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November 1, 1997

Rethinking How to Invest in Technology

With "distributed learning" and reconfigured budgets, school districts can transform technological innovations into universal improvements in education in a way that is both affordable and sustainable.
As the articles in this issue of Educational Leadership document, new technology-based models of teaching and learning have the power to dramatically improve educational outcomes. An important question is, How can districts scale up scattered, successful "islands of innovation" into universal improvements in schooling?
Such improvements can take place only within the larger context of systemic reform—sustained, large-scale, simultaneous innovations in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, professional development, administration, incentives, and partnerships for learning among schools, businesses, homes, and community settings. Systemic reform requires policies and practices different from fostering pilot projects for small-scale educational improvement. As it relates to technology-based improvements in education, systemic reform involves at least two major shifts: (1) rethinking the organization of learning to include the possibility of "distributed learning"—the use of information technologies outside the school setting to enhance classroom activities; and (2) moving from using special, external resources to reconfiguring existing budgets to free up money for innovation. Before undertaking these shifts, however, schools should consider some underlying concerns.

Moving Beyond Naive Conceptions

Giving all students continuous access to computers with Internet connections and multimedia capabilities is currently quite fashionable. For politicians, the Internet in every classroom has become the modern equivalent of the promised "chicken in every pot." Communities are urging volunteers to participate in "Net Days" to wire the schools. Information technology vendors are offering special programs to encourage massive educational purchases. States are setting aside substantial amounts of money for building information infrastructures dedicated to instructional usage.
As an educational technologist, I am more dismayed than delighted by how this enthusiasm about the Internet is being expressed. Some of my nervousness comes from the "first-generation" thinking about information technology that underlies these visions. Many people see multimedia-capable, Internet-connected computers as magical devices, silver bullets to solve the problems of schools. They assume that teachers and administrators who use new media are automatically more effective than those who do not. They envision classroom computers as a technology comparable to fire: Students benefit just by sitting near these devices, as knowledge and skills radiate from the monitors into their minds.
Yet decades of experience with technological innovations based on first-generation thinking have demonstrated that this viewpoint is misguided. Unless other simultaneous innovations occur in pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, and school organization, the time and effort expended on instructional technology produce few improvements in educational outcomes—a result that reinforces many educators' cynicism about fads based on magical machines.
Additional concerns about attempts to supply every student with continuous access to high-performance computing and communications technology relate to the likely cost of this massive investment. Depending on the assumptions made about the technological capabilities involved, estimates of the financial resources needed for such an information infrastructure vary (Coley et al. 1997). Extrapolating the most detailed cost model (McKinsey and Company 1995) to one multimedia-capable, Internet-connected computer for every two to three students yields a price tag of about $94 billion of initial investment and $28 billion per year in ongoing costs—a financial commitment that would drain schools of all discretionary funding for at least a decade.
For several reasons, this is an impractical approach for improving education. First, putting this money into computers and cables is too large an investment in just one part of the infrastructure improvements that many schools desperately need. Buildings are falling apart, furnishings are dilapidated, playgrounds are in disrepair. If these needs are ignored, the machines will cease to function, as their surroundings deteriorate. Also, educational researchers and developers need substantial funding for other types of innovations required to make instructional hardware effective, such as standards-based curricular materials for the World Wide Web and alternative kinds of pedagogy that link teachers and tools. (The McKinsey cost estimates do include some funding for content development and staff training, but in my judgment it is too little to enable effective technology integration and systemic reform.)
Second, without substantial and extended professional development in the innovative models of teaching and learning that instructional technology makes possible, many educators will not use these devices to their full potential. "Second-generation" thinking in educational technology does not see computers as magical, but it does make the mistake of focusing on automation as their fundamental purpose. It envisions computers as empowering "teaching by telling" and "learning by listening." In this view, the computer serves only as a fire hose that sprays information from the Internet into learners' minds. Even without educational technology, classrooms are already drowning in data. Adding additional information, even with multimedia bells and whistles, is likely to worsen rather than improve educational settings. Professional development needs are more complex than increasing educators' technical literacy (training in how to use Web browsers, for example). They involve building teachers' knowledge and skills in alternative types of pedagogy and content. Such an increase in human capabilities requires substantial funding that will be unavailable if almost all resources are put into hardware.
Third, the continuing costs of maintaining and upgrading a massive infusion of school-based technology are prohibitive. High-performance computing and communications systems require high-tech skills to remain operational, and, moreover, they will become obsolete in five to seven years as information technology continues its rapid advance. Taxpayers now see computers as similar to chalkboards: Buy them once, and they are inexpensively in place for the lifetime of the school. School boards quickly become restive at sizable yearly expenditures for technology maintenance and usage—especially if, several months after installation, standardized test scores have (unsurprisingly) not yet dramatically risen—and they will become apoplectic if the replacement of obsolete equipment consumes additional substantial sums only a few years after a huge initial expenditure. For all these reasons, investing an exorbitant amount in information infrastructures for schools is impractical and invites a later backlash against educational technology as yet another failed fad.
I would go further, however, and argue that we should not make such an investment even if a technology fairy were to leave billions under our virtual pillows, no strings attached. Kids continuously working on machines with teachers wandering around coaching the confused is the wrong model for the classroom of the future. In that situation—just as in classrooms with no technology—too much instructional activity tends to center on presentation and motivation, building a foundation of ideas and skills as well as some context that helps students understand why they should care about learning the material. Yet this temporary interest and readiness to master curricular material rapidly fade when no time is left for reflection and application, as teachers and students move on to the next required topic in the overcrowded curriculum, desperately trying to meet all the standards and prepare for the tests.
Helping students make sense out of something they have assimilated but do not yet understand is crucial for inducing learning that is retained and generalized, much research documents (Schank and Jona 1991). Learners must engage in reflective discussion of shared experiences from multiple perspectives if they are to convert information into knowledge and master the collaborative creation of meaning and purpose (Edelson et al. 1996).
But what if much of the presentation and motivation that is foundational for learning occurred outside of classroom settings, via information technologies that are part of home and workplace and community contexts? What if students arrived at school already imbued with some background and motivation, ripe for guided inquiry, ready for interpretation and collaborative construction of knowledge? By diverting from classroom settings some of the burden of presenting material and inducing motivation, learning activities that use the technology infrastructure outside of schools would reduce the amount of money needed for adequate levels of classroom-based technology. Such a strategy also would enable teachers to focus on students' interpretation and expressive articulation without feeling obligated to use technology in every step of the process.

