Where is IT all going? | May 22, 2009 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Cover Story - May 22, 2009

Where is IT all going?

Technology evolution means a whole different way of learning

by Geoff Gillette

As technology has boomed during the past 20 years, the tools of education have changed along with it. Chalkboards have given way to white boards or screen projectors connected to computers that allow instant display of the information from either workbooks or the World Wide Web.

Students, too, are bringing more high powered gadgets into both the classroom and home study environments. The average student may find themselves Googling, IM'ing, texting, twittering and listening to music all while working on the day's assignment.

The questions many educators face today are what place should technology have in the classroom, and have teaching methods adapted to the change in technological level and the amount of information readily available to today's students?

San Ramon Valley Unified School District Superintendent Steve Enoch said he thinks incorporating technological advances as well as adapting the teaching model to better utilize those advances are crucial to preparing students for life in today's digital world.

"I don't want to have technology just to say we have technology," he explained. "I'm interested in making sure we prepare kids for a world that is much different than I grew up in."

Enoch said that world is one that is flat, a reference to books by Thomas L. Friedman, "The World is Flat" and "Hot, Flat and Crowded." Friedman paints a picture of a world where technology is creating a global economic environment.

"Our students are going to need to be extremely comfortable in a multi-cultural globally competitive environment," Enoch said. "That's what we're trying to do - prepare kids for the 21st century. I want to prepare our kids for the future, not our past."

Enoch, along with district Technology Director Bruce Chmielesky, envision a school system called 21st Century learning, an educational culture where in addition to working on the three R's, students are working toward the 3 C's: Communication, Collaboration and Creation.

"That is what our students are going to need in the future. Employers are looking for people who can communicate effectively and powerfully and collaborate with people who are both nearby and far away," Enoch stated.

Chmielesky said that what they are looking to do is incorporate the vast array of information available into the classroom, making learning more engaging and enticing.

"What we're wanting to be able to do with this 21st Century learning is to tap into kids' creativity and imagination," he said.

Enoch refers to the students of today as "digital natives," children who have grown up with the burgeoning technology movement and have already incorporated it into their everyday lives. At least in their home environment.

"I think a lot our kids live in two worlds," he explained. "They go to school and frankly it's a little bit of the Rip Van Winkle effect. You or I could be dropped back into high school and it looks and feels a lot like when you or I were in high school. Then they go home and their world is all about being digitally and socially connected through these digital neighborhoods."

Students are able to get access to information from myriad online sources, reference Web sites and blogs and come across thoughts and opinions and bring them into play. This gives them access to hundreds of thousands of ideas and concepts daily. Enoch said teachers need to be able to bring that accessibility into the classroom and channel it.

"I often talk about what I call 'the Google question.' How in the world can teaching not change when our kids have the ability to Google any single topic that is covered and bring down expert opinions, competing opinions, video, current events. Why would we pretend teaching wouldn't change in that environment?"

Enoch said the days of the teaching model where the instructor is the sole arbiter of knowledge are over, and will need to be replaced by a teacher who is more of a facilitator in navigating through the galaxy of information at students' fingertips.

He feels this model can work in the San Ramon Valley school district. "A lot of our parents make a living through technology. They recognize it is probably one of the few areas where the district is not where it should be."

He added that his statement was not intended as a dig at the district, but just an observation that in order for the district to be fully engaged in 21st Century learning it will need to adapt.

Reaction among the teaching staff has been mixed, with some embracing the idea of enhanced technology teaching, while others are reticent to move away from what they were trained to do and what they know as part of their jobs.

Enoch said such feedback is not cause for concern. Generally, he said, they give first crack at new systems to teachers who are enthusiastic about them.

"We like to take the wild horses who want to run and support them," he said. "We let them put in place models of the programs we want to have so that others can see how they run."

Technology was the focus of teacher concern at the Nov. 18 meeting of the school board. Among the concerns were a lack of training, time lost due to system crashes, and a huge increase in parent e-mails. What it came down to for many of the instructors was that the increase in technology was coming at the price of many additional hours of work for the teachers.

Chmielesky said that since coming on board in November the district has been working to ensure that their systems are solid and that teachers have access to help if there is a problem. As for the concerns of time spent with a deluge of e-mail, he said that is a product of the changing methods of communication.

"There is certainly the danger of over-communication," he stated. "Part of it is training the parents as to what is a reasonable expectation."

Both Enoch and Chmielesky admit there are risks inherent in increasing the presence of Internet and other media in the classroom, but they feel that if the students are engaged and are using the access they are given in the pursuit of expressing a topic or continuing a line of questioning, the incidents of abuse will decrease.

Already many schools have instituted policies against cyber-bullying and "sexting," where students utilize e-mail, instant messages or texting to demean or harass other students. Chmielesky said that they are aware of the concerns along those lines and they are quick to react when they get reports of it.

