Digital Schools: How Technology Can Transform Education

Digital Schools: How Technology Can Transform Education

by Darrell M. West

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815725442
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 07/15/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 159
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Darrell M. West is vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, where he also directs the Center for Technology Innovation. His many books include the Brookings titles The Next Wave: Using Digital Technology to Further Social and Political Innovation (2011), Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy (2010), and Digital Medicine: Health Care in the Internet Era, written with Edward Alan Miller (2009).

Read an Excerpt


By Darrell M. West


Copyright © 2012 Brookings Institution
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-2244-1

Chapter One

New Models of Education

In a 1915 book titled Schools of Tomorrow, the educator John Dewey complained that the conventional public school "is arranged to make things easy for the teacher who wishes quick and tangible results." Rather than fostering personal growth, he argued, "the ordinary school impresse[s] the little one into a narrow area, into a melancholy silence, into a forced attitude of mind and body."

In criticizing the academies of his day, Dewey made the case that education needed to adopt new instructional approaches based on future societal needs. He argued that twentieth-century schools should reorganize their curricula, emphasize freedom and individuality, and respond to changing employment requirements. In one of his most widely quoted commentaries, Dewey warned that "if we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow."

Writing nearly a century ago, Dewey could not have envisioned the current world of the Internet, electronic resources, digital textbooks, interactive games, social media, and robotics. Yet his basic message remains highly relevant today. If schools do not reinvent themselves to engage students and train them for needed areas, it will be difficult to compete in the global economy.

Imagine an educational system in which pupils master vital skills and critical thinking in a collaborative manner, social media and digital libraries connect learners to a wide range of informational resources, student and teacher assessment is embedded in the curriculum, and parents and policymakers have comparative data on school performance. Teachers take on the role of coaches, students learn at their own pace through real-life projects, software programs track student progress, and schools are judged by the outcomes they produce. Rather than being limited to six hours a day for half the year, this kind of education moves toward 24/7 engagement and full-time learning.

Pilot projects from across the country and around the globe are experimenting with different organizations and delivery systems, thereby transforming the manner in which formal education takes place. In this book, I examine new models of instruction made possible by digital technologies. In particular, I look at personalized learning, blogs and wikis, mobile technology, video games, augmented reality, and real-time assessment in K-12 and higher education. Emerging approaches to education make it possible to envision a system where the barriers between high school and college are broken down and students can take courses that fit their needs and interests.

My goal is to identify leading innovations in education and find what works and what does not in order to draw lessons about long-term effectiveness. Digital technology enables fundamental shifts in instructional methods, content, and assessment. However, technology by itself will not remake education. Meaningful change will require alterations in technology, organizational structure, instructional approach, and educational assessment. If we combine innovations in technology, organization, operations, and culture, we can overcome current barriers, produce better results, and reimagine the way schools function.

Disrupting Education

The revolution in information and communications technology has transformed numerous industries over the past few decades. Virtual devices such as automated teller machines, grocery scanners, and airport check-in kiosks have reduced costs, facilitated shifts in organizational models, and enabled the delivery of innovative services and products. Industries from food, banking, and airlines to manufacturing and entertainment have embraced digital technologies and deployed them to automate routine tasks, flatten organizations, and dramatically improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Many of these improvements were made possible by the invention of the transistor in the 1950s. The transistor created unimaginable economies of scale for mechanical devices and paved the way for microchips and computerized systems. As noted by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, most earlier machines and transmitters were based on vacuum tubes. Large mechanisms transmitted electrical signals and powered small devices such as radios and televisions.

However, transistors changed the entire industry. By making possible small and inexpensive electrical transmission mechanisms, silicon-based semiconductors revolutionized manufacturing and ushered in integrated circuitry. Powerful appliances and machines were developed in miniaturized form that reduced financial costs while increasing the power and sophistication of processing devices. Electronics went from large and bulky devices to pocket-sized transistor radios, and computers shrank from room-sized machines to desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and handheld devices.

In industries that are lightly regulated by the government and subject to market feedback, it is possible for pathbreaking inventions such as transistors or hydraulic systems to transform key sectors. Discoveries typically start at the low-cost end of the industry; as specific benefits are demonstrated, they migrate up the value chain and produce transformation in a short period of time. Seeing the virtues of new creations, business leaders alter their business operations to bring low-cost products into the marketplace.

But when the field is highly regulated and there are weak market mechanisms to guide innovation, industry disruption is more challenging. Powerful business and labor interests can use government bodies to delay change and create barriers to experimentation and adoption. The weakness of market signals to parents, producers, and policymakers makes it difficult to assess costs and benefits and leads to misperceptions of risks as well as virtues.

