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The Promise of Education Technology (It's Not Just About Lighter Backpacks)

The Obama Administration's push for digital textbooks, while useful, represents only initial steps on the proverbial thousand mile journey.
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When Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke at the first ever "Digital Learning Day" this Wednesday and pushed schools to get digital textbooks in students' hands within five years, it marked a vital recognition that technology can help us re-imagine teaching and learning. But during Super Bowl week it's equally important to admit that, as nifty (and lightweight) as digital textbooks may sound, when it comes to realizing the potential of education technology to lift student achievement, we're still on our own 5 yard line. The digital textbook push is a positive step and a meaningful sign of change, but it risks being an incremental move in a field that urgently needs transformative improvement.

As someone who led America's largest school district for 8 years, serving over 1 million children, I believe technology can radically transform the way students learn by customizing instruction, and by helping teachers focus on each student's areas of greatest need. But the key to capturing this potential lies as much inside our own hearts and minds as it does in any hardware and software we'll deploy. That's because it's only when we change the way we think about how technology can actually change teaching and learning every day in schools that we'll finally make real strides in allowing every student to reach her potential.

The first instinct when technology is introduced to any field is to animate existing materials and automate previous activities. In the past, enticing looking technologies have led many educators to put tools in classrooms without thinking about how they could or should change teaching and learning practices rather than simply making them faster or easier. Too many early technology investments have had the feeling of a "fad" - lots of bells and whistles without enough understanding of how these tools result in new but rigorous student learning opportunities and outcomes.

Poorly designed and deployed technologies can reinforce old behaviors and practices, rather than solve for and improve them. What's even worse is when critical investments in training teachers to effectively use these new tools have often been shortchanged in districts' perennial budget squeeze. The all-too-frequent result, when things don't work as planned, has been skepticism among teachers and administrators about the power of technology to empower more effective teaching and learning.

I applaud the digital textbooks challenge but urge us not to let today's tools blind us to the bigger innovation opportunities. Technology's greatest potential is as a vehicle for students to learn more deeply and individually, unleashing them from the limitations of learning in step with 25 or more peers with different needs and strengths. How much a student learns is defined by two things: the quality of the teaching curriculum and the amount of knowledge students absorb from it. Those are the critical things, and, fortunately technology has the potential to significantly improve both instruction and engagement. It can leverage world-class experts in teaching math, for example, exposing students around the country to the best teaching. It can engage students, by using analytics to direct them to particular lessons that relate to their specific needs. The possibilities are enormous if we apply true discipline to our tools and demand that they help students learn. These tools also free teachers up to tackle students' greatest challenges.

We should be constantly improving based on what works. That's exactly what New York City is doing in a pilot program called the School of One, which was designed to move from the classroom to the individual student as the focus of instruction. Similarly, Sal Khan and his virtual Khan Academy have gained renown for a library of online instructional videos that enable children master the basics at home, freeing teachers to use precious class time to focus on problem-solving practice instead of rudimentary lectures. The common theme in these newer innovations is that they work to make the interaction between teacher and student more powerful and effective.

Bottom line: the Obama Administration's push for digital textbooks, while useful, represents initial steps on the proverbial thousand mile journey. If we commit to rigorous, analytical education technology, the payoff for student learning and for society will be much larger. We know we're underperforming many other nations in K-12 today, and failing to develop the human potential of millions of our young people. We also know that education is one of the few sectors that has remained immune to the progress technology can bring. I'm convinced that if districts, educators, and technologists work together -- and if we make sure new technologies are never embraced for their own sake but rather for how they can demonstrably change teaching and learning, then the gains for America's civic life and economic future will be enormous.

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