Apodaca: Keeping schools plugged in increasingly hard

A few months before his untimely death last October, Steve Jobs was visited by his longtime business rival Bill Gates.

The two technology giants talked for hours, at one point discussing their visions of what schools of the future should look like and their mutual disappointment that the educational establishment had failed to fully embrace the computer age.

This small but telling anecdote was mentioned in Walter Isaacson's excellent, exhaustive biography of the Apple cofounder.

If these sentiments are true, it begs the question: What is holding us back?

As with many complex issues, there are no easy answers. Debates about the best ways to fuse technology with education have persisted since the 1960s, and have gained momentum and urgency as personal devices such as laptops, smart phones and tablets have grown ubiquitous, and the Internet has transformed the way we communicate.

To a certain extent, educators can claim that they've assimilated to those advancements. Virtually all schools across the country had Internet access by 2010, government studies show.

The increasing use of technology is evident in Newport-Mesa, where parents like me — I've had at least one child in local schools since the mid-1990s — have witnessed the changes over the years. I now fill out registration forms and check grades on-line, while my son can file homework assignments and get classroom, club and school sports information electronically. This wasn't always the case.

Yet throughout the nation, technological capabilities vary tremendously from district to district, school to school, and archaic teaching methods often prevail. Keeping up with fast-moving innovations has proven challenging, to say the least, particularly in a glacial sector like education, where change is often implemented only after decades of studies.

Meanwhile, many educators struggle mightily to grasp how technology can be utilized in ways that actually help students learn. In a larger sense, it's tough to implement promising new techniques and ideas in a system that remains stubbornly old school; where kids still lug around massive dog-eared textbooks and daydream during long-winded lectures.

Studying and debating time-tested educational principles are all well and good, but in the meantime our kids are already light-years ahead of the vast majority of teachers in their technological abilities. It makes eminent good sense to harness those skills and use them to keep students engaged in a powerful, interactive learning experience. This is the path that education must take.

Still, warnings are repeatedly issued that we must also avoid the temptation to view technology alone as a panacea for our educational ills. Indeed, all those computers won't matter much if they're not part of a coordinated approach to achieving deep and meaningful learning.

"Technology is not the Band-Aid to put on the problem, it's a tool to incorporate in the classroom," said Jenith Mishne, director of education technology for Newport-Mesa Unified. "For a teacher with 38 sixth-graders trying to teach to the standards, it's really hard to integrate technology effectively."

There's one glaring factor that's making the task harder still: money, or more to the point, the lack of it.

At a time when California schools are barely managing to keep their engines running, figuring out how to pay for expensive technology is a daunting challenge.

Mishne is a case in point. Her department, which coordinates all technology-based professional development and training for the district, once had a staff of five. By mid-2010, due to budget constraints, Mishne was flying solo; she was allowed to take on a part-time assistant this past February.

She works closely with the team of Alan Engard, the district's director of information technology, and assistant director Asim Babovic. The pair are tasked with overseeing the district's 12,000 electronic devices — computers, printers, phones, etc. — which sometimes means that patching together old stuff is the best solution they can offer.

District funding cuts have forced these technology experts to engineer some creative solutions. Mishne, for example, is utilizing more instructional videos to keep up with teacher and staff training, while Engard and Babovic rely on a network of technologically savvy teachers to help out at school sites.

"We were a little more cutting edge before this happened," Mishne said.

Despite the gloomy funding picture, the Newport-Mesa technology team is helping pilot some promising projects at various schools throughout the district — more on those in future columns. The catch, as always, will be keeping the money flowing through grants, donations and other sources so that the district can take advantage of any successful outcomes.

Beyond the financial challenges, the key to effectively integrating technology in education will come down to individual teachers and their understanding of how the tools work, and how they can best be used.

In its latest technology plan released in late 2010, the U.S. Department of Education spelled out its vision of using technology to help foster "engaging, relevant and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students' daily lives and the reality of their futures."

That goal requires putting students "at the center" and giving them tools to "take control of their own learning," it stated. It called for "connected teaching," in which educators become "facilitators and collaborators in their students' increasingly self-directed learning."

Sounds great. The question remains: How will we make that happen?

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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