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Fall 2011 | Volume 17 | Number 3
Meeting the Goals of the National Education Technology Plan

Can Your School Meet the Goals of the National Education Technology Plan?

Willona Sloan

Working from the assumption that the majority of students own and use technology—including computers and mobile technology such as cell phones, iPods, iPads, and e-book readers—and that they will need to use technology in college and in their careers, the U.S. Department of Education promotes the integration of such technology into the classroom experience as part of the new normal for day-to-day teaching and learning.

The National Education Technology Plan 2010 (NETP) is a five-year plan that outlines the Department of Education's goals and objectives for technology use in U.S. schools. The department's goals are lofty, exciting, and well-intentioned, but the NETP seems less like a plan and more like a wish list for cash-strapped schools that are struggling to support the technology programs they already have, to provide access to kids stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide, and to create more efficient schools by using fewer resources.

A Five-Point Plan

NETP is organized around five areas: learning, assessment, teaching, infrastructure, and productivity.

Learning: Engage and Empower

The plan calls for "engaging and empowering learning experiences for all learners" (U.S. Department of Education, 2010, p. x). The NETP recommends that schools use technology to "motivate and inspire all students, regardless of background, languages, and disabilities to help them achieve" (p. x) and to create personalized learning experiences that focus on the development of 21st century skills in every content area and that are continuous, inside and outside of the school's walls.

Assessment: Measure What Matters

With the upcoming implementation of the common core state standards in most of the United States, there is a strong push to develop technology-based assessments. Also, the U.S. Department of Education (2010) says schools should use technology-based formative and summative assessments to diagnose and modify the "conditions of learning and instructional practices while determining what students have learned for grading and accountability practices" (p. xi). But the NETP offers little guidance regarding best practices and suggests the onus be placed on schools to find the most effective ways to use technology for assessments.

Teaching: Prepare and Connect

Connected teachers engage in collaborative activities in online learning communities; they engage with teachers around the world and with subject-matter experts. They tap into the endless stream of resources and tools available online. The U.S. Department of Education (2010) asserts that a revolutionized education system requires that every teacher be a connected teacher.

The NETP acknowledges that there is a skills gap in K–12 schools and at the college level, but it says educators must be brought up to speed with high-quality professional development.

"Many of our existing educators do not have the same understanding of and ease with using technology that is part of the daily lives of professionals in other sectors," says the NETP (2010, p. xii). But this knowledge gap cannot stop schools from creating connected communities of learning, which will require innovation at all levels of the educational system, especially at the preservice level, the NETP says.

Infrastructure: Access and Enable

An infrastructure for learning "integrates computer hardware…and connects and supports interdisciplinary teams of professionals responsible for its development, maintenance, and management and its use in transformative approaches to teaching and learning," says the U.S. Department of Education (2010, p. xiii).

The NETP recommends states and districts "ensure students and educators have broadband access to the Internet and adequate wireless connectivity both in and out of school" (p. xix) for accessing the Internet and technology-based learning resources. The NETP defines "adequate" as having the ability to use the Internet, high-bandwidth resources, multimedia tools, and collaborative environments in school, on the surrounding campus, throughout the community, and at home.

On top of the bandwidth issue—which is not easily resolved—is the issue of access to technology itself. The NETP recommends that states and districts "ensure that every student and educator has at least one Internet access device and appropriate software and resources for research, communication, multimedia content creation, and collaboration for use in and out of school…. [T]hese devices may be owned by the student or family, owned by the school, or some combination of the two. The use of devices owned by students will require advances in network filtering and improved support systems" (p. xix).

Productivity: Redesign and Transform

Overall, the NETP is more than just a plan about using technology in instruction; instead, the plan really calls for a complete rethinking of the traditional education system. The NETP encourages reevaluating ideas such as seat-time requirements, age-determined grouping, the separation of academic disciplines, and the organization of classes into groups that are roughly the same size and working at the same pace.

What Are the Benefits of Meeting the NETP Goals?

