Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Let's take a little diversion from talking about hardware, software and tech companies this week. All the recent discussion about charter schools and virtual charter schools got me thinking about the role technology does and should play in education of our children.
This is not a column about charter schools and whether or not they are the answer to what ails our public schools. Instead, it's more to answer a question that has been rattling around in my ol' noggin: Why has technology not been better used in our public schools?
When you consider what technology has done in the business world over the last 50 years—heck, over the past 20 years—you have to wonder why our schools have not made the same type of advancements.
The business world has become more efficient, and smaller businesses have been able to scale their operations faster. The ability to use talent from around the world in one operation is now commonplace thanks to email and Skype. Large file boxes and overstuffed satchels are no longer required to carry just about every file you need for a project. And meetings and presentations are now far more interactive and engaging than they once were. (OK, so most meetings are still boring and useless.)
But our public schools? They are still using overhead projectors and writing on transparencies. They still consume reams and reams of paper every week. Students are still lugging heavy textbooks and having to make multiple trips to their lockers between classes.
Why? Is it the failing of the schools?
No. Not at all. It's simply the result of the free market system. Businesses invest in technology at a much faster rate because it either saves them money or makes them more money. Either way, it affects the bottom line.
For public schools, investment in technology costs money, and in Mississippi we've resisted paying any more money into our schools than absolutely necessary.
Thankfully, some people and organizations are trying to do something about this. In Mississippi, we have the Barksdale Institute, which not only pushes education but also technological advancement.
Then there are tech giants Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs. Gates runs a foundation that, in addition to countless other humanitarian endeavors, seeks to place technology in schools.
Jobs was a champion of education, and part of his vision for Apple—and especially the iPad—was the role they could play in education. Thus, his last, greatest achievement may have been this year's earlier announcement about textbooks coming to the iPad. Not only will they be dynamic, these textbooks will cost a fraction of what their paper-product counterparts cost.
Apple, Microsoft, Dell, HP, Google and other tech companies also offer steep discounts and donate hardware to schools and educators.
Sadly, this is not enough. For all that Barksdale, Gates, Jobs and others have done, it is still not enough. Until the state of Mississippi decides it is time to invest heavily into upgrading the technological infrastructure of our public schools, then we will continue to lag behind.
For all of the talk about "running government as a business," we have failed to do something very basic with the public schools. We have failed to look at how we can use technology to make education more efficient, more profitable and more successful.
Mississippi needs to invest in a program to extend high-speed mobile and wireless Internet access throughout every part of our state. This is the first step. We are better off than some critics say, but we are nowhere near well off enough to do what we need to do for our schools.
The state also needs to look now at how we can put iPads and laptops into the hands of every student and teacher. This is a hefty investment, but the payoffs are huge. It provides a tremendous advantage for teachers to be able to interact with their students in the classroom setting. (I'm not advocating that these machines necessarily go home. Some schools with similar pilot programs in other states and Canada keep the machines in-house.)
To do this, we need to partner with private benefactors who will help achieve this goal. It can't be done overnight, and it can't be done all at once. But by partnering with private industries, we can move forward faster.
Some public schools have done very well with technology, but the state cannot boast a universal approach to using technology to make major changes at the classroom level. Teachers want this change. Students would welcome this change. And Mississippi would benefit from this change.
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