Thursday, January 1, 2009

Role of Technology as Infrastructure for Schools

We are excited and optimistic about the New Year. It will be a time of great challenges as well as critical transitions and important debates about the future of education in this country. The emerging proposal for a massive stimulus package gives reason both for optimism and caution. Thus far the package has included repairing school buildings, improving their broadband connections, and bringing in more technology.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), of which Empirical Education is a member and long time supporter, advocates for technology for schools. In an article entitled “Why Obama Can’t Ignore Ed Tech”, Jim Goodnight, founder and CEO of SAS, and Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, argue for investing in education technology as a way to support “21st century learning” while creating jobs in the technology and telecommunications sectors. They also suggest that the investment will lead school districts to hire staff members specializing in technical and technology curricula, a function they note as currently being “vastly understaffed.”

As a research organization, we have to maintain a cautious attitude about claims, such as those in the CoSN article, that technology products will reduce discipline problems and dropout rates generally. We do agree that an investment in school technology will call for increased staffing—that is, creating jobs—which is the primary goal of the stimulus package.

But we believe there is a better argument for an investment in technical infrastructure. Network and data warehouse technologies inherently provide the mechanisms for measuring whether the investments are making a difference. Combined with online formative testing, automatic generation of usage data, and analytic tools, these technologies will put schools in a position to keep technology accountable for promised results. Using technology as a tool for tracking results of the stimulus package will, of course, create jobs. It will call for the creation of additional positions for data coaches, data analysts, trainers, and staff to handle the test administration, data cleaning, and communication functions.

The fear that a stimulus package will just throw money at the problem is justified. Yes, it will provide jobs and benefits to certain industries in the short term, whereas any lasting improvement may be elusive. While building a new bridge employs construction workers and the lasting benefit can be measured, for example, by improved traffic, the lasting benefits of school technology may seem more subtle. We would argue, to the contrary, that a technology infrastructure for schools contains its own mechanism for accountability. The argument for school technology should drive home the notion that schools can be capable of determining whether the stimulus investment is having an impact on learning, discipline, graduation rates, and other measurable outcomes. Policy makers will not have to depend on promises of new forms of learning when they can put in place a technology infrastructure that provides school decision-makers with the information about whether the investment is making a difference. —DN