Monday, May 19, 2014

Educational Technology in Alaska

Below is a note to Dr. Robert Whicker, a friend and mentor of sorts. He is a role model for many educators, administrators, and technologist from Alaska to Hawaii, myself included. Bob asked me to share a vision for educational technology in Alaska and here are some brief thoughts:

I never hesitate to discuss technology in education with those from whom I have learned so much over the years. Inevitably, these types of conversations lead to me gaining more than I share, so please offer all of the feedback you can. Before beginning, I must also say your leadership in our state is nothing short of foundational for my career and, I am certain, hundreds of other Alaskan educators.

To begin with, it is important to identify outcomes and goals we educators wish to produce. As with any standard, these benchmarks must be measurable, relevant, and attainable. My goals are fairly concise: I want to change the way teachers teach and the way students learn. It’s not difficult to deduce from the last 30 years of Alaskan (and American) test scores that something has gone wrong in education. Students are dropping out far too often (especially in minority and alarmingly so in Native populations), schools struggle with funding, teachers are frustrated, and students are disconnected. I would like to see students engaged and learning in more natural settings.

The differences between “education” and “school” are broadening with every moment. Asynchronous learning, blended learning, and place-based education models are sound in any setting, but particularly of import to Alaska. The geographical separation of schools in our state combined with the unique struggles of rural districts (on and off the road system) make providing quality local education daunting, at best. Challenges are noted, but I believe they can be met with technology.

In my experience, nothing bridges the gaps (physical or academic) like technology. Starting with broadband access (like the proposed 10meg minimums the governor proposes), schools in Alaska should all have enough access to support the browsing, file transfers, and video traffic needed in 21st Century education models. Video teleconferencing, for example, comes in all shapes and sizes. Desktop clients or appliances, these tools allow for qualified teachers to connect with students regardless of where either lives. Opportunities for enrichment like digital field trips can introduce mainstream concepts familiar to the outside world but as foreign to Bush learners as ancient Egypt!

To leverage desktop clients and supplement existing resources, I recommend the 1:1 model of education. Students with devices will grow into the digital learners the future needs. We must stop thinking in silos of content areas and create holistic ecosystems of personalized learning plans with plenty of student-directed experiential learning happening. My thoughts on 1:1 are such that first through fifth graders should experience the iPad. The iOS platform offers the management, app suites, and historic experiences of thousands of educators to provide a multimedia rich experience for young touch-ready learners. Projects in Hawaii and Maine, among many others, have proven not only the efficacy of this endeavors, but the real-world application possibilities. In the higher grades I have personally seen the benefit of personal computers (portable computers/laptops).

This model of education enables students not only to have a more authentic voice in the way they share their knowledge (multimedia; audio; video; project-based assessments), but also opens a wealth of new delivery options. Differentiated instruction, in today’s terms, is completely intertwined with technology.  Too often the focus is to assure minute standards such as dates, definitions, etc. to dominate our lessons. I believe theorems, empathy, and problem solving skills are more valuable than dates in history and that the ability to locate and analyze the validity of an answer on the internet more useful than memorizing definitions from the glossary. Learning agility, or the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn tasks and solutions to complex problems, is the key to being a successful adult and productive member of the globalized world. It should also be noted that the core academic areas are not the end-all-be-all for student achievement. Digital citizenship, digital literacy, and social media awareness are all components of our adult lives.


To focus the lens through which I envision technology in education, I would summarize a successful Alaska as such: K-5 iPad 1:1; 6-12+ laptop 1:1; 10-20meg liberally filtered access per school site with flexible schedules for a variety of learning environments (after school, etc.); and teachers supporting each other by teaching inside and out of their physical classroom (from central locations, home, and inter-district cooperation). All this, combined with the PD to enable educators and the sustainable funding from NGOs and government agencies, will yield young adults capable of meeting the demands of the modern world.