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Technology in Schools: The Next Revolution Begins
by Bill Camarda

Technology in schools: Unlike the weather, people haven't just been talking about it, they've been doing something about it. The first battle — wiring schools with Internet connections — is rapidly being won. As of fall 1999 (the most recent statistics available), 94% of all elementary schools were wired. What's more, in wired schools, 63% of all classrooms, computer labs, libraries, and media centers had Internet connectivity.

For most elementary school educators, technology is increasingly available. In schools that have purchased computers and wired themselves for the Internet, educators are asking two new questions:

What now? What can educators actually do with this technology to help children learn more effectively?
What's next? With technological change continuing to accelerate, what innovations can educators expect in the coming years?

What Now?

Researchers have demonstrated that technology can help address narrow educational problems successfully. For instance, computer-based instruction typically improves test results on the specific material it covers 1. However, if technology is to support educators' broader goals — helping students become creative, critical, lifelong thinkers — it cannot be an end in itself. It must be put at the service of learning goals and of the entire school community 2.

One powerful way in which technology can do this is to help schools go beyond their four walls, encompassing the community — and the world. The Internet, E-mail, and related technologies lend themselves exceptionally well to collaboration. In many of today's best K–6 applications, educators are using these technologies to collaborate with outside experts, parents, community leaders, and especially with peers and students around the world.

For example, one school located near California's scenic national forests uses the Internet to teach students not only about their local woodlands, but also about forests worldwide. Every two weeks, a sixth-grade class sent E-mails to classrooms located near forests on every continent — and received responses from as far away as Tasmania, the Philippines, and South Africa. The class Web site now displays a world map linked to information about all the forests children have learned about: how they differ, the types of flora and fauna living there, and how the people use those forests.

Teachers and third-grade students in rural Michigan have used Internet E-mail and PC applications to collect data on water quality in their local harbor and Lake Michigan. Using E-mail, they coordinated with college interns in the state, creating multimedia reports used by both community and state agencies in making and enforcing public policy. During the summer, the students worked with a 4-H group to apply their new computer skills to other projects.

Many children are highly visual, and as technology advances, it increasingly capitalizes on this trait. In yet another example of using technology and the community to enhance the way children learn about nature, one elementary school in New York State worked with a local university and nature center to research plant growth in the school's experimental gardens. The children then used digital cameras to document the results.

Digital cameras — as well as digital scanners, which can scan traditional photographic prints, student artwork, and anything else — have plummeted in price. That makes them practical for more K-6 classroom applications. As a start, digital imaging can be used to showcase student artwork, to enhance class Web sites and presentations, and to support field trips. In one Illinois elementary school, third- and fourth-graders built and programmed robots to compete in a “community” obstacle course, capturing their work with digital cameras and building multimedia presentations to share with the rest of the school. In a school in Australia, digital cameras have been used to help students create their own “passports” as part of a study of world travel and Earth's time zones 3.

In the next two years, expect the rapid growth of digital still-imaging to be duplicated by full-motion video. What are the harbingers? New camcorders that store video digitally; combined with new software that allows students to shoot, direct, and edit movies. Students can then copy their finished product to videotape, or even display it on the Web. In addition to supporting student creativity, some educators are experimenting with digital video to introduce elementary school children to the mathematics of change — helping them see and feel physical ideas they can connect with arithmetic — and later on, with algebra, geometry, and calculus4.

Besides digital video, what technologies are coming next, and what should educators know about them now?

What Next?

First, expect the Web to continue to evolve quickly. Web sites will increasingly offer not just information but free, advertiser-supported services. Schools are already beginning to take advantage of these services. For example, one such site allows anyone to create his or her own multimedia E-mail postcard. Using the service, a fourth-grade teacher in Oregon allows students to showcase their artwork to families and friends worldwide5.

Free Web services are also available to help teachers plan special events, schedule meetings, and otherwise coordinate activities. From other Web sites, schools can build complete Intranets — private Web sites — at no cost. These Intranets can include group calendars, documents, contact lists, announcement pages, and more. All of these sites are password-protected, so they're more secure than the average Web site.

New sites are springing up that focus directly on serving teachers and schools. For example, some offer online gradebooks; you can give parents and students passwords to view detailed, up-to-the-minute grading summaries and assignments (no more report-card surprises). If your class or school doesn't yet have a site, you can create one at several known free Web site resources on the Internet. Then, there are the well-known Web sites that post weather-related closings and delays, so schools can get time-sensitive information delivered with fewer phone calls and less confusion.

As information technology grows increasingly Internet-centered, new devices will become available that might prove to be cheaper and easier to manage than traditional PCs. These “Internet appliances” will do just one thing — provide access to Internet Web sites, and to other services delivered across networks using Internet technologies.

If performance issues can be ironed out, these new devices might be used to run inexpensive productivity applications from Web servers, such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and Web tools. This might finally give schools a cost-effective way to place useful technology on every student's desk.

Some “Internet appliances” might even resemble today's wireless, handheld Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). These portable devices could support education anywhere: students could use them to take notes, while also accessing information from the Web. Educators are only beginning to discover the applications for these devices. Some especially promising uses include

  • Assessment tools to help educators evaluate student performance
  • Collaborative tools — for example, in online role-playing simulations
  • As “edutainment” applications, such as logic games
  • Data collection and analysis, to support student research in science classes

Over the next few years, count on increased Internet penetration in the home and faster Internet connections, as cable modems and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connections become commonplace. Think now about how to use these to strengthen the bonds between school and home. For example, schools might transform their Web sites into community “education portals,” much as Internet search engines have evolved to present a wide range of information and links for Web users worldwide.

The next-generation elementary school Web “portal” would provide detailed, timely information on the school's academic program. It also might give families up-to-date information personalized to their children's needs, performance, the subjects currently being studied in the classroom, and how parents might support or supplement the curriculum at home.

The school Webportal could also be used to recruit volunteers and support fund-raising. As a school Web portal becomes recognized by its community, it can be used to enhance virtually every task the school performs: providing online parental permission slips, delivering assignments to homebound children, informing parents of the school's goals, and much more.

Bottom line: The first revolution, bringing computers and the Internet into schools, is being won. The more important revolution — using technology to help children learn more effectively — has just begun.

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Bill Camarda is the author of fourteen computer books, including Special Edition Using Word 2000, Upgrading and Fixing Networks for Dummies, and Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. His experience with educational technology dates to the early 1980s, when he served as an editor at Family Computing magazine, and contributed articles to computer magazines for children published by Children's Television Workshop.
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