A "technology intervention plan" for a 20th century K-12 district

Abstract:  Systemic changes are needed in a traditional K-12 public school district that still operates on 20th century premises about learning. This plan proposes that the entire district be transformed from the traditional classroom model to the “blended” model of face-to-face learning activities with online individualized activities delivered via Web 2.0 applications.  In order to bring about rapid, system-wide change in the delivery of educational services, a program of one-to-one laptop adoption is proposed for the primary grades–K-3, while a graduated shift to blended learning, relying on modest improvements in existing IT resources and radical new curriculum writing, is proposed for the middle and upper grades.

This school district has not shifted from the 20th century model. It operates with a full bookstore full of out-moded learning tools:  pencils, paper, and textbooks. At the same time, the door to 21st century tools is barred:  students’ smart phones are completely banned, social network and media sites are blocked on school computers, and open-source information technologies like Wikipedia are eschewed or prohibited.  Many experts believe that the future of schools will be one in which technology has altered the basic ways of delivering educational services. They agree with Arne Duncan (2010), who champions “transformational change in the educational system” through “a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.”  The present proposal suggests a technological “intervention” in the operations of the school district so that it can re-organize itself to better serve learners’ needs. The proposal is two-fold and complementary:  one intervention alters the educational delivery modes with ICT (Information and Computer Technology), while the other entirely re-writes curriculum so that it can leverage the collaborative and connective advantages of the ICT. Heeding Secretary Duncan’s advice to the American Enterprise Institute (2010),  it strives to supply “smart” solutions that do not simply reproduce bad practices in high-tech packages.

One area that must change for the system’s transformation are the basic instructional delivery modes of the district. Right now, almost all of the learning activities in the district are set in 20th century face-to-face classrooms. However, the industrial model, in which students are divided by age into classrooms and moved through the day on a bell schedule, ignores the 21st century imperatives to prepare students to become flexible, collaborative learners. The delivery mode of the future will be “blended,” with students receiving a significant part of their instruction in one-to-one online learning activities.  As Duncan (2010) said in his recent address, “online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology” hold the promise of giving “each person the tools they need [sic] to be more successful.”  
Because blended education requires less teacher hours, space, and resource usage, this transformation is fiscally attractive, since it “pays for itself” in cost savings to the district. The ICT component of the “blend” can be most affordably handled now with the purchase of netbooks or similar limited-function digital communications devices, such as the Apple Ipad. When these are effectively distributed universally throughout a system in which the curriculum relies on individualized learning activities, transforming the mode of instructional delivery will be accomplished, but also its means of self-monitoring and controlling its growth. For the technologically transformed schools operate in what Weston and Bates (2010) call a “self-organizing” fashion–that is, they progress by a constant dynamic stream of data that allows just-in-time responses to interventions: using “cognitive tools [computers], aids in the gathering, sharing, and managing of feedback and adapting instruction in ways that enhance instruction and improve learning.” Schools organize their operation based on the information streams that the “cognitive tools” generate for stakeholders. This is true on the large scale, where administrators and teachers mine data to decide on the best shape for the overall curriculum for students, as on the personal, small scale, where students are able to get the real-time feedback on their practice of essential skills.  Not only are the schools transformed into “self-organized” entities, but in the best case scenario, students emerge “self-organizing learners,” able to proceed from school to work or higher ed with confidence in their skills.

The present proposal starts the cultural shift materially with a program of 1:1 netbook (or similar device) implemention in the primary grades, K-3. These initial grades are where the culture of schooling is set, and class sizes are relatively small. As students grow through the grades, they will take the new “blended” modality with them, seeing the laptop as current students do pencils and notebooks, and seeing online learning not as a disruptive force or add-on to normal learning, but as the way students normally get learning done. As Secretary Duncan (2010) says, we should have lower class sizes–no larger than one teacher to 17 students–in the primary grades. But in higher grades, districts should be able to “save money without hurting students, while allowing modest but smartly targeted increases in class size.” Even larger class sizes will be possible when the learning spaces look like a large Starbucks, with learners working individually while in the room with others.  But that is the future–after the technology intervention has been normalized. The present is very different. Ten years into the new century, the district is still delivering education according to a 20th century model, which Weston & Brooks (2008) characterize as having these four features:
(a) non-differentiated large-group instruction,
(b) access to information in classrooms
(c) non-engagement of parents, and
(d) summative assessment of performance
The proposed intervention for “blended” education would radically re-write the curriculum so that two features were at the core of each class, at each level. These essential features are:
(a) individualized skill practice via online applications, and
(b) collaborative, project-based learning activities

While the first essential feature can only happen with the technological intervention, the second can happen with or without technology. It is a change in the approach to learning that will require an entirely re-written curriculum that will make our district’s graduates employable in the current global economy. As Nastu (2009) puts it: “project-based learning can help students develop the … kinds of 21st-century skills–such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity–that today’s employers covet. Tackling long-term, student-led projects can help students build real-world skills and knowledge.”  Re-writing the core curriculum into project-based learning and altering the technological means of delivering that curriculum are both needed for the district to be transformed.

