Putting Educational Technology to the Test

Earlier this summer, Jack Christie, director of Texas' State Board of Education, hosted a technology summit meeting at which a proposal was discussed to exchange textbooks for laptop computers in the state's kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms. As Christie put it to us in our story on education technology in this issue: "Textbooks cost $58 or more, and they are out of date when you put them on the desk. The laptop is far superior to the traditional textbook, and the affordability factor is coming into play. It is just a matter of time."

Do you agree with him? Or do you consider Christie a dreamer or a technologist? I think he's what some management consultants refer to as a "spear thrower," the member of a business team whose role it is to be a catalyst or forward thinker. By asking whether it's time to replace textbooks in the classroom, he's challenged the Texas education establishment to thrash out difficult questions on the economics of education, whether to adopt new learning techniques and the nature of teaching with the Internet.

Whatever Texas educators decide, the state will have taken a long, hard look how best to mix technology and education. How many other states are bold enough to do the same? It's a good bet that if a state has the political discipline to take such questions seriously-as Texas has-it is probably already delivering a level of educational quality to its citizens for which it can be proud, even without the latest and greatest technology at its disposal.

Of course, such questions might never have been asked if the technology itself was not mature enough to require such attention from education boards. But as our story shows, developers and marketeers in the computer and telecommunications industry have been working overtime to produce products and programs specifically for the education market.

Some of the innovations are amazing: CD-ROM encyclopedias are on the market that enable users do statistical analysis, such as a demographic comparison between the United States and China. Internet filtering tools are available expressly for the education market that let network administrators produce audit trails for students' online sessions. Speaking of networks, some companies are taking a kind of "value pack" approach to pricing high-speed network services to schools, offering Ethernet connections, e-mail, file transfer and training for several hundred connections at a set fee.

Each is an example of the sophistication that the computer and telecommunications industries have used to meet the demand for high-tech education tools in recent years. But as educational products become even more innovative and further challenge traditional teaching practices, it will be even more important for people such as Texas' Christie to come forward and ask again whether it's time to embrace the new technology or stick with the tried and true.

Paul McCloskey



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