Stimulus Funds For Technology In Schools Must Be Spent Wisely
The portion of the economic stimulus bill which provide federal dollars targeted for renovation of educational facilities has the potential to make a significant and lasting impact on education in America. Arne Duncan, who heads the Department of Education, his staff, and a myriad of state and local academic and government administrators are faced with the unprecedented challenge of spending this money wisely. The key to success in this undertaking is to have a clear understanding of all the elements which will lead to successful outcomes.
There is no question that the buildings in which we educate our young people can and should be upgraded. Moreover, the massive amounts of funds, now available, should be used not only in the construction of new buildings, but to improve the infrastructure and technology used in these new and existing facilities. There is, however, a great potential danger we face in the planning and execution process: the assumption that spending big bucks on technology, fancy gizmos like smart boards, laptops, computer projectors, video origination and distribution equipment, etc., will "improve" education.
Upgrading technology will undoubtedly be beneficial to the process of making major improvements in education in this country, but it is far from sufficient to achieve success. Several key related planning processes must be set in motion simultaneously and given high priority, visibility, and funding.
Bricks & Mortar
Key among them, in envisioning major renovation and construction projects, is the incorporation of smart planning to infuse in architectural design of the bricks and mortar, the ability to accommodate technology as an integral part of the base building, and not as an afterthought, merely hung on a wall. Learning space design must consider room geometry, sight lines, location of power and computer connectivity, lighting design and many other factors.
Another element is the notion that there can be a single good design model to maximize the effectiveness of technology in the learning environment. Experience shows that well planned infrastructure will allow teachers the flexibility to change how they use technology over time. Classrooms should be envisioned as flexible, sandbox-like spaces, which can be adapted to accommodate new high-tech equipment, and/or new ways of utilizing it.
Importance of Training
All too often, investments in the latest educational technology go underutilized or worse yet, not used at all. The implications of this unfortunate fact are twofold. Overall planning for technology upgrades must include both the necessary instruction to use the newly purchased equipment, as well as the training to create the content that can be used. It is also important to note that creating new learning spaces must not alienate those educators who lack a familiarity and comfort level with all the newfangled equipment. They will need to function for the foreseeable future as well.
Beyond The Classroom
Space planning for new educational facilities must recognize that academic pedagogy as evolved significantly over time, away from the sage-at-the-stage mentality, of education as information download, to one of facilitation and collaboration. This impacts not only technology planning but the layout and adjacencies of learning spaces, and furniture configurations. Moreover, educators have come to recognize that "learning" occurs in many places, not just classrooms. Ancillary gathering, circulation, and social areas, must be planned, furnished and equipped so as to facilitate the learning process.
The stimulus package offers a number of opportunities to retrofit, upgrade and expand educational infrastructure in this country. We must ensure that at least a portion of funding is spent developing standards, guidelines and procedures, to help enable project teams to spend the money wisely, and avoid reinventing the wheel each time. Hopefully, if we do a good job of it, we just might provide a platform for ongoing success in future endeavors.