Today's students can't live without technology, so schools must catch up with their digital dexterity.
By Bruce Westbrook
Textbooks. Overhead projectors. Such was "technology" in baby boomer classrooms.
Now everything's changed. "Devices such as desktop [computers], laptops and other Internet-enabled devices are now becoming much more common in K-12," says Keith Krueger, CEO of the nonprofit Consortium for School Networking in Washington, D.C. "Nationally, we have about one computer for every four or five students."
More students are living in a digital world. "Schools must speak to them in their own language," says Doug Adams, senior project manager at Advanced Learning Technologies in Education Consortium, a nonprofit organization housed at the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
In the '80s, students learned technical skills such as typing on computers at school, Adams says. "But the millennial generation knows computers before starting school. Schools must adapt to that."
Wake-up call: For grades K-12, the United States spends $6 billion annually on classroom technology. And that's only 1.5 percent of the $400 billion invested in K-12. Such spending has stayed flat for several years.
"When the U.S. Department of Commerce ranked 55 industry sectors for IT-intensity, education was ranked last at No. 55," Krueger says. "Education is less technology-intensive than coal mining, especially when high-growth jobs are technology-intensive."
"The biggest challenge we face is not budgets or technology. The biggest challenge is human," says Krueger. "Educators and policymakers must rethink what they're trying to do with education and how technology enables us to improve teaching and learning," he says. "We need to rethink how we spend our limited educational funds."
Schools have started to outfit classrooms with technology such as laptops, digital projectors, personal digital assistants (PDAs), Global Positioning Systems (for taking measurements on field trips), and virtual classrooms.
"It's an exciting time to be a student, except where schools are lagging behind in technology," Adams says. "When that's the case, some students get more work done at home." Students are leading schools to technology, not the other way around.
Beyond laptops, many schools are experimenting with smaller devices such as BlackBerrys, Adams says. Students can use them during class or check them out.
PDAs range from $100 to $500. Costlier are digital projectors, which are the No. 1 item teachers request, according to Adams. With demand, prices have dropped from more than $1,000 to the $600-range.
Also sought are interactive electronic "white boards" used with projectors. Costs range from $1,000 to $1,800.
"Another big thing schools can buy is digital or video cameras," Adams says. "Many teachers are experimenting with Web cameras connecting classrooms for language and cross-cultural programs. And $100 gets you a good Web camera with microphone and speakers."
Audio amplification systems will become more popular, says Melinda Stanley, educational technology specialist for the Kansas Department of Education. She also anticipates more online streaming video-on-demand, as opposed to DVDs.
Most of today's technology has been created for business or entertainment purposes and must be adapted to fit schools' needs, Krueger says.
Intel has customized an Intel-powered "classmate PC" for students. Arriving by year's end, it will be lightweight and rugged and cost $230 to $300.
Krueger says schools also must explore appropriate educational use of technologies that engage kids, such as social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. "While most social networking is now banned by schools, educators should explore how we can use these collaborative environments for learning."
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