Through technology, schools can provide a wider selection of course offerings and give students access to subject-matter experts, historical documents, research information, and interactive activities. Some schools also use online and blended learning for credit recovery as well as to extend learning for more advanced students.

Teachers in well-connected schools can use technology to aggregate and manage student data; participate in online professional development and professional learning communities; and work collaboratively with students, parents, and other educators both locally and globally.

While educators understand the potential benefits of using technology in the classroom, though, some have concerns about how to best use technology in lessons. One thing is for sure: simply adding a mobile device to a poorly designed lesson doesn't improve that lesson. Sound teaching practices still matter.

Technology is a tool that can enhance a teacher's practice and deliver rich content, but it doesn't make questionable practices more engaging or more effective. Educators need to be purposeful when designing curricula that meet students' needs with or without the latest gadgets.

What Are the Challenges?

Funding, of course, as well as bandwidth and teacher training are the largest obstacles to meeting the NETP goals. But there are other issues to consider. One major concern is the plan's suggestion that students bring their own devices to school, presumably as a cheaper way to fund a 1:1 technology program. But, for several reasons, bring-your-own-device initiatives create a set of complex issues for schools as well as students.

Educators worry that allowing students to bring their own devices to school for personal use (as many schools are reluctant to allow), can lead to distraction, cyberbullying, and cheating. In addition, allowing kids to use their own devices for educational purposes requires more than just a smart teacher. Schools will need patient and omnipresent tech specialists to help support software, hardware, and other issues related to each individual device. Dealing with everything from user error to old equipment to corrupt software can create quite a headache for teachers—especially if their tech support has been eliminated.

Restrictive firewalls and district policies regarding Internet usage can also pose as obstacles. Before allowing students to bring their own devices to school, administrators must consider relevant legal issues, the educational benefits that students will gain, and the potential for great embarrassment for kids who bring outdated equipment or have nothing at all bring. What about kids who bring cell phones to a class filled with iPads? What then for these students? Also, students must purchase accessories and data plans and incur the long-term costs of subscriptions.

Another set of questions to consider: What are the school's responsibilities for personal devices, and what are the student's responsibilities for school-owned devices? What happens if equipment borrowed from the school is stolen, damaged, or corrupted? What cost would be put back on students who might not otherwise have had the means to own such devices? As technology becomes more integrated into every school, what can schools do to lessen the liability for families when accidents happen?

Bridging Both Digital Divides

Unfortunately, the NETP appears to make assumptions that ignore the persistent reality of the "digital divide." The digital divide once indicated a division between those who had access to technology—especially high-speed Internet—and those who did not, but now, experts say, the digital divide is actually more complicated than previously thought.

Data released by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that Americans in lower-income and rural areas have access to Internet connections; however, those connections are slower than is required to download web pages, photos, or videos, while wealthier neighborhoods have faster Internet connections (Kang, 2011). The study revealed that 5–10 percent of the nation's communities do not have access to a high-speed connection.

The Obama administration has made providing broadband access a priority, and the Commerce Department has undertaken a multiyear broadband map project to chart where connections are still lacking; however, even when such access is available, pricing can make such a basic service unattainable. See the infographic at left for a breakdown of the digital divide in the United States. To bridge the divide, many young people, particularly blacks and Hispanics, are now accessing the Internet through cell phones rather home computers where the Internet may not be available. Because of the high rates of cell phone usage, many experts assume that, across the board, access is no longer an issue and that young people understand and are proficient in the use of technology. This assumption masks a skill differential between youth who are consuming media and those who are producing it.

In a 2011 NPR interview, sociologist Craig Watkins discussed the emerging digital divide, saying that 15 years ago "when we used the term digital divide, we were talking largely about the question or the concern around access to technology…. [N]ow when we talk about it, I think it's less about access to technology and more about participation. That is, the quality of engagement, what people are doing with the technology they have access to" (NPR Staff, 2011, para. 7).

