It’s a pretty loaded question, asking state public education officials for their thoughts on increasing technology in the schools...digital, wireless advances that in some instances appear to be revolutionizing the way kids are taught and the way kids process information and, subsequently, display that they’ve learned a thing or two.
Although the answers can run the gamut and get quite lengthy and meandering, maybe Darin King, director of the North Dakota Educational Technology Council at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, summed up the views of many in positions similar to his when posed with the question, is all this new technology a good thing?
“Yes,” he said. “It’s a good thing.”
In Minnesota, at the Minnesota Department of Education, increased technology in the schools is also looked upon in generally favorable fashion, with some caveats. For one, said Keith Hovis, deputy communications director at the MDE, there are still state mandated educational requirements that students must meet, no matter how instructors disseminate knowledge to them. And for another thing, he added, while some more populated areas of the state don’t give Internet speed a second thought any longer because they simply assume it’s always going to be super-fast at all times, some rural areas of the state still struggle with speed and bandwidth issues.
“This can impact a district’s ability to utilize new technologies,” Hovis said. “I know this is something being looked at on a federal level, but it is a definite challenge for schools looking to incorporate new technologies.”
Both King and Hovis stressed that while the state educational governing bodies they work for are very much interested in various technologies being implemented across their neighboring states, neither agency is particularly hands-on or overly involved in what are meant to be local debates and local decisions.
King, who spent 15 years as technology director in the Grand Forks, N.D. schools before taking his current job in Bismark, said the issue countless school districts are wrestling with in this region and all over the country involves the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) model versus a model that has a school district providing a wireless device, such as an iPad, for every student.
Getting a sufficient wireless network up and running is job one, he said, and countless districts have done that. But where they go from there is another matter entirely.
“There’s a lot of BYOD happening all over the country, and I would say it’s grown even faster over the past couple years because of the economic downturn; districts are wondering how they can ever afford to provide devices for the kids,” King said. Although he doesn’t relate it to the booming North Dakota economy thanks to the oil patch, King said that across North Dakota school districts are, especially in the past year or so, moving toward providing devices for their students.
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“They’re realizing it’s a pretty powerful thing for a kid to have a device in front of him in a school, a device he can take with him wherever he needs to,” King said.
Calling himself a “platform agnostic,” King said he doesn’t have a preference for any particular device. “I just think the kids need a device,” he said.
He has some issues with BYOD, mostly having to do with a district, even inadvertently, creating a school climate occupied by the haves and the have-nots.
“It’s about equity,” King said. “Do you want a classroom situation where a kid has a $3,000 MacBook Pro, and another kid has a $499 Wal-Mart laptop? Or other kids have nothing at all? I would hate to see technology become the Air Jordans of this generation, with kids comparing their devices like tennis shoes.”
Every district is populated by disadvantaged kids, King said, some way more than others. “BYOD could just make that worse,” he said.
Another concern King has with BYOD is how it potentially limits true, sweeping educational change in a classroom or school. “How can you advance your way of thinking if some kids have a device and some don’t?” he said. “How much can you really change?”
Hovis is a bit more guarded when it comes to saying one school of thought is preferred or better than another school of thought when it comes to using technology in education.
“The MDE believes that every child should have equitable access to resources, tools, technology and other educational supports,” he said.
If more and more students have wireless electronic devices, scrapping the traditional, paper textbook model seems to be next on the list of changes a school district makes. King said he still classifies electronic curriculums as an “emerging” movement.
Social studies is a great subject to start with, he said. “There are so many options that don’t necessarily need to be packaged as just social studies,” he said. It’s a long road ahead for districts looking to take a major leap into electronic curriculums, he said. But King strongly suggests that any district looking at curriculum adoption today “should at least be evaluating the digital piece” to avoid the situation where pretty much as soon as a student cracks open a new textbook, some of the information on its pages is out-dated and even obsolete.
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Maybe there’s an interim step, King said, like maybe a school purchases enough traditional textbooks for one classroom, and the textbooks stay in the classroom and every class that comes in utilizes them. “Maybe that’s how you take a little step forward while at the same time avoid purchasing a $100 book for each student,” he said. “Then you wrap the digital component around the textbook.”
King said it’s getting easier and cheaper for districts to take bold technological leaps. Studies show, he said, that providing a device to each student generates its own efficiencies.
It’s funny how fast the topics of conversation and the technological hurdles change so quickly now, King added. The State of Maine implemented a statewide laptop initiative around 12 years ago, he recalled. “I was in Grand Forks then and I couldn’t comprehend how we could ever do that, and it was because of battery life,” he recalled. “Did we have to put a plug-in in every classroom for every laptop? I couldn’t wrap my arms around it then.”
But a few short years later, the technology improved and the possibilities became very real. “The battery in a device lasts almost all day, and you don’t have to redo your entire electrical infrastructure... then the wi-fi piece emerged,” King said. “Now, today, we have the coverage and the density for a large number of kids that we didn’t have before. It all has to get cost-effective, and I think we’re getting there.”