May 19, 2013
Bridging the New Digital Divide: Lessons from Across the Atlantic
by Laurence Peters
The United States can take a lesson from the United Kingdom, as this author explains in his perspective on the emerging debate concerning the future of technology within the standards-based education movement.
A different kind of digital divide is now emerging be tween post-secondary education and the K12 system. Whereas most colleges and universities know that unless they begin to embrace some of the new distance learning technologies, they may not be around in the next few decades, schools are by and large still debating where technology fits in the curriculum. In other words, do computers stay where they always have been placed, in the specialized learning lab or media center, or do they become part and parcel of everyday classroom teaching and learning?
Posing the Problem
Despite the fact that we are now past the discussion concerning whether computers make a differencea clear consensus of parents, employers, as well as educators agree they dosome still seem undecided as to whether computers in the school are there primarily to prepare students with basic instructional technology (IT) skills or are full partners within the entire curriculum.
A quick check of some of what might be called the leading educational technology indicators suggests that while schools increased their spending on technology by $6.7 billion for 199899 (Quality Education Data, QED), funds spent on training remain paltry at bestonly 5.2 percent of that funding was spent on computer training. The king-size portion of the budget remains hardware, with 42 percent spent on new computers and another 20 percent on network installation. In light of reports from bodies such as the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), which suggest that the bulk of teachers are a long way from gaining the full potential of the increased investments, only 20 percent of teachers, NCES also reports, are comfortable integrating technology into classroom instruction.
Arguably one reason that computers are still marginalized, despite the escalating spending on hardware, is that schools these days are under increased pressure to have their students perform well on high-stakes tests aligned with the new standards. Since educational technology is identified more as a tool for teaching IT skills than it is as an integral part of the curriculum, whether standards based or not, it is not surprising to find emphasis on these skills displaced in favor of the traditional textbook and fact-dominated approach. Even if teachers wanted to break through this belief system, they face several obstaclesone major one is the lack of quality software that matches curriculum goals. Education Week’s Technology Counts survey reports that more than half the teachers who search for software to use for instruction say it is very difficult’ or somewhat difficult’ to find, with 69 percent of teachers in grades 9 through 12 having the hardest time. Just 12 percent of the respondents say their state or district provides lists of software titles that align with curriculum standards. Currently a few states, such as California and Ohio, are going the extra mile and providing teachers with a list of software titles that match curriculum standards.
Arguably one reason that computers are still marginalized, despite the escalating spending on hardware, is that schools these days are under increased pressure to have their students perform well on high-stakes tests aligned with the new standards.
However, there may be a deeper perception on the part of teachers that it is not fruitful to look to technology for help with a standards-based curriculum. This is evidenced by the fact that 53 of the 76 teachers Education Week surveyed in California said that they were not even aware that their state offers such resources.
Is there an alternative model? Is there a different way to think about the connection between standards and technology that would more fully release technology’s potential to do more than just supplement a traditional textbook-based curriculum, perhaps by offering an alternative, and perhaps deeper, set of learning experiences? A closer look at how the United Kingdom (UK) has begun to address the challenge may provide a fresh perspective, particularly for American policymakers who want to do more to justify the continued spending on technology, especially when test scores fail to rise as rapidly as technology expenditures.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has enjoyed its reputation for its often creative third way approaches on a variety of public policy and social issues. Such a fresh approach to the digital divide began in 1990 at the beginning of his administration, when the Blair government issued several white papers on the topic of a National Grid for Learning (NGFL)a plan to make the best digital education content available for all schools. It was the brainchild of Financial Times researcher Chris Yapp, who when using the early 1980s form of the Internet, found himself fascinated by the way anyone could access complex data from anywhere around the globe. Yapp quickly understood how the Internet could be used in the same way as a dial tone or a light switch to harness educational material for the benefit of universal access to lifelong learning, and he sold the Blair government on the potential of a high-quality, networked system of sites to provide universal access. The NGFL became a signature investment for a government keen to make its mark as a world leader in understanding the transformational power of high tech. With the twin focus on improving the quality of the educational system and on supporting the need to wire every school to the Internet, it attracted a great deal of favorable publicity and leveraged the energy of both the private sector and individual teachers and communities to make it work.
In simple terms, the Grid acts as an Internet portal with linked sites creating an easy way for teachers and students to find the quality sites and digital content they need to advance the standards. As the government document states: The NGFL is both an architecture (or structure of educationally valuable content on the Internet) and a program for developing the means to access that content. By encouraging new models of supply, which free teachers and others to concentrate on their professional priorities, the government hopes to develop a market for high-quality education content available online.
As with so many Web-based enterprises, the NGFL is more a work in progress than a completed and finished entity. Many of its components remain under constructionand so the site is constantly evolving. It may be that the grid’s final shape will be quite different from the one first envisaged. The site, for example, has added a number of new functions: a Virtual Teacher Center (where teachers can find first-class curriculum materials), a Parent Center, and links to a growing number of community grids connecting public libraries to other local learning resources. The NGFL has set a bright marker down for how to aggressively bring a nation’s schools into the 21st Century.
Is it working? It is too early to tell. Many fear that the content is not yet of a high enough quality. Nearly $80 million dollars (almost 50 million pounds) of funds made available through Britain’s National Lottery have been set aside for digitizing educational content, and the NGFL has allocated 15 percent of its funding for content. The UK software industry complains that too much is being spent on hardware, and more schools are paying out of their own pockets for online software.
