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Bridging the digital divide

As with most school funding issues, getting technology into schools is tricky. That’s where organizations like the Consortium for School Networking come in.

As with most school funding issues, getting technology into schools is tricky. Getting educators, administrators, legislators, and even parents to take a long-range view of technology’s benefits takes skill, and that’s where organizations like the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking >www.cosn.org< comes in. Keith R. Krueger, the organization's CEO, talked recently about keeping schools up to speed.

Can you tell me when and why CoSN got started?

We’re a 12-year old national education association whose mission is to enable technology leaders at the state and district level to better understand and use information technology and the Internet for learning. CoSN was formed because there was a concern that K-12 schools didn’t have the leadership they needed on these issues. Most colleges and universities have a chief information officer to address those issues, and Educause provides representation at the higher education level, but primary education didn’t have an equivalent group.

What are some of the methods you use to enhance the presence of technology in classrooms?

We have a number of leadership initiatives, and we’ve defined a framework of nine essential skills for technology leaders at the district level. Over the last five years we’ve created initiatives around budgeting for technology, establishing total cost of ownership, data-driven decision making, and cybersecurtiy.

We also do public policy advocacy. Back in mid-’90s we put together The Coalition for E-rate, which established $2.2 billion to connect schools and libraries to the Internet. There’s also copyright issues, distance education, and funding for professional development. We’re always trying to mobilize technology leaders in schools to make sure policymakers make good decisions.

Where do you think schools are most lacking when it comes to technology?

Schools have made incredible progress in the infrastructure side. On the administration side, we feel that many of the tools they’re using were developed by and for the private sector. But the mission of schools is based around learning, not around making and maximizing profits.

The uncharted territory we face is really taking a powerful look at how technology can transform learning. If you look at a company like Amazon, you see that the way they run their business has transformed with technology. They don’t market to everyone the same way; they find out what you’re interested in and go from there. We believe technology offers the same ability to personalize instruction and help educators make sure that every learner gets the information they need.

What’s the state of the so-called digital divide in education?

We believe the digital divide is increasing largely due to leadership issues. We recently did a survey on this subject, and we found that 62 percent of school districts are experiencing budget cuts. We then found that almost all of those who have been hit with budget cuts expect to see more. Meanwhile, among the 28 percent who said they haven’t seen cuts, most of them don’t expect to see any soon.

What we wanted to find out is what those 28 percent are doing differently, and we found two things: They were able to articulate a clear vision of how they’re using technology and how they intend to keep using it; and they had a higher level of community involvement. Teachers, parents, everyone was involved in bringing technology to their schools.

We’re trying to bring that mindset to the districts that have faced budget cuts. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, they have so much other stuff going on that they keep promising themselves they’ll get to it later. Many school leaders say, “I’m so busy with everything else, I’ll worry about this tomorrow.” They sound like Scarlett O’Hara. But we’re concerned that if you wait until tomorrow, Atlanta may have burned.

Is there a certain place in the chain where school tech efforts usually find opposition?

It varies, but we believe technology has too often been defined as just one more department in the district. It’s important to think of technology from a more horizontal perspective, and realize that its presence enables an entire enterprise to run more efficiently. It’s not one more thing to pile on top, but rather something that has a role in the whole process.

To that end, the chief technology officer has to be part of the cabinet level so that segment can have a say. We’ve found that the greatest impediment to progress for a lot of districts is human, not technical. When you look at who’s running technology at the district level, three-quarters of them have educational backgrounds, not technical backgrounds. That’s not necessarily bad at all, but it does mean they often need to be educated about what all that technology can do for them.

What can be done to bring skeptics on board when it comes to technology in schools?

You have to make a case for your community–articulate your vision, show you’re a good steward of your resources. We have too many leaders who think that buying a computer is a one-time expenditure. You need a sustainable commitment that involves professional development, tech support, and making sure the technology actually works and that when it doesn’t, someone can help you. Too often in schools, the technical support is terrible. Administrators need to understand that this isn’t a one-time expense–it needs care and ongoing maintenance, just like a school bus system.

At the moment, we have one computer for every four to five kids. Imagine a a work environment like that–it would never work. Even so, critics say schools have computers not being used, but the reason is there’s not good access to them. About 80 percent of schools have broadband, but their connections are so fractionalized that the quality is worse than dial-up. So until you can get everyone to realize that the ultimate goal is a good experience for the end-user, you’ll run into snags.

From a technology standpoint, what do you think the typical K-12 classroom is going to look like in 10 years?

We have such a decentralized picture of what a school even is anymore that it’s hard to predict what “typical” will even mean by then.

We’re predicting more of a hybrid–they come to school for the social aspect and for some classes, but also take classes via the Internet from around the world. That way, for instance, a kid in an underfunded rural area can take an advanced algebra class from another district.

If we have wise public policy that promotes equity as opposed to a greater digital divide, we can bridge some of the problems that we’ve seen. If we just let the marketplace decide, those who have will continue to have, and the have-nots will continue to be left behind.

Who in the educational system can join CoSN?

Our membership is primarily institutional–states, districts–along with a number of corporate partners. But anyone can join for $100.

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