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Personal Reflections on Education and Technology

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 7, 2010 Deadline
July Issue

Personal Reflections on Education and Technology

Technology has a way of becoming invisible in our lives, something we take for granted. The initial “Wow!” factor fades and we start to assume everyone has access.

Yet, not every student has easy access to the Internet. Not every student has access to computers or typewriters to prepare papers for classes. My previous assumptions about technology in our schools have been proved incorrect, and that troubles me. A student with no word processing skills, who is unfamiliar with spreadsheets, and struggles with basic Internet research faces serious challenges in this labor market.

For the last four years, I have been fortunate enough to visit states from coast to coast, meeting educational experts and civic leaders who are attempting to address many of the same problems we face in the Central Valley. My travels have taken me to places nationwide that are closing schools, laying off teachers and struggling with what can only be called worst case scenarios.

San Francisco and Los Angeles plan to close schools in 2011, though parents are suing to prevent this. To keep schools open, programs would have to be cut. Music, art, and technology courses are expensive programs, making them obvious budget targets.

In April, the school district in St. Paul, Minn., voted to close another six school sites during the summer, adding to a long list of previous closures. Kansas City, Missouri, is closing half of their 61 school sites. While many of the school districts face declining enrollments as nearby factories close, there is also a move towards larger class sizes and fewer class offerings.

In Illinois, I saw a relatively new school, a beautiful building, closed and surrounded by a chain-link fence. The area is surrounded by new homes, but many of these sit empty with “For Sale, Bank Owned” signs in the yards. It was going to be the district’s model for technology access. Older buildings in the district would cost millions to retrofit even for basic power outlets. But, the money ran out and the building is empty.

We cannot risk becoming like the dead cities of Illinois or Michigan. We must ensure our students have the technology skills and critical thinking abilities necessary in a global economy. Without a skilled workforce, employers do pick up and move. They move to high-tech hubs like Atlanta, Denver, and Houston where universities and local schools are focused on the future.

In 2006, I was offered a doctoral fellowship to attend the University of Minnesota. The Diversity of Views and Experiences (DOVE) Fellowship program at Minnesota funds 20 graduate students annually, with the goal of preparing leaders who will serve disadvantaged groups and regions.

Central Valley residents know our region is economically challenged. Fresno topped a 2005 Brookings Institute analysis of concentrated poverty in the United States. The report, Katrina’s Window: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America, compared the greater Fresno area unfavorably to New Orleans. Our schools valiantly serve large numbers of disadvantaged students, from an astounding range of backgrounds.

Sadly, during my four years of study, the situation has deteriorated further. A congressional district on the western edge of Tulare County is now ranked one of the five most economically depressed in the United States. Education is the key to improving this dire situation, especially technology education.

I’ve had school administrators tell me that a good student can learn anything, so we shouldn’t worry about the lack of technology. While our teachers must come first, followed by resource support professionals, we cannot afford to ignore the essential nature of technology skills. A good learner is a life-long learner, yes, but if I have to choose between two job applicants, I am hiring the one ready to start working.

When I talk to business leaders, they consistently mention basic computer skills. With tight budgets, employers cannot afford to hire technologically illiterate graduates. I’ve been certain the employers were exaggerating, until I talked to students. Many do not have computers at home. Without reliable computer hardware in their classrooms or libraries, these students have no chance to master the skills that lead to careers.

Don’t misunderstand me: nothing, certainly no hardware or software, can replace a qualified and enthusiastic teacher in the elementary grades. But, as employers of the 1970s expected familiarity with typewriters and calculators, today’s employers expect and even demand a “digital literacy” of new hires.

When the economy is slow is precisely the time to be investing in the future of our schools. Once the economy improves, business will expand, or relocate, near the most affordable prepared workforces. Cheap labor is insufficient, or the Valley would attract all manner of employers. A prepared workforce is key to our future.

After four years of research, travel and conferences, I am convinced more than ever that investing in technology education must be a priority for Central Valley school districts. Major national employers are testing prospective hires on Word, Excel, and computer basics. The employers I have interviewed expect high school graduates to have expertise many of my university students lacked.

Technology does cost money, but it is cheaper to invest in a school computer lab than to support underemployed graduates later in life. An educator from the Midwest told me that her school had fewer than five “functional” computers for 600 students. Even if this teacher was overstating the situation, I have visited schools without classroom computers and only two or three working systems in a library.

I have seen teachers bring personal laptops into classes for students to use. I’ve even seen a teacher bring an LCD projector to school because the district-owned unit failed and there were no replacement bulbs immediately available. Because a projector lamp can cost $200 or more, I understand not having two or three extras on hand.

Putting sufficient computers in classrooms and libraries requires significant funding. Technology changes so rapidly that a ten-year-old computer is ancient. That’s better than nothing, but it seems like having an old mimeograph in the office instead of a copier.

Let us hope our school leaders find ways to invest in the Valley’s future. I’ve seen how bad things can get when regions don’t keep up with employer expectations.

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