The government sees a tripling of the market for educational software by 2002 and sees the NGFL as a way of meeting the needs, both online and shortly to be available through digital broadcast. Many interviewed for an October 15, 1999, London Times Education Supplement review of the NGFL’s progress at that point in time believed that for the National Grid to be a purveyor of a trusted brand of educational software in its own right, far more investment should be made in software that the NGFL should then freely make available to schools. Critics believe that the NGFL policy shapers are naive to expect that teachers developing their own curriculum material and sharing their products on the Grid will fill the current void.
How Will It Play in Peoria?
What might be some of the NGFL selling points for a U.S. audience? Three clear advantages of NGFL’s more systematic approach come to mind:
Notwithstanding whether the UK system is able to realize all the advantages of the system that it has put in place, and the fact that NGFL operates within a centralized education systemare there are some elements of the NGFL worthy of emulation in the United States?
Let’s take some of the key advantages in order:
Whether or not we want to train the entire nation’s math teachers or work the problem from the state or local district’s perspectivethe costs to develop either a very large-scale or more modest teacher development program are considerably reduced following recent advances in digital technology. For example, it is now relatively inexpensive to send video over the Web or to publish a CD. We just need to develop the policies that will create the market for the services needed. These policies might be in the form of tax and other incentives a state or consortium of states provides, or ways states and districts might be induced to restructure the spending they now do on the conventional types of professional development that usually end up becoming one- or two-day workshops.
The NGFL is both an architecture (or structure of educationally valuable content on the Internet) and a program for developing the means to access that content.
With the advent of many more channels available for use in a digitized television broadcast, the opportunities for television programs to broadcast information for specific audiences and purposes challenges our creativity. We could imagine, for example, a video of an exemplary classroom teacher with separate channels available to broadcast digital content on the particular standards being discussed or commentary by an expert on classroom management.
The fundamental point is that technology should be an important ally for the standards movement, and currently its role is marginal at best.
At the heart of such investments would be the ability to capitalize on a frequently neglected insight by Lauren Resnick, one of the champions of the standards-based reform movement, who commented that unlike traditional approaches that hold time as a constant with the consequence of varying results, true standards-based approaches hold standards constant and see time as the variable. This deceptively simple re-formulation of what constitutes the heart of the school’s missionto ensure that every child reaches the standards set, no matter how long the effort might takeconstitutes a massive change in our thinking. We could go as far as terming it a paradigm shift, if that phrase were not such an overused term. Those who influence the K12 sector have been reluctant to capitalize on the power of technology, with its learn anywhere, anytime capability to shift schools from their traditional preference for seat time. The higher education sector, by contrast, has rapidly begun to embrace distance learning technologies, and even sage observers of post-secondary education are looking forward to a time when colleges will no longer invest in bricks and mortar, but rather in the development of online curriculum content and expert mentoring.
Clearly this is the challenge. Whether we develop superstandards or not, simply thinking about online materials as downloadable pages from a textbook, or as lesson plans, seems too limiting a vision for the future. The existence of the World Wide Web has created renewed interest in developing active learners: students who not only can read about science but in the process of handling primary data, whether about weather or water pollution, also can engage in doing science, and in the process develop interdisciplinary approaches, connecting scientific understanding to social and historical issues. For a variety of reasonsthe availability of good software and training among the leading onesthis is hard for many teachers to successfully pull off, but the UK experience makes us aware that we may need to try a little harder to develop the incentives to continue to push in this direction.
In the interim, we can expect more educational publishers moving more of their content online and touting their wares as standards related, without necessarily challenging the traditional paradigm. Whether the bolder and more far-reaching investments such as those represented by the National Grid will come from the federal government is in question, given that the US Department of Education is prohibited from developing a national curriculum. The push may come from a set of states whose governors work to create a larger market for software developers who would otherwise not consider working for the smaller profit margins available normally for content-specific education software. The states may choose to ask the companies to respond to the specific challenges they confront in reaching the standards. The inspiration for what to focus on may come from common problem areas in eighth-grade reading or math as identified by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and perhaps the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, TIMSS. Governors might request specific education content providers that their states are interested in supporting for the development of state-of-the-art materials that lead to specific gains on NAEP-like assessments. They might also challenge the consortia to develop appropriate professional development materials. If the programs are successful, there would be a clear benefit of going national with the material. The fundamental point is that technology should be an important ally for the standards movement, and currently its role is marginal at best. But important opportunities exist in the next century to change this state of affairs radically.
How would classrooms look if teachers knew how to integrate material downloaded from the Web into a standards-based curriculum? We may never know, as the two elements that needed to converge, high-quality digital content and integrated professional development, rarely coincide within the same school, let alone in the same school district.
"Electronic Voyager" illustration by Bill Dillon.
These comments are Laurence Peter’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US DOE.
Laurence Peters has been Deputy Director of the US Department of Education’s Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community Taskforce since 1998. He was born and educated in the United Kingdom and received his doctorate at the University of Michigan and his law degree at the University of Maryland. He was counsel to the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights for six years. Peters specialized in educational research issues and helped design the reauthorized Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI). In 1994, he joined the Clinton Administration to become a Senior Policy Advisor for the Assistant Secreatary for OERI.