In this situation, people hang on to old ways of doing things because the benefits of inventions are not clearly apparent. Rather than embracing transformation and using technology to further innovation, organized interests fight change and argue that the old system is superior to newly emerging ones. That type of status quo orientation slows change and raises the political and economic costs of innovation.

This dynamic is the central problem limiting changes in education today. The field is regulated and lacks market mechanisms such as consumer information, price points, transparency, and clear assessment mechanisms. Defenders of the status quo fight change, and the lack of commonly accepted metrics makes it difficult to judge the effectiveness of proposed reforms. Uncertainty over costs and benefits limits the potential for meaningful change in public schools. Joanne Weiss, the U.S. Department of Education's chief of staff, notes that "the biggest challenge for us is that education has been a place that is wildly resistant to innovation.... It was designed very much to resist the status quo so that crazy fads wouldn't use kids as guinea pigs. And the problem with that is now when we desperately are in need of innovation, we have built a system that is really, really good at repelling it."

Some areas such as K-12 charter schools are more open to experimentation. They perceive students as customers, adopt new learning models, allow greater flexibility in student and teacher roles, and are less regulated by the government. These qualities enable them to see what works and where they need to make adjustments so as to maximize the positive impact on students. Over 5,000 charter schools have been established in the United States, 180 of which are cyberschools featuring virtual learning environments.

Some colleges and universities also value new approaches to instruction. They are self-governed through independent boards, and they face a competitive marketplace in recruiting faculty and students. Market pressures force them to respond to student needs and open them to new pedagogic approaches and delivery systems. Innovations in one institution diffuse to others as their utility becomes apparent.

But this is not the case for all education institutions. In public K–12 schools, there is resistance to change that various interests see as threatening. Jay Greene, an education researcher, argues that "the biggest obstacle [to change] is the teachers union and their political allies. They would be hurt by expanded choice and competition because it would put pressure on them to improve quality and it would shrink resources available to them for their own benefit."

In their book Liberating Learning, Terry Moe and John Chubb describe unions' opposition to the introduction of technology. Labor leaders worry that this type of innovation will undermine learning and endanger the traditional role of the instructor in the classroom. Through campaign contributions and influence over legislatures in some states, the authors claim, unions have blocked policy changes that would facilitate the adoption of education innovations.

However, others dispute that interpretation and argue that the problems are more systemic and include factors such as poverty and inequitable access to educational resources. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, says, "States with the most densely unionized teachers—Massachusetts, New York, Maryland—do the best. And the countries with the most densely unionized populations—Finland and Japan—they do the best.... There are problems we have to solve, one of which is poverty. We have to compete with poverty, that's what public education is."

Barriers to Reform

In a sense, all these criticisms are right. There are many barriers that constrain change in basic learning models and organizational design. According to Paul Peterson, education institutions retain an old-fashioned instructional structure, organizational approach, and daily schedule based either on an agrarian or industrial society, not a postindustrial one. Similar to an agricultural order, the school day takes place between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. from fall to spring, with time off during the summer. Class sessions are demarcated by bells, as in industrial factories. Educators do not tailor teaching to the differential learning approaches of individual students or take advantage of digital systems for accessing or transmitting knowledge.

This is problematic, according to Cathy Davidson, because digital technology is transforming the way we think, work, and learn. She suggests that "65 percent of today's grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn't been invented yet." "While we've all acknowledged the great changes of the digital age," she says, "most of us still toil in schools and workplaces designed for the last century." This orientation makes it difficult to change structures and implement different ways of organizing and operating education institutions.

Constrained by current structures, education institutions find it hard to change. Innovation diffuses slowly and unevenly across the fragmented universe of public elementary and secondary schools, private schools, and colleges and universities. It takes a lot to move decentralized bureaucracies with entrenched business and labor interests. New practices take hold when the complex interplay of teachers, administrators, school boards, vendors, parents, and community organizations come together. Progress tends to be slow and episodic.

A Project Tomorrow survey of 35,525 teachers of K-12 students finds that few schools are making extensive use of available classroom technology. As table 1-1 shows, the most frequent use of technology in 2010 was for homework and practice (58 percent), followed by creating graphic organizers (51 percent), conducting investigations (47 percent), creating physical models (41 percent), and creating cues or questions (40 percent). Only 16 percent of teachers deployed technology to track the effort students make for achievement. Still, on almost every measure, teacher use of technology increased over 2008.

Similar obstacles exist at the level of higher education. A survey of students found wide variation in the use of computer technology in arts and science courses. As shown in table 1-2, more than three-quarters of students used the Internet in their classes in 2007. But for most other purposes, use of other electronic resources was below that level. For example, only 40 percent of science students and 21 percent of arts students made use of interactive software, and only 20 percent of science students and 23 percent of arts students used computers in class. Student use of technology increased between 2003 and 2007.

