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21st century skills, the future of technology and education

MADISON – Louis Loeffler, technology coordinator for the Sun Prairie Area School District, laid out his vision for technology’s growing role in education at a meeting of the World Future Society’s Madison chapter, last Thursday evening.

While more Americans than ever are getting a public education, he said, classrooms will need to change to help children keep up with the developing world. New technologies can also offer better measurements of students’ abilities.

“There is no connection between me taking a test and doing well, and also going out and getting a job and doing well,” Loeffler said.

Schools will have to change their methods to continue being effective, he said. The key may be what he called “digital literacy,” encompassing knowledge not just of letters and grammar – which might once have marked a person as educated – but of the economic, technological and other systems people must now understand to make a living.

Loeffler presented a possible future where schools produced personal lessons for children with different learning styles and abilities, using computers to track their progress and present them with learning material on demand.
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To demonstrate, he used a Web site he prepared for the presentation in place of a PowerPoint presentation and showed video clips and “learning objects,” small Web-based programs that encapsulate concepts or lessons.

“The best teachers ... work in multiple modes,” Loeffler said. “They know that this child learns differently from that child.”

Computers can use adaptive teaching methods where teachers facing large classes could not. A system could track students’ progress individually and help teachers choose appropriate lessons and questions. In a literature class, for example, Loeffler said he could give students different books that taught the same lessons, but at different reading levels – and adaptive computer tests make this possible on a large scale.

Not only could these lessons be adapted to children’s learning styles, they could be experienced at any time, repeated endlessly, and taken anywhere, thanks to the Internet.

“I’m no longer confined to ‘Gosh, did I check that video out?’” Loeffler said, while demonstrating educational digital videos linked from his own Web site.

The types of computers and operating systems used in schools are also changing. Loeffler said open-source software is being rapidly deployed in schools, because of constricting budgets. In particular, the free OpenOffice.org is an attractive option to the Sun Prairie school district, which could find other uses for the nearly $100,000 it takes to install Microsoft Office on 1,400 school computers.

Computer hardware, however, is still an expense many families cannot afford, and Loeffler’s ideas about distance learning, which would bring lessons into students’ home computers, raised concerns.

“[What if] we’re working with kids who can’t afford a computer?” said Bob Bean, who wondered how a distance-learning system could operate fairly when tech-savvy and higher-income families have an advantage in giving their kids access to computers.

Loeffler said the price of computers would continue to drop, and schools are already exploring the option of offering refurbished and rented computers.

As part of a computer-learning program in Harlem, families were asked “Are you willing to give up something that costs $25 a month,” he said. For that much, they could rent computers and connect to the school’s online resources.

Loeffler’s ideas are at the forefront in Wisconsin. He predicted technology’s influence on the classroom would only grow.

“It really makes it real when someone from Sun Prairie says ‘this is what’s out there – this is what’s coming’,” said John-Bryan Paprock, the Wisconsin Future Society’s Madison chapter coordinator.

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Jason Stitt is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at jason@wistechnology.com.

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