Years ago, as personal computers and other technological advancements began to find their way into classrooms and other educational settings, teachers and administrators sought ways to use new technology to benefit students. The potential for improving education was clear, but the limitations of the available education technology made it difficult for education institutions to turn that potential into reality.
"From the late ’80s through the 2000s, a lot of people in education thought we were serving technology," says Frank Mulgrew, president of the Online Education Institute at Post University in Waterbury, Conn. "You had to operate it the way it was set up."
But the unrelenting pace of technological advancements has created more options and has put more power in the hands of individuals.
"The real innovation is how easy you can use it and how much control you have," says Mulgrew. "The tools have become democratized. The focus is on students, and they’re expecting technology to be used."
The most obvious way in which technology is changing schools and universities is online education. More than 6.1 million college students took at least one online course during the fall 2010 semester, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. At the K-12 level, 55 percent of districts had students enrolled in distance education courses in 2009-10, the National Center for Education Statistics says.
Education technology not only provides students with access to courses that might otherwise not be available to them, but also changes the way they learn.
"The interaction between students and faculty is much greater in online courses," says Mulgrew. "The interaction can take place anytime, anywhere. They don’t have to wait in line to talk to the professor. If you’re an introvert, communicating online might be a more comfortable and effective way for you to have contact."
Interaction among students can become more robust, even though they may never actually meet face to face. Discussion boards for some online courses have a few hundred entries a week.
Technology also is changing the kinds of students that are seeking higher education. People whose life circumstances—job, family, finances, health—prevent them from physically attending classes on a college campus now are able to pursue their education in a way that accommodates their needs.
"Online programs can help people overcome barriers to education," says Mulgrew.
Bring Your Own
It wasn’t too long ago that it was commonplace for schools to restrict students’ ability to use technology. Policies typically prohibited students from using cell phones. But as phones have become "smarter" and more powerful, and other mobile devices have become more prevalent, some education institutions have decided to let students take advantage of the equipment they already own.
The Lewisville (Texas) Independent School District is one of several systems that has formalized this more welcoming approach with a "Bring Your Own Technology" program. Students are encouraged to bring any Wi-Fi-capable device, such as laptops, netbooks, tablets or smartphones, for use in their classrooms. They sign on to the district’s wireless network and are able to use their devices in classes when "the teacher deems it appropriate for educational purposes."
Wireless access is available for high school and middle school students; elementary school students will gain access by August 2012. For students that don’t have their own technology, the district will provide resources for them to have access to the Internet.
Schools that let students bring their own devices save money because they don’t have to acquire equipment for all students. "Bring Your Own Technology" programs also bring schools closer to a goal of one computer for each student. Research from Project Red (Revolutionizing Education) shows that students in schools that have one-to-one computer ratios have fewer discipline problems, fewer dropouts, and are more likely to have plans to attend college.
Store your own
Technology enables education institutions to transform reams of printed materials in their libraries into gigabytes of data that do not need space-eating rows of shelves. But in many cases, the needs of academic researchers aren’t satisfied with digital versions of materials. In fact, finding a digital document may make a researcher realize that he or she has to examine the physical document. That creates a dilemma for universities who aspire to be premier research institutions: Either alienate those researchers by offering some documents only digitally, or find space to physically accommodate the ever-growing stacks of historical material.
Some institutions without sufficient space to expand have had to move some of their library materials off campus, and those seeking access to those archived documents often have to wait a day or longer to have the information retrieved from an off-site storage site.
At the University of Chicago, technology helped planners find a way to keep those materials on campus, readily accessible to researchers, and create enough storage space to meet the university’s needs for 20 years, even as it adds some 150,000 print volumes each year.
The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, with an impressive glass, elliptical dome covering the one-story structure, is an attention-getting modern addition to the University of Chicago campus—since it opened last year, some students have taken to calling it "the egg" and noting its resemblance to R2D2 of Star Wars fame. The dome has 691 glass panels that cover an expansive 180-seat reading room, but the real action at the Mansueto Library takes place below the surface.
That’s where an automated storage and retrieval system has been installed. The system is 50 feet deep and has 1,200 racks that hold a total of 24,000 bins. All told, in one-seventh of the space taken by conventional shelves, the system has the capacity to hold the equivalent of 3.5 million volumes—the largest such system of any North American library, the university says.
All the materials placed in storage, as well as the bins, are labeled with bar codes so the library computer system can track their locations. When library users request stored material via the online catalog system, one of the storage system’s five robotic cranes is activated to retrieve the appropriate bin and bring it to the surface within a few minutes.
The basement storage area is kept at 60 degrees and 30 percent relative humidity to help preserve the materials—mostly serials, periodicals and other materials that can be found online, as well as rare and fragile materials that should not be kept on open shelves.
The Mansueto building also has a 6,000-square-foot section devoted to preservation of library materials. It includes a conservation laboratory where aging documents are repaired, and a digitization lab that converts materials to digital form.
Technological improvements also make it easier for systems in a large organization, such as a university or a school district, to share information with each other.
"We are able to do things now that were either physically impossible or prohibitively expensive," says Mulgrew.
Instructors and student advisers can have easy access to data on student performance; a coach can look online to see if a student-athlete has fallen behind in coursework and take steps to intervene before it becomes a serious problem.
"We have better tools to track performance and target help," says Mulgrew. "There are things that we should have been doing all along, but now we can track it online and make sure it gets done."
As technology pushes education to become more student-centered, classrooms and college campuses will evolve.
"Classrooms are largely constructed the same as they were before these changes," says Mulgrew. "Lectures for the most part are anachronistic at best. They are not a powerful way to learn. The physical makeup will have to change."
Education institutions are slow to change, but the advances in technology that have given students more control over how they learn will force schools and universities to adapt.
"We’ve been boring students for a long time," says Mulgrew. "When you make things more engaging and relevant for students, it’s amazing what they’ll produce for you."
- Read three "Education Technology Transformation" sidebars to learn about technology and how it's changing today's learning.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].