and the teachers and administrators at our 110,000 elementary and secondary schools. It is they who must garner the support and resources to: (1) build ramps from schools to the information highway; (2) construct local area networks within schools; (3) obtain hardware, software, and technical support; (4) reorganize the school day to provide greater flexibility; and (5) provide time for teams of teachers to learn, experiment, and network with one another. Our children and grandchildren depend on them.
End Notes

1 The Clinton-Gore plan, “Technology for America's Economic Growth, A New Direction to Build Economic Strength,” was issued on February 22, 1993.

John Driscoll has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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