Executive Perspective

Harnessing Kids’ Tech Fascination

by DANIEL A. DOMENECH

I am intimidated by people like Alan November whose fingers glide over their computer keys and in the process go to websites that offer the answers to all the questions that would otherwise go unanswered.

I do e-mail and an occasional PowerPoint presentation. I am proud of the fact I now can do e-mail on my BlackBerry as well. That’s the extent of my prowess in technology.

Dan DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

Jillian, my 17-year-old high school senior, is another story. She sleeps with her iPhone under her pillow. If it were waterproof, I am sure that she would bathe with it. She does incredible things with her MacBook, from videos to post on YouTube to the content of her Facebook pages. Getting her to do her homework is a challenge, but getting her to turn off her tech tools and go to sleep is an even bigger challenge.

This is the message that November, Keith Krueger and other presenters at our AASA Seattle Summit in midsummer conveyed: Education is missing the boat by not taking advantage of the love affair between our kids and technology.

Personal Panic
I was a young superintendent on Long Island, N.Y., when, in 1978, I bought the first set of Commodore PET computers for our schools. You could play Space Invaders on it, but mostly you had to learn to program the darn thing to get it to do anything. High school courses focused primarily on learning programming language. Few could afford to buy a Commodore for home use and the power of the Internet had yet to be unleashed.

Today, technology is an integral part of our daily routines. Just recently I left home in a rush and forgot my BlackBerry. I would have just as soon forgotten my shoes. I felt completely cut off from the world. I had an anxiety attack realizing that hundreds of e-mails were coming to me, unanswered. I panicked that evening when, without a cell phone, I had no way of communicating with my wife, who was meeting me for dinner in the District of Columbia. When was the last time you had to use a pay phone? Don’t bother looking; they rarely exist anymore.

As PCs came down in price, they became more prevalent in our schools. Every building had at least one computer lab where classes were scheduled for at least an hour a week. Software became available that allowed teachers to reinforce classroom instruction. Remediation programs in reading and math were abundant and computers found their way out of labs and into classrooms.

I recall that in 1997, when I became the superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., I visited one of our elementary schools that had created a stir in technology circles. Mantua Elementary was one of the first schools in the country to provide every child with a laptop computer. Ellen Schoetzau, the principal at Mantua, took me into a classroom where I saw first-hand how the kids were using their eMates. The students were writing essays on the computer and they used an infrared beam in the machine to beam their essay to the teacher and to other pupils in the class. The kids were having a ball writing and beaming. The teacher reported that the amount of student writing had significantly increased in the class and with it the quality of writing.

Growing Applications
A dozen years have passed since then and, clearly, kids are still having a ball using their cell phones, iPods and laptop computers. A major difference today is that most of the use takes place outside the school rather than in the classroom. Chip Kimball, superintendent of the Lake Washington School District outside of Seattle, told us at the summer conference he had visited a high-poverty school in his district and, while visiting a classroom, had inquired as to how many kids owned a cell phone. Every hand in the class went up. Prior to becoming superintendent, Kimball was the district’s chief information officer, and under his leadership Lake Washington has been recognized as one of the top technology districts in the country.

The integration of technology into learning is no longer the province of the desktop or the laptop. Handheld devices like cell phones, iPhones, BlackBerrys and iTouch are beginning to offer applications that enhance classroom learning by engaging kids to use tools they are constantly using anyway. I was awed at an Apple-sponsored workshop I recently attended when I learned that the iPhone has 55,000 applications and counting.

I am frustrated by the fact I will never be able to make use of these wonderful tools as well as Alan November, or my daughter for that matter. I do recall, however, that as a superintendent I was able to implement cutting-edge programs in math and language arts even though I was not an expert in either field.

Krueger is CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit organization that serves as the voice of K-12 technology leaders. He talks about the empowered 21st-century superintendent as the leader who embraces technology and its implications for school transformation and reform. We don’t have to be a Kimball to recognize kids take to technology like fish to water and that we, as educators, must harness that interest to bring about greater student achievement.

Dan Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org