New Tools for Learning in a New Millennium
by Ferdi Serim, Editor, MultiMedia Schools

Digital Divide: 
Technology and Our Future on PBS

This two-part series, which begins January 28, 2000 (check your local listings or www.itvs.org), spotlights the work of innovators who bring kids together with computers in fair and meaningful ways. It addresses the following questions:

How is the computer revolution affecting the wide spectrum of American youth?

How can all children have equal access to computers?

How can all children learn to use computers to their best advantage?

Be forewarned: If you are a savvy, creative, technology-using educator, the first 15 or 20 minutes of this show may raise your blood pressure! But it sets the stage for very powerful modeling of positive uses that follow. This broadcast would be an excellent opportunity to organize a group viewing (school board members, parents, community members) followed by discussion. Don’t miss this one!

Let's keep things in perspective: It’s just as dangerous to overhype our entry into a new era as it is to overlook the powerful opportunities for change such a milestone opens for us. Just as the rollover of two digits didn’t cause the world to screech to a halt, neither did this click of our cultural odometer suspend gravity, increase literacy, or make our task of improving learning for all students any less of an uphill challenge. However, it’s important to remember that “we know what we know.” The concurrent focus on higher standards for student achievement and the desire to wire our nation’s classrooms represent an opportunity to reexamine the roles and performance of our education system. It allows us to shift our energies from doing more of what doesn’t work into discovering what will work to meet the needs of our students in a society that is itself in transformation.

The old basics, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, are morphing into Researching, Communicating, and Problem-Solving. Our vision has outpaced our ability to measure these new skills, placing educators in the difficult position of either going ahead on faith or sacrificing graduating class after graduating class to the safety that comes from avoiding controversy. While we wait for proven evaluation tools, the backlog of demanding jobs awaiting qualified candidates continues to grow. More importantly, the disparity between the skills required to participate effectively in our information-based democracy and the distribution of these skills erodes the foundation of our way of life.

Back in late the 20th century (isn’t it fun to say that!) technology proponents used the metaphor of “a car in the jungle” to explain the importance of context in the understanding of new tools. The example went as follows: Seeing a car for the first time, someone living in the jungle might appreciate its ability to provide shelter, its comfortable seats, its ability to scare away animals with its horn and lights, and be puzzled at the windshield wipers, but still miss the significance of the steering wheel. Without roads, without fuel, without the understanding of purpose, the car becomes an artifact rather than a conveyance. The same could be said of information technology (IT). Without vision, it’s a ride to nowhere.

With vision, IT’s a multifaceted tool for our journey, one that can help us shape our future, rather than react to our past. There are three areas of emerging trends that make me very hopeful. However, I want to start with a caveat before sharing them. As this editorial went to press, I received a book that made me stop in my tracks: Bernajean Porter’s Grappling with Accountability—Resource Tools for Organizing and Assessing Technology for Student Results. She begins by noting, “Technology magnifies and makes visible all the things that work about a school and all the things … that need to work better.” Our vision must include the context within which learning and technology are being asked to come together, and this book provides a blueprint that’s proved effective in 1,200 U.S. and international school districts. Her first step for the voyage? Create a worthy destination!

We have the opportunity this year to bring the message of Information Power beyond the world of the library/media specialist, where it can provide a compelling starting point to the discussions advocated in Grappling with Accountability. A world where students are information literate, independent learners and socially responsible is indeed a worthy destination.

The temptation of technology is seductive. The latest, greatest is can be a detour into Alice’s Wonderland. We turn around, and the Cheshire cat is grinning at us from somewhere else, because the “leading edge” technology we just worked so hard to obtain has been superceded by new software that makes our latest hardware eligible for either an expensive upgrade or replacement. The only way to maintain sanity is to continually follow the advice of Professor Mike Mahoney (Princeton University), who always asks of new technology, “To what educational question is this the answer?”

