Catching up to the 21st Century

from Technology & Learning

We sat down with Sharnell Jackson, Chicago Public Schools' chief e-learning officer, to get her take on the state of education today.

A 30-year veteran of education in both teaching and administrative positions, Sharnell Jackson is one of the country's most visionary technology leaders. In Chicago, she has led the charge for Web-based curriculum-instruction management as a pathway toward customizing student learning—leading a team in the creation of a portal and suite of interactive tools to enhance leadership and training. She has also driven the widespread deployment of personal digital assistants for early literacy assessment, with training and end-user support for more than 450 elementary school teachers and principals. Jackson has also been active in numerous organizations for ed-tech change, including the International Society for Technology in Education, where she helped develop a Principal's Technology Leadership Institute, National Education Technology Standards assessments, and curriculum. She also served as a co-chair of ISTE's Equity Summit.

Jackson is a very vocal proponent of change and an advocate for investment in public education. She is unique in her ability to both lead and inspire and to take active part in the details of implementing tools for change. She set aside some time to speak with T&L recently.

Q. What is the biggest national issue in education technology today?

A. One huge issue is how we're evaluating the effectiveness of technology in schools. We're publishing studies in the national press that don't truly reflect the impact of technology in the classroom. We need to measure the effectiveness of the implementation before we try to measure the results. For instance, we need to look at how well people are using it, how much time is being spent with it, and whether teachers have the appropriate training and management skills to maximize its use.

The other point to consider is what we are measuring the technology against. One third of our high school students are dropping out—a higher number than ever before. So why aren't we measuring the effectiveness of textbooks?

Q. What programs, initiatives, or people are making the biggest difference right now?

A. Curriculum management systems are driving changes in pedagogy. We use SchoolNet, which helps our teachers look at trends and patterns for their students and better customize learning for them.

Companies like Wireless Generation are providing mobility and opportunities for assessment on the fly. Games and simulations such as Riverwalk, by Harvard's Chris Dede, are harnessing the kind of rich digital media, to which students are accustomed, to encourage problem-solving, creativity, and inquiry-based learning. That game targets middle school science and math students, and will be implemented by our district in the fall.

"Media on Demand" is another technology that is helping teachers offer targeted instruction to students. We use Safari Montage, which allows instructors to search under specific categories for high-quality, standards-aligned video, activities, quizzes, and other resources. We're also using that program to do videoconferencing with other countries. For instance, students studying Japanese are communicating with Japanese speakers in a classroom across the sworld. All of this is being delivered live, right to their desktops.

One initiative making a big difference is ISTE's National Education Technology Standards Refresh, which is updating technology standards to reflect an emphasis on innovation, collaboration, and other 21st-century skills. Another is the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning after-school program, which is taking students to the next level by letting them be producers of music videos and other projects, not just consumers of information.

Among the people making a difference today are ISTE CEO Don Knezek, CoSN CEO Keith Krueger, gaming gurus Chris Dede and Mark Prensky, and Geneva Gay, an expert in multiculturalism who is opening our eyes to the need to consider a student's culture as a key element in determining the way they learn best.

Q. What are the primary issues that need to be addressed nationwide at present?

A. First, we need to look at data before making decisions. The data will provide us with the information we need to help students learn. We also need administrators who have a clear vision for leading teaching and learning. No Child Left Behind focuses on assessment, but not on learning. We need to implement programs that focus on the kind of learning needed for the 21st century.

Also, in this age of outsourcing and declining wages, we need to increase the level of education we're providing our workers of tomorrow. Between 1980 and 2020, minorities in the workforce will double. We need to be sure our students have the skills to keep our national competitive edge, no matter what the color of their complexion. In order to do this, we need to invest in education as a country. We have not invested the way we needed to, and now we're paying for that and have a lot of catching up to do.

Q. What are some of the things we should be doing to catch up?

A. We need to take advantage of artificial-intelligence applications such as Apangea and Cognitive Tutor that offer students virtual tutoring online so they can move ahead at their own pace. We need to make higher education affordable. There are two million folks in prison right now and prison costs are going up. We need to invest in education to help bring that number down. We also need to step up inquiry-based and online learning.

Q. What other bold moves should be made?

A. We need to make education funding and resources a national priority. We need to expand the e-Rate pipeline to accommodate higher levels of technology such as videoconferencing, streaming video, and the cutting-edge technologies that businesses are using. We don't need to be sitting in classrooms with 10-year-old computers and a single T-1 line. Teachers need to be treated as experts and professionals, and education needs to expand into the community to allow parents and businesses and others to become part of the learning.