In general, many young people find school today boring, which makes it difficult to engage them effectively. Outside of school, students are online regularly through the Internet and digital news sources, and they interact frequently with friends and acquaintances through text messages and social media. But in many education institutions, students are required to turn off electronic devices and read paper-based materials by themselves with little interaction with others. This contrast between dynamic digital interaction in their out-of-school hours and static, out-of-date textbooks during the school day frustrates young people and makes it difficult to hold their attention.

The slow adoption of technology by American schools illustrates the need for change. It is vital to prepare students for twenty-first-century jobs. Education has long been the engine of economic and social development. Outmoded instructional techniques and pedagogic approaches stymie intellectual growth and fail to engage students and teach them the skills needed for a post-industrial economy. The jobs of tomorrow require skills of collaboration and adaptation that are missing from current education models.

Cultural barriers also pose problems to technology innovation. Schools that innovate often have leaders dedicated to change and instilling a culture of achievement throughout the organization. This means creating a can-do spirit, building coalitions that work for change, and finding resources to support key innovations. Schools that do not make these efforts are unable to exercise leadership, identify the tangible and intangible benefits of education reform, build coalitions of parents, teachers, and outside groups, and implement the shifts in culture, operations, and organizations that are required.

Finally, in an era of massive government deficits, financial barriers limit change. Technology is expensive and in many cases requires upfront investment. It is not a simple matter to find resources to support teaching innovation. Although such investments often pay off in the long run, the short-term costs are considerable, and difficulty finding that money typically slows the rate of social innovation.

These barriers are unfortunate because digital technologies have the potential to transform education operations, overcome geographic disparities, improve access, personalize learning, and make information sources available in digital form. Technology can deepen education by altering the way students master core content, teachers operate their classrooms, and parents and policymakers evaluate education.

It is for those reasons that former Florida governor Jeb Bush believes the top priority in education reform is "applying digital learning as a transformative tool to disrupt the public education system, to make it more child-centered, more customized, more robust, more diverse, and more exciting." Unless education becomes more collaborative and output driven, Bush argues, it will be hard to get the results that students, parents, and teachers want.

New Skills for the Twenty-First Century

It is clear that new skills and approaches are needed if students are to compete effectively in the changing international economy. Jobs are changing, and most sectors are becoming globalized. Students are competing not just with fellow citizens but with job seekers from around the world. New specialties are required that cross disciplines and areas of knowledge and are global in scope.

The Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have described the "co-evolution" of educational attainment, technology, and wages. They argue that America was prosperous in the twentieth century because of human capital investments and the mass education of young people. Systematic training reduced inequality and boosted income for the masses. However, over the past thirty years, an "educational slow-down" has unfolded, and the undermining of mass education has increased inequality and weakened long-term prosperity.

To improve this situation, schools must use technology not just to deliver the existing education paradigm but also to deploy alternative approaches to instruction. Schooling needs to become more student centered, interest based, results oriented, and personalized through digital technology. Teachers must take on broader roles as coaches and mentors, and assessment should be more nuanced than annual standardized tests allow.

Henry Jenkins and his colleagues, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue that students require new learning skills in the twenty-first century. They include

—play: "the capacity to experiment with one's surroundings as a form of problem-solving"

—performance: "the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery"

—simulation: "the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes"

—appropriation: "the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content"

—multitasking: "the ability to scan one's environment and shift focus as needed to salient details"

—distributed cognition: "the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities"

—collective intelligence: "the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal"

—judgment: "the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources"


Excerpted from DIGITAL SCHOOLS by Darrell M. West Copyright © 2012 by Brookings Institution. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

1 New Models of Education 1

2 Personalized Learning 20

3 Blogs, Wikis, and Social Media 33

4 Video Games and Augmented Reality 44

5 Real-Time Student Assessment 57

6 Evaluating Teachers 69

7 Distance Learning 80

8 Nontraditional Students 94

9 Dewey's Exhortation 105

Appendix. Digital Resources on Education Technology 120

Notes 131

Index 153

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"As is expected from Brookings, Darrell West provides us with a clear, authoritative, non-dogmatic, up-to-date account of all the ways in which new technologies are altering the K-12 education landscape." —Paul E. Peterson,, Director, Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance

"Darrell West's book recognizes that if students don't learn the way we teach, then we should teach the way they learn." —Larry Rosenstock, CEO and founding principal, High Tech High

"In this pithy volume, Darrell West offers wise words of both optimism and caution. He notes the promise of new technologies to improve schooling in the twenty-first century, but cautions that these advances will only deliver if accompanied by a tough-minded willingness to rethink the structure and culture of schools and school systems. Policymakers and educators alike would do well to heed the lessons West offers." —Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies, American Enterprise Institute

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