More and more school systems are adopting ambitious technology programs. How do we make sure they won’t fail?

Written by Shay Maunz

When we imagined the future 50, 70, 100 years ago, we got some things right: We use video chat sessions to communicate instead of landlines, carry little computers in our pockets every day, and can print three-dimensional objects with the press of a button. Other things we got flat-out wrong. Flying cars still don’t exist. We don’t consume all of our meals via capsule, like the Jetsons did.  Still others, though, are somewhere in the middle—the technology is there, but we’ve realized that it might not be such a great idea. Think computers in eyeglasses, human clones, or genetic engineering. As the future we imagined has begun to arrive, we’ve collectively realized that just because technology has made it possible for us to do something, it doesn’t mean we necessarily should.

It remains to be seen where on that spectrum classroom technology falls. These days, more and more schools are adopting more and more technology—in many public school systems there’s now at least one computer, iPad, or iPhone for every student—but does that mean students are actually learning more? “Technology doesn’t fix things,” says Leah Sparks, technology director for Kanawha County Schools. “In and of itself, it doesn’t.” Sparks is in charge of a new program in Kanawha County that put an iPad in the hands of every middle and high school student in the largest school system in the state—a so-called “one-to-one” program. That’s some 14,000 tablets in all, at a cost of $14 million, and Sparks is determined to ensure all that technology doesn’t go to waste. “And that’s not actually about technology,” she says. “When it does work is when he have good lessons and we utilize technology to make them happen.”

When schools first began large-scale adoption of personal technology devices for students, it was hailed as a marvel. But as time wore on, cracks started to appear. What little research there has been into classroom technology has been  inconclusive—the takeaway is generally that there’s the potential for it to be helpful, but there’s no guarantee that, just because kids are holding shiny new devices, they’re learning more. Meanwhile, several large school districts rolled out aggressive one-to-one computing programs, only to watch them crumble under the weight of their own ambition. In Los Angeles, a $1.3 billion program that launched in 2013 was such a debacle that the school district rolled it back just two years later, and the FBI investigated to see if the relationship between school officials and technology companies was inappropriate. By the time LA school officials killed the program, all but a few schools had stopped using the devices because the technology curriculum was so inadequate and Internet connectivity so spotty.

Of course, the LA case is an extreme example. And this might be one time that West Virginia can benefit from being just slightly behind the curve—the failures of those large districts have offered a helpful blueprint of what not to do. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems like maybe, just maybe, West Virginia can get this right.

So how do we ensure the technology actually goes to good use? “It all hinges on professional development for teachers,” Sparks says. In Kanawha County, teachers received their devices in June 2014, a full six months before devices were issued to students, so they had time to play around with the iPads and think about how they’d like to use them with students. Now, technology coaches are going out into every school to spend time one-on-one  with teachers, helping plan lessons that integrate the technology meaningfully. “It’s actually way harder to plan lessons with them,” Sparks says. “But it’s also more beneficial.”

It’s important not to think of classroom devices just as replacements for textbooks or slide projectors. They do indeed replace those things, but we all understand an iPhone isn’t just a replacement for an old rotary phone—sure, you use it to make calls, but it’s also your calculator, datebook, address book, camera, and a thousand other things that you couldn’t even imagine back when you still used that rotary phone. So it is in the classroom.

“One of the ways you see teachers use them when they’re just getting used to using technology is, they tell students to look up some information on the Internet and then use what they find to type up a paper about it. And that’s a valid use, but it’s not a high-level use,” says Sterling Beane, the chief technology officer for the West Virginia Department of Education. “It’s a very profound change to use technology in a very meaningful way in the classroom.” In a best-case scenario, technology can change the format of the class completely. Where traditionally a teacher might spend most of the time at the front of the room, lecturing or disseminating information, now kids can get that information from the devices in their hands. “And that frees the teacher up to do more individualized instruction,” Beane says. “Because now they’re not bound to the front of the classroom. Now they can move throughout the room and work with individual students. It takes care of the low-level activities involved in teaching, freeing up the teacher for more high-level activities. It’s a magnifier.”

Let’s hope we can get this right, because it might not be long before the state has gone all-in. Kanawha County isn’t the only school system in the state transitioning to one-to-one computing, and those that aren’t hope to start someday soon. “It’s becoming more common,” Beane says. “I think it would be safe to say that every district in West Virginia aspires to get to a one-to-one computer ratio.”

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