Putting Disturbed Learning to Work

Distributed learning involves orchestrating educational activities among classrooms, workplaces, homes, and community settings (Dede 1996). This pedagogical strategy models for students that learning is a part of all aspects of life—not just schooling—and that people adept at learning use many types of information tools scattered throughout our everyday context. Such an educational approach can also build partnerships for learning between teachers and families, activating a powerful lever for increasing student performance.
A district that exemplifies this model of distributed learning is Union City, New Jersey. This district emphasizes integrating Internet resources into the curriculum, as well as giving students skills in authoring techniques and design principles for building World Wide Web resources. As part of the learning process, students create Web sites that provide information about various local government agencies and social service organizations, including the public housing authority, the mayor's office, and a day-care provider. The school district also sponsors a Parent University to facilitate parental involvement. Parent University's evening learning experiences in schools help families and taxpayers understand investments in educational technology as one vital part of the district's extensive educational reform process. The Parent University partnerships are reinforced by electronic newsletters, by computers in public libraries used to teach basic skills to adults, and by School Improvement Teams that give participants a voice in shaping schools' policies and innovations.
A partnership between Bell Atlantic-New Jersey and the school district has aided the district's efforts by expanding the community's telecommunications connections. Among other things, the partnership has provided students and teachers with computers at both home and school to link the two learning environments and allow communication via e-mail. In addition, technology-based instructional materials funded by the National Science Foundation that emphasize student inquiry projects in community settings also are helping educational reform in Union City. Locally developed Web-based curriculums also address the specific needs of this urban, ethnically diverse, low-income locality.
The district has dramatically improved its student learning outcomes through this model of distributed learning. Specific outcomes include significantly higher standardized test scores, improved writing and research skills, and decreased absenteeism.
Even without a sophisticated infrastructure, readily accessible new media can facilitate large-scale educational innovation. People are spending lots of money on devices purchased for entertainment and information services: televisions, videotape players, computers, Web TV, videogames. Many of the underlying technologies are astonishingly powerful and inexpensive: The Nintendo 64 machine available now for a couple hundred dollars is the equivalent of a graphics supercomputer that cost several hundred thousand dollars a decade ago. What if these devices—many of them common in rich and poor homes, urban and rural areas—were also used for educational purposes? For example, videogame players are widely available in poor households and provide a sophisticated but inexpensive computational platform for learning—if we develop better content than the mindless material that constitutes most videogames. My research in virtual reality illustrates how multisensory, immersive virtual environments could be used to help students learn complex scientific concepts on computational platforms as commonplace as the videogames of the next decade.
Districts can leverage their scarce resources for innovation, as well as implement more effective educational models, by using information devices outside of classrooms to create learning environments that complement school-based technology. The question remains, however: How can schools afford enough computer and telecommunications technology to sustain new models of teaching and learning and curriculum essential for systemic reform?

