Students First

This summer, educators gathered in Seattle to reflect on the tenth anniversary of Anytime, Anywhere Learning, Microsoft's initiative to put laptops into the hands of middle and high school students. The pioneers of this program, of which I was one, aimed to dramatically alter instruction, empower teachers, and engage students.

These days, however, the emphasis has shifted from using technology for instruction to employing it to assess, track, mine, and present data. I agree that those applications are necessary to meet new requirements such as No Child Left Behind, but it concerns me that they are becoming the dominant use of technology in education. Data-driven decision making, while important, should not diminish the use of technology in classrooms or drain scarce resources from instructional technology. After all, you do not make a pig fat by weighing it.

So how did we get ourselves into this predicament? Let's start at the beginning. In the mid-'90s, schools were anxious to get powerful new technologies into the classroom. Unlike the previous generation of instructional tools, these technologies had the potential to redefine basic interactions between students and teachers. They offered 24/7 access to information and empowered students with previously unavailable research resources. They pushed educators to redesign instruction in order to connect with students of the digital generation.

By the same token, technology providers quickly formed partnerships with districts to create appropriate offerings. In many cases, drill-and-kill products were replaced by tools that encouraged the development of higher-order thinking skills. Likewise, the more cutting-edge schools altered traditional staff training in order to equip teachers with the skills to reinvent instruction.

My former school district was an early participant in this adventure. We developed a technology plan, built our infrastructure, and trained staff. We purchased computers for home use by staff and created a lease program that provided students with laptops. The driving force behind every effort was to change the classroom, change instruction, and improve student achievement.

That is not the case today. Data warehousing, multiple report-generating capabilities, instant analysis of assessment tools, and class profiling have become the watch words. Programs that give information, statistics, assessments, and reports are the focus. They are readily available, user-friendly, powerful, expensive, and necessary to meet the data requirements of current educational philosophy.

Unfortunately, these management programs are upstaging potentially powerful instructional technologies—tools such as handheld computers, tablet PCs, cell phones, and wireless networking. Schools and districts are being forced to choose how to use limited technology funding, and data management is winning out.

The question is: What good does it do to give teachers detailed information about each student via technology if technology is not an integral part of instruction?

Over time my former district has become more focused on creating a technology infrastructure that supports management needs. We were once recognized for instructional innovation but now must join the data-producing horde. Technology has become a tool to measure our progress toward the national obsession of data management and high-stakes test results.

Given the choice of impacting instruction or creating databases, what should be chosen if resources allow only one choice? I contend that technology should first serve the needs of students and only after that the needs of the system.

Herman Gaither is the former superintendent of Beaufort County Public Schools in South Carolina.