Equipped with a purpose, we’re in a better position to evaluate the kinds of tools we’ll need and which best meet our needs. We’re entering an era where our two decades of experience in using technology to help students become more powerful learners place us in a position to draw up a wish list for vendors. While much media attention is focusing on the coming digital convergence of computer and TV technology, less is being said about the intellectual convergence between those who apply tools for learning and those who develop them. In fact, we’re including a session on this topic at Computers in Libraries, in March, in Washington DC, called “A Mile in Your Shoes: Resource Developers Listen to You!,” in which a panel of online database and library automation developers will get first-person feedback on what their products should do to bring us closer to our goals.

As we continue in our quest to help our students become more effective learners, we need to be sure that we have on hand all the tools we will need, and that we understand their use. The most powerful tool we have is our minds. This tool becomes exponentially powerful when we collaborate on meaningful tasks. Given this context, technology extends the power of our collective intellect beyond the likes of anything previously seen in human history. There’s never been a more exciting time to be an educator!

Researching, Communicating, Problem Solving
Here are three areas where I see great hope as product providers strive to meet or anticipate our needs:

Researching: Using Information to Do Things Better and Do Better Things
Chancery Software’s new school-home communication tool, LearningLife.Net, utilizes existing information from its award-winning student information systems. From Grade Books and Master Schedules to Relationship Mapping, Chancery has brought together the core sets of information and management tools to make school-home communications really work. ExplorASource is the online service that finds resources to match specific learning needs and education standards (see http://www.explorasource.com). Using this tool, I was able to identify activities from states other than New Mexico and see how these activities correlate to the standards our educators are required to work toward. Matching standards from 50 states by hand is something no human should have to do. Thanks to MediaSeek’s technology, no one has to anymore!

Webivore provides a knowledge-building environment where you can either search or collect information from a variety of categorized and reviewed sources. We’ve all heard that if the Internet had been designed by library/media specialists, it wouldn’t be the chaotic place it is today. Perhaps it would look and work like Webivore. You can get a 14-day free trial at the Web site: http://www.webivore.com/.

ProQuest, from Bell & Howell Information and Learning is a powerful answer for students who think using a search engine equates to research. Why shouldn’t teachers and students have the same research tools as any self-respecting contemporary corporation?

Communicating: Modeling More Powerful Ways of Learning
Computers can actually change the way we think. Inspiration, software for “visual thinking,” allows us to use technology to do things that couldn’t be done before. SoftArc’s FirstClass Collaborative Classroom Gold changes the way we work together. This new server software allows educators to collaborate, communicate, and design Web pages, calendars, and lesson plans. It promotes team-based learning in a communication-rich environment that far exceeds anything available with traditional computer-based training programs or simple e-mail products. Tom Snyder, pioneer of group-based collaborative project software, is bringing these benefits online as well. Blackboard Inc. has developed products which allow educators to create Internet-based courses with a comprehensive suite of services. So far, over 7,000 educators have brought their courses online using Blackboard tools.

Problem Solving: Making Sure No One Is Left Behind
As you read in my previous “DirectConnect,” the “digital divide” is considered by many to be the defining civil rights issue of the current era. Leadership roles are being taken by many, including the following:

The America Online Foundation has created a Digital Divide Clearinghouse, where we can contribute resources and expertise to meet this challenge. CCC has developed programs that allow educators to use technology to assess and address the individual learning needs of students who may have previously “fallen through the cracks” (see Pat Herr’s article in this issue). MCI WorldCom’s MarcoPolo project helps with equity by making the highest quality educational resources available for free over the World Wide Web and provides free professional development to ensure that educators can integrate these world-class resources effectively within their classrooms. Lightspan’s AchieveNow program ensures that every child has the firm foundation upon which lasting success depends.

Communications to the author may be addressed to: Ferdi Serim, MultiMedia Schools, 11 Palacio Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 505/466-1901; fax: 505/466-1901; ferdi@infotoday.com.

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