One great promise of outfitting students and teachers with laptops or similar devices (a technological intervention) is that doing so brings with it the necessary pre-conditions for transformed schools. Weston and Bates (2010) suggest that changing the delivery of educational services to the 1:1 laptop mode positions the school or district to engage in deeper, ongoing, systemic change:

…1:1 initiatives can be fertile ground for the creation of new-paradigm schools… The widespread availability of laptop computers can be a driver for the more expansive efforts that must happen in order for schools to meet the educational needs of all students. (14).

Before the implementation can work, however, there must be adequate training and resultant “teacher buy-in.” According to Silvernail and Buffington (2009), “providing teachers and students abundant access to laptop technology is only the first step toward using the technology as an effective instructional and learning tool” (p. 13).  What’s needed is teacher buy-in (perhaps from strong leadership mandates), a robust curriculum (the central tool of the district, re-written by teachers in this proposal to transform learning and thus teaching), and increased IT support (including increased band-width and wifi, as well as cost-saving open-source solutions on network and application software throughout the system). Without strong central office support, the proposed intervention is doomed to failure, since teachers will most likely go on, doing what they have done, though perhaps with the addition of technology now (substituting for, rather than revising existing curricula). 

Weston and Bain (2010) decry this status quo, in which a lack of leadership allows for “the autonomous, idiosyncratic, non-collaborative, and non-differentiated teaching practices that largely remain uninformed by research about what it takes to significantly improve student learning and achievement (Goodlad, 2004; Lortie, 2002; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001; Sizer, 2004). Massey and Zemsky (2009) claim that the ultimate problem in implementation will depend on faculty buy-in.  As they put it,  “E-learning will become pervasive only when faculty change how they teach—not before.”

Once these considerable hurdles are overcome, how will the success of the proposed intervention be assessed? Weston and Bates (2010) are helpful in providing criteria for knowing when transformative reforms have “worked.” The technologically-transformed district will have done the following four things to instruction at the school:
(a) accelerate it
(b) differentiate it
( c) deepen it
(d) maximize it for all learners

The curriculum at a technologically-transformed district would be based on:

(a) cooperative learning
(b) differentiated instruction
(c ) problem- or project-based learning

Such a curriculum would result in

(a) genuine differentiation for each student
(b) teachers “mining” just-in-time data on the results of differentiation
(c ) teachers using technology to collectively plan continuous improvement

At the end of the intervention would be what Weston and Bain (2010) call a “self-organizing” school, in which every stakeholder has an active role in the reform that has been facilitated, but not driven, by new technology (which the authors call “cognitive tools.” In the “self-organized” school, technology has been the main structural element, in which

cognitive tools help members to teach, learn, create, communicate, and deliver feedback. In schools with cognitive tools, teaching, learning, and technology are more than blurred. They are integrated, and they are inseparable. No question arises about getting teachers to “use the computers.” With the practice of teaching and learning so deeply embedded in the rules, design, collaboration, schema, and feedback processes of the school, its capacity to function is only possible using those tools. When a school reaches this point, it is a self-organizing learning enterprise (Bain, 2007).

By bringing in cognitive tools through the 1:1 netbook initiative and re-writing the curriculum throughout the district, the present proposal aims to facilitate the transformation of an irresponsible 20th century public school district into a viable, responsible, 21st century district that allows for maximal learning for each of its students.


Duncan, Arne (2010). “The new normal:  Doing more with less–Duncan’s Remarks at the American Enterprise Institute 17 November 2010. Accessed 26 November at

Goodlad, J. (2004). A place called school. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lortie, D. (2002). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Massey, W.P. and Zemsky, R. (2009). “Thwarted Innovation: What happened to e-Learning and Why.” A Final Report for The Weatherstation Project of The Learning Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania in cooperation with the Thomson Corporation. Accessed 26 November 2010 at http://www.coe.ufl.edu/Courses/EME5054/Foundations/Articles/thwartedinnovation_thwarted%20research.pdf .

McLaughlin, M., & Talbert, J. (2001). Professional communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Nastu, J. (2009). “Project-based learning engages students, garners results.” E-Schoolnews. 27 January 2009. Accessed 25 November 2010 at  http://www.eschoolnews.com/2009/01/27/esn-special-report-2/?ast=47

Nastu, J. (2010). “Blended learning on the rise.” E-Schoolnews Special Report. November/December 2010. Accessed at 26 November 2010 at http://www.eschoolnews.com/2010/10/27/esn-special-reportblended-learning-on-the-rise/

Silvernail, D., & Buffington, P. (2009). Improving mathematics performance using laptop technology: The importance of professional development for success. Gorham, ME: Maine Education Policy Research Institute.

Sizer, T. (2004). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Weston, M.E. & Bain, A. (2010). The End of Techno-Critique: The Naked Truth about 1:1 Laptop Initiatives and Educational Change. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 9(6). Retrieved 26 November 2010 from http://www.jtla.org.

Weston, M., & Brooks, D. (2008). Critical constructs as indicators of a shifting paradigm in education: A case study of four technology-rich schools. Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research in Education, 2(4), 281–291.

photo from eschoolnews

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