Finding the Dollars

In the past, money for technology improvements has come largely from special external sources: grants, community donations, bond initiatives. To be sustainable over the long run, however, resources for technology must come from reallocating existing budgets by reducing other types of expenditures. Of course, those groups whose resources are cut resist such shifts in financing, and district administrators and school boards have been reluctant to take on the political challenges of changing how money is spent. An easy way to kill educational innovations is to declare that of course they will be implemented—as long as no existing activities must be curtailed to fund new approaches.
Educational organizations are unique, however, in demanding that technology implementation be accomplished via add-on funding. Other institutions—factories, hospitals, retail outlets, and banks, for example—recognize that the power of information devices stems in part from their ability to reconfigure employee roles and organizational functioning. These establishments use the power of technology to alter their standard practices, so that the cost of computers and communications is funded by improvements in effectiveness within the organization, by doing more with less. If educators were to adopt this model—reallocating existing resources to fund technology implementation—what types of expenditures would drop so that existing funds could cover the costs of computers and communications?
Visions presented in the forthcoming 1998 ASCD yearbook (Dede and Palumbo, in press) depict how altered configurations of human resources, instructional modalities, and organizational structures could result in greater effectiveness for comparable costs—even with the acquisition of substantial school-based technology. This case is also made at greater length in Riel (1995) and in Hunter and Goldberg (1995). One specific example would involve a reordering of roles. Currently teachers all have comparable roles with similar pay structures—unlike other societal organizations, which have complementary staff roles with a mix of skill levels and salaries.
In the commercial sector, these types of institutional shifts too often result in layoffs. Because of the coming wave of retirements among educators, however, districts have a window of opportunity to accomplish structural changes without major adverse impacts on employees. As large numbers of baby boom educators leave the profession, a concurrent process of organizational restructuring could occur. Coordinating technology expenditures as an integral part of that larger framework for institutional evolution is vital as districts plan for the future. Using technology to implement new types of content and pedagogy attracts a new generation of teachers with a broad range of skills and knowledge that instructional media can complement.

Thinking Differently

Technology-based systemic reform is hard in part because our ways of thinking about implementation are often flawed. Large-scale educational innovation will never be easy, but it can be less difficult if we go beyond our implicit assumptions about teaching, learning, technology, schooling, and society. The conceptual framework of distributed learning, coupled with reconfigured budgets, is not a blueprint for universal educational improvement based on information technology—no one yet has such a recipe—but it is a vision that is affordable, generalizable, and sustainable. By balancing investments in advanced technology with investments in sophisticated curriculum, assessments, and eduators—in and out of school—we can successfully prepare children for the tremendous challenges of the 21st century.

Coley, R.J., J. Cradler, and P.K. Engel. (1997). Computers and Classrooms: The Status of Technology in U.S. Schools. Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service.

Dede, C. (1996). "Emerging Technologies and Distributed Learning." American Journal of Distance Education 10, 2: 4-36.

Dede, C., and D. Palumbo, eds. (in press). Learning with Technology. The 1998 ASCD Yearbook. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Edelson, D.C., R.D. Pea, and L.M. Gomez. (1996). "Constructivism in the Collaboratory." In Constructivist Learning Environments: Case Studies in Instructional Design, edited by B. Wilson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications.

Hunter, B., and B. Goldberg. (1995). "Learning and Teaching in 2004: The BIG DIG." In Education and Technology: Future Visions (OTA-BP-EHR-169), edited by the Office of Technology Assessment. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

McKinsey and Company. (1995). Connecting K–12 Schools to the Information Superhighway. Palo Alto, Calif.: McKinsey and Company.

Riel, M. (1995). "The Future of Teaching." In Education and Technology: Future Visions (OTA-BP-EHR-169), edited by the Office of Technology Assessment. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Schank, R.C., and M.Y. Jona. (1991). "Empowering the Student: New Perspectives on the Design of Teaching Systems." The Journal of Learning Sciences 1, 1: 7-35.

End Notes

1 Readers can view the city's Web site ( for further information.

2 For more information, see the Web site for Project ScienceSpace (

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