"We aren't cyber-cops," he said. "This is going to be a tough transition. But if we focus on the academics, the students will begin to see the Web and other media as powerful knowledge tools."

A major stumbling block to the school district making the transition to a more digital environment is a problem as old as civilization itself - money. With state and federal funds continuing to dry up and property tax resources dwindling as well, the available dollars in the district have to go toward maintaining the infrastructure of the school and paying salaries.

The passage of Measure C gave the district a small amount of breathing space, but the overall picture remains bleak. Without increased funding and the ability to make sweeping changes that would cost in the millions of dollars, how can the district continue to move toward this adaptive strategy and changed teaching model?

Enoch said there are no easy answers.

"Funding is a problem, for certain. But that doesn't change the fact that the world is changing, getting flatter, and our students need to be prepared to compete for jobs with people from all over the world," he said. "So the question isn't how can we make this change, it's how can we not?"

"How in the world can teaching not change when our kids have the ability to Google any single topic that is covered and bring down expert opinions, competing opinions, video, current events. Why would we pretend teaching wouldn't change in that environment?"

Steve Enoch,

Superintendent of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District


Like this comment
Posted by Hal Bailey
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2009 at 7:11 am

Dear Dolores and Steve,

Global economy is already here! The reality of such globalization is the virtual enterprise that allies organizations globally to serve any and all regions of our world.

The virtual enterprise model, as only the organization you need locally to achieve the global result, could be applied to high school. Instead of a large structure of buildings and staff, high school could be teachers and students in partnership linked by their netbook and similar devices. Instead of a large backpack of books and formal classrooms, each class could occur in combination of classroom presentation and networked interactive instruction and information.

In a recent presentation of the reality of virtual enterprise, a leading netbook/network developer illustrated an educational and training process that occurs on the netbook in interactive conferencing and informational provision. University students throughout North America were participating in a virtual classroom with multiple instructors from several universities.

In the end, high school is only a tradition, more social than an educational requirement, and the virtual high school is a logical step to a more productive and global education.

Thank you,

Hal Bailey

Like this comment
Posted by Teacherman
a resident of San Ramon Valley High School
on May 27, 2009 at 1:56 pm

I tend to agree, technology is changing every aspect of our society from the workplace, to function of government, to communication, and to education. I do think that because of this technology, its only necessary that we begin to question the traditions of education and innovate a new structure that meets the needs of our technologically advanced young people and creates a competitive work force in the global economy.

Compared to the information available on the Internet, the textbook is almost useless and I think school districts should begin a thinking about not allocating hundreds of thousands of dollars for buying new textbooks that students rarely use. They are a funneled taste of finite information. This is not what our students know. They have a world at their fingertips and we should not deprive them of that.

I tend to agree and disagree with Hal in the above post. Today, high school is "an educational requirement," not just a means of social development, However, the schools need to become a place of learning, where the teacher becomes a facilitator or advisor and the student becomes an active doer, applying information and working with peers.

As a teacher, I am consumed with the future of education and our responsibilities to our students and next generation. We must move with the times, stay above the curve in an ever-changing world, instead of just accepting past norms as the way its always been done. We don't live in the same world and our students deserve a community that supports an education system that teaches them the skills to be sucessful in this century. And those skills include the ability to work together, innovate and create, and use technology efficiently and effectively.

Like this comment
Posted by Farmer Dave
a resident of Danville
on May 29, 2009 at 10:16 am

Teacherman is on the right track, but before we swap textbooks made of dead trees for their electronic equivalent, we need a process equivalent to the current one which reviews and approves the textbooks used in our schools. He's correct, there's a lot of information out there on the Internet, but not all of it is correct or appropriate for the classroom. Additionally, teaching tools like textbooks have to mesh with teaching plans.

ALL students would need to have access to the textbook equivalents. Perhaps a hard look at e-reader systems such as Amazon's Kindle are in order. The textbooks could be downloaded into the e-reader as needed. The e-reader's ability to "read" the text to the student would be very useful for vision-impaired students.

The textbooks could easily be kept current, with publication delays limited to revision and approval time. Hopefully the cost would be less than current textbook costs.

Like this comment
Posted by Teacherman
a resident of San Ramon Valley High School
on May 29, 2009 at 10:46 am

Farmer Dave

I appreciate your comments and couldn't agree with you more. There must a stepping stone between the traditional use of textbooks and an absolute freedom of Internet searching. As teachers, I do believe it is our job to teach students how to correctly research and identify legitimate information on the Internet. However, you can not take away the value of reading in book form.

I think your idea of the e-reader is a great way to introduce new technology and use up-to-date information in book form. Even though this, I think, would cost considerably less than purchasing standard textbooks every 5 years or so, the challenge, especially today, is getting the funding. Other benefits include less heavy books to haul around to school, saves trees, and students can access multiple sources of information in one classroom setting.

I am all about the e-reader! Thanks again for your thoughtful responses.