Ferdi Serim
Systems-Thinking Our Way to Success
by Ferdi Serim • Editor, MultiMedia Schools

"You can't get theyah from heyah" is the Vermont farmer's way of letting the city slicker know that the realities on the ground are quite different from the travel guide. School districts can expect similar advice once they seek directions that will lead them to the happy land of improved student achievement. Two decades down the path of promises, the benefits of educational technology seem to reside in the eye of the beholder. Those who've focused on purposes see more improved practice than those who've simply been dazzled by potentials. Working with leaders who "get IT" is a world apart from working for those who don't or won't.

Roadmaps Versus Realities
It isn't a question of roadmaps or signs; it's a matter of realities. Most of the efforts up until now have fixated on boxes and wires, with content and leadership only recently appearing on the radar screen. We start this school year in North America with two important developments in our favor: the release of ISTE's Technology Standards for School Administrators, and the blossoming of content that's been designed for systemic impact, rather than classroom-by-classroom improvement. In each case, our contributions to leadership have never been more timely, nor more crucial.

While there is widespread agreement that the 21st Century places new demands on both students and teachers, there is less agreement about which path leads learners to the required skills. Too many educators treat standards like the finish line, instead of a foundation for learning. The leadership practiced by building level (principals) and district level administrators is markedly different when these leaders have moved beyond the developmental stages of resistance/reluctance, which are based on fear rather than experience. Perhaps the last bastion of education professionals who have avoided examining how technology can make them more effective knowledge workers, administrators, have a wake-up call this fall. The ISTE TSSA project has brought home in clear, compelling terms the types of learning that need to happen in the Central Office, and there's never been a better time for MMS readers to leverage their expertise in facilitating this growth.

Moreover, administrators need access to what has been learned about effective uses of technology and combinations of quality content, sound instructional design, sustainable support, and student assessment, all of which are required to move from promise to practice. While there is much "future tense" discussion about improvements to student achievement, I want to focus on Riverdeep as one example of how a systems approach is allowing users to see results in their classrooms right now.

Supporting Technology-Based Learning
The Web Based Education Commission, established by Congress to assess the educational software available in retail markets, reported, "We are at a critical moment of discovery in the quest to unlock the mysteries of learning. As reported in recent National Academy of Sciences reports, learning sciences have made substantial progress in the past 30 years, more than most people realize.... We know from this research that learning environments should be centered around knowledge, learners, social interactions, and assessment." According to the report, learning environments in school often instead do the following:

The Web Commission's research points to five conditions which must all be present to support the new ways of teaching and learning made possible through technology: Systemic Solutions; Quality Content; Multiple Pathways; Knowledge Building; Meaningful Assessment. The Commission notes, "Those who work with the technology that supports access must have the skill and understanding to apply it well. If the user—whether teacher or learner, parent or administrator—does not know how to work with technology or where to go on the Internet to find material of value, that learner does not have real access to what the Internet offers."

ISTE's TSSA project provides a framework for bridging this knowledge gap. Offerings like those crafted by Riverdeep place content in context, providing ready access to experiences which strengthen good teaching in the classroom, in a way that addresses key areas identified by the Commission. Going beyond the earlier Integrated Learning Systems (ILS), which sought to replace teachers with computers, Riverdeep gives teachers a powerful, flexible tool, and helps them learn to apply it, providing districts with teachers who have a broader view and skillset. This reinforces lessons drawn from The Beliefs, Practices, and Computer Use of Teacher Leaders (Margaret Riel, Hank Becker University of California, Irvine), which demonstrates that teacher leaders are 10 times more likely to employ technology and knowledge-building strategies in their classrooms than more traditional "Private Practice" teachers. Such a systemic approach provides a growth path for more educators to advance their pedagogical practices.

High-quality content is the fuel which allows the vehicle of technology to bring us to the destination of improved student learning. The static nature of textbooks, lecture, and workbooks that sufficed in earlier eras becomes a liability in a digital age, when knowledge itself has become a moving target. According to Atsusi Hirumi, Ph.D. (University of Houston­Clear Lake), success in eLearning hinges on the ability to "promote meaningful interactions among students, the instructor, and content." Furthermore, "one of the primary challenges facing distance educators and students lies in the planning and management of meaningful interactions." The Commission reminds us, "All too often, discussions about Web-based learning tend to fall back on a simplistic faith in the power of technology. Of course interactivity is a powerful draw for teachers and students alike. But dazzling technology has no meaning unless it supports content that meets the needs of learners."

The power of technology to provide new kinds of experiences, access to information that is current and compelling, organized in ways that meet the needs of individual learners is the raison d'être for Riverdeep. This power is explained by Robert D. Stewart in "The Development, Formative and Summative Evaluation of A Computer Multimedia Tutorial: A Case Study."He writes the strength of multimedia "lies in its ability to simulate life situations while engaging the senses. Multimedia interactive tutorials allow students to put themselves in real-life, decision-making situations while providing immediate graphic feedback that allows learners to see, feel, hear, and experience the ramifications of their decisions in an unprecedented way. Learning via multimedia interactive tutorials is specific, whereas traditional classroom lecture-type learning is more abstract and cannot involve students in the consequences of their decisions ...."

No matter what methods are used, it is ultimately teachers who guide instruction and shape the context in which the Internet and other technologies are employed. The Commission observes, "It is a teacher's skill at this, more than any other factor, that determines the degree to which students learn from their Internet experiences. Teachers must be comfortable with technology, able to apply it appropriately, and conversant with new technological tools, resources, and approaches."

For technology to result in improved learning for students, the entire staff must be guided along a growth path that supports the characteristics of "Teacher Leaders." As Professor Chris Dede points out, "Collaborative learning, constructive learning, and apprenticeships are not new concepts in learning. But they've never been sustainable. Teachers who try them usually burn out. Why? Because they didn't have an infrastructure that supported them. Technology can help establish a supportive infrastructure that makes it possible to use those powerful models without burning out."

Higher-order thinking skills can be developed only in the presence of a firm foundation of literacy, numeracy, and inquiry. Gaps in the development of fundamental skills and core knowledge often go unnoticed until it is too late. Riverdeep activities are effective and varied, to provide pathways for learners with differing backgrounds in experience and skill, giving teachers performance data to gage what's working for each student, and when to try alternative approaches. Success in this case is a team effort between student, teacher and parent, all of whom are provided with windows into individual performance and how that performance may be enhanced.

Conclusion: Making Every Dollar Count
No matter the size of your budget, no one has money to waste. However, only technology that is purposefully directed and supported leads to effective use of resources. The five crucial areas above (Systemic Solutions, Quality Content, Multiple Pathways, Knowledge Building, Meaningful Assessment) must be managed so that they work in concert, each making its contribution to enhanced educational performance. Whether you can get there from here doesn't matter unless and until your system (the resources, knowledge, and all the people in it) comes along for the ride.

Communications to the Editor 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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