Watkins claims that the problem—the divide—comes when we look at what young people are doing with technology. According to Watkins, there are basically two kinds of young technology users: one group primarily uses technology to interact with their friends, while the second group uses the Internet to form online communities around interests, hobbies, and activities to create a type of learning ecology. Some young people use technology not only to consume content but also to create it and become the manufacturers and producers of their own information landscapes, which requires more advanced media literacy. There's a big difference between playing video games and designing them; sharing photos and doing digital photography; watching videos and creating them (NPR Staff, 2011).

How Comfortable Are Young People with Technology?

The Northwestern University report Children, Media, and Race: Media Use Among White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American Children (Rideout, Lauricella, & Wartella, 2011) breaks down the amount of time kids are spending consuming media for entertainment. According to the study, which surveyed 8- to 18-year-olds about their media use, white students consume media—which includes listening to music, watching TV, playing video games, using the computer, reading print, and going to the movies—8 hours and 36 minutes a day; blacks, 12:59; Hispanics, 13:00; and Asians 13:13. (Note: the totals do not reflect the actual amount of time per day that young people are devoting solely to media as some of the media usage includes simultaneous use of different media.)

With regards to how much kids are using technology for their schoolwork, the study found that across racial groups, children "spend far less time using the computer for schoolwork than for entertainment" (Rideout, Lauricella, & Wartella, 2011, p. 8).

While it is fair to say that the young people are using technology, it's not accurate to say they are all using technology at a high level to perform complex tasks.

Where's the Money?

Without funding from new streams, states, districts, and schools are going to find it difficult to create the bold innovation for which NETP calls. As it is, without the funding from the recently defunded federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program, many schools and districts struggle to support their technology programs, and more will fall off the funding cliff when the money from EETT dries up completely, according to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA, 2010).

Schools also rely on the funds from the E-Rate program, which provides discounts to assist schools and libraries in obtaining affordable telecommunications and Internet access. But to overhaul each school's tech plan requires new money. Schools are finding that tech funding is going to have to come through competitive federal grants, foundation grants, or partnerships, which is where the Education Department suggests they look.

Who Knows How to Use This Thing?

According to Project Tomorrow (2011), district administrators and principals say one of the biggest obstacles to acquiring, implementing, and maintaining the technology infrastructure in schools includes staff professional development. In the same survey, administrators noted that the biggest obstacle they saw to a bring-your-own-device program would be "lack of teacher skill in how to effectively leverage these devices within instruction" (Project Tomorrow, 2011, p. 9).

In an October 2010 survey conducted by the National School Boards Association (NSBA), more than 47 percent of the school leaders surveyed said providing professional development to help teachers effectively use technology posed the biggest challenge to tech integration in their schools. The leaders agreed that classroom technology has made students more engaged in learning (96 percent), and more than 60 percent said classroom technology has improved opportunities for students in special education classes (NSBA, 2010). Leaders see the benefits of greater technology usage, but they are facing the tough realities of funding such a program. The NSBA survey noted that in light of the current economic situation, school leaders had second thoughts about spending money on ramping up their technology offerings.

What Are We Trying to Accomplish?

Just having technological devices doesn't lead to greater educational gains, experts say.

"Instead of trying to find ways to integrate blogging, movie-making, and videoconferencing—or worse yet, Animoto, Skype, Wordle, or Voicethread—into our instruction, we need to spend our time and energy focusing on the kinds of essential skills that students can polish, explore, and master with the help of tech-driven learning experiences," says Bill Ferriter on the TLN: Teacher Leaders Network Blog (2011, para. 3).

Good teaching is based on sound practices regarding how students learn. Technology can enhance good teaching, but it doesn't become good teaching without an effective teacher. The real question isn't whether teachers can use technology, but rather what are they using it for? Are students being asked to do new things or address new challenges? And how does technology require teaching practices, instructional designs, and pedagogy to change?

The implementation of the common core state standards, as well as the development of technology-based high-stakes assessments, will make it necessary for students to learn to use technology to accomplish difficult tasks; however, without the proper federal support, U.S. schools are going to get further and further from NETP's goal of total tech integration.

Willona Sloan is a staff writer at ASCD and the project manager of the monthly newsletter, Education Update.


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