From Boardroom to Classroom

Talk long enough about bringing technology into the classroom and the conversation will typically turn into a discussion of video games that combine dazzling graphics with an educational component. But there are plenty of other tools to work with beyond the arcade.

Applications that businesses have designed to improve their operations—simulations, voice recognition programs, and user-modeling software, to name a few—could also find a place inside schools. All that’s missing, according to some experts, is for the federal government to step in and help pay for them to be adapted for new uses.

“Almost every industry in this country except education has transformed itself with technology,” says Kay Howell, VP for information technology at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). “Students are surrounded by technology in their lives until they move into the classroom.”

Custom Fit

Ultimately, Howell believes, the different ways companies try to understand their customers could also find a place in schools. Software tools like the recommendation systems retailers like use to suggest merchandise based on past purchases could be tweaked to track math learners or readers. Many companies have spent millions to refine their help desks; they too could be adapted to schools.

And games do have their place. Recently, FAS developed Immune Attack!, a video game for PCs in which players travel through blood vessels as they train their immune systems to fight off two pathogens that are likely to be familiar to young adults: swimmer’s ear and salmonella. The application includes a common question-and-answer tool called My Learning Assistant that Howell says alleviates the headaches so often associated with automated customer service departments.

Eventually, sophisticated help systems like My Learning Assistant could make learning more interactive. Publishers who put their textbooks online, for example, could allow students to ask questions while they read. Including all these different types of technology into daily routines of instruction will boost tech literacy, too, because students will use them on a daily basis outside a computer lab. “Younger kids pick this stuff up so quickly if they see it as relevant to what they need,” Howell says. “You’re teaching students how to learn, how to apply information to solve problems. They’re not depending on a teacher standing in front of the classroom expecting them to absorb something.”

Finding Funds

Because profit margins for educational tools are too low to attract much interest from private businesses, Howell says the government must provide the funds to develop the underlying technologies that will make the transfer from the business world to the classroom possible. “There’s not a whole lot of money in this space right now,” she says.“There’s very little on the applied research side, for actually building stuff and getting it out there sufficiently robust to scale it up and test it with learners.”

However, things could be looking up. This session, Congress is contemplating a handful of different bills to improve math and science education. One of them, the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust proposed by the nonprofit organization Digital Promise, would establish a fund for research and development for advanced learning technologies. Digital Promise has the support of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, which are members of the Digital Promise Leadership Coalition, along with the Federation of American Scientists. One of the sponsors of the bill to create the trust, Representative Ralph Regula of Ohio, is a former elementary school teacher and principal.

“We’re not replacing teachers or books, but making learning more captivating, more rapid,” says Rayne Guilford, deputy director of Digital Promise. “We need to have technology to make learning more efficient.”

Digital Promise and other groups pushing for greater government funding cite declining test scores as one reason for action.U.S. math students in fourth and eighth grade perform consistently below most of their peers in 11 industrialized countries, including Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Russia, and continue that trend into high school, according to a study last fall by the American Institutes for Research.

Christopher Heun is a New York–based freelancer who also writes for InformationWeek and InternetWeek.