1.5 million reasons to get a grip on digital learning: Q+A with ISTE’s Don Knezek

Susan Sawyers is a multimedia journalist and social media strategist. She’s interested in education, philanthropy and lifestyle reporting and works with Jane Williams, host and producer of Bloomberg EDU – radio’s weekly education program. Susan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Huffington Post, The Hechinger Report and New York Social Diary.
A graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Grinnell College, she was the former director/curator of Los Angeles’ Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. She is a DoSomething speedcatcher and judge, working with young people to fulfill their community service goals. She lives near Central Park with her husband, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Physician/Scientist Charles Sawyers, and their two children. She knows she’s lucky.

Photo Courtesy of ISTE

I recently spoke with Donald G. Knezek, 62, chief executive officer of the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE), a Washington, D.C. based membership association for educators and education leaders, about learning and teaching through technology. A father, former teacher and school administrator, Knezek is gearing up for ISTE’s annual conference in Philadelphia next week. Stephen R. Covey, author of The Leader in Me and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Chris Lehmann, founding principal of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy and Karen Cator, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, are among the presenters.
By way of education technology background, there were an estimated 1,500,000 enrollments in online learning in 2009 according to Virginia-based International Association for K-12 Online learning (iNACOL). What’s more, the U.S. preK-12 market for education technology products and services reached $2.2 billion in 2010, up from $2.05 billion in 2009, according to a report published by Oregon-based market research firm Ambient Insight. In the meanwhile, luminaries like Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, Joan Ganz Cooney, co-founder of the Children’s Television Workshop (since renamed Sesame Workshop), and Joel Klein, former New York City Public Schools chancellor turned chief executive officer of News Corporation’s Education Division, are creating digital learning initiatives and corporate business plans to promote education through technology.
Knezek shared his insights in this Q + A.
What is education technology?
Knezek: It is the use of modern tools [a browser, for example] for information and knowledge to support and enhance relevant teaching and learning. It may refer to analyzing student data and management or access and mapping of curriculum for standards. Think of it as the interaction of teachers and students in terms of knowledge and skills.
Why does technology in education matter?
One of the things technology enables is a great deal of informal learning. The real question for teachers and parents is how do I get this learning experience to kids? That’s different from how do I get kids to learn.
What do students need to know?
Knezek: Obviously, there’s a place for traditional curriculum but things like effective communications, research techniques and teamwork are important for student’s technological literacy. We don’t assess these digital age skills. Test results are isolated yet our work [outside of school] is social and engaged in teamwork. There’s such a misalignment.
Where does the learning take place?
Knezek: You have more opportunities online than you can have in your classroom. You have to be connected in order to do the learning and the teaching. But, thinking that it’s a silver bullet for every student is an overpromise.
What is “personalized learning?”
Knezek: We’ve known for a long time that some students grasp concepts faster or slower than others. It would be nice to offer pacing that optimizes learning because it keeps them engaged, challenges them at their appropriate level AND is of interest to them. That was always my fear [as a teacher] in my math classes. Some kids are bored to death. With technology, it’s much easier to engage students because it is tailored to their level or style of learning.
How does technology engage students?
Knezek: The data analysis part of education technology makes it easier for a teacher to see precisely where a student is or isn’t grasping concepts. The teacher can supplement or enhance learning in or outside of school. Also, exceptional students who don’t need to be at a minimal skills level can get to higher a level. They can use technology to “engage” in the community or the world.
Is there an example where personalized learning engages students?
Knezek: An example would be Khan Academy. It serves kids who need a different approach to course material, to advance beyond their peers. For others, who are challenged by the core content, they can review material taught in class. Students may need more time, more examples to grasp the concepts. They might be visual learners. They can have exercises built-in to the program. Students work at their own pace. But like most things, it’s not a canned package.
Any other examples of education technology that might work for students?
Knezek: We’ve got evidence where sometimes for credit recovery, students who have fallen behind can make up credits online. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for all students. In South Texas, we see a lot of migrant worker students. Those kids, who have a really high work ethic, leave school in March and don’t come back until October or November so to get credit is really difficult for them. They are transient, not in one place at a time. They are not blowing off their classes. Earning credits online could work for them.
And what’s the role of the teacher?
Knezek: That’s the part that requires the teacher’s sophistication. They have access to information to tell them what concepts the student did or didn’t grasp. The teacher can make an appropriate assignment for that kid.
How has a teacher’s job evolved when it comes to technology?
Knezek: This completely depends on the pedagogy used for the online learning experience.  It could be enhancing a lecture, electronic workbooks or some very engaging social, product or a problem-focused project. Teachers have to have the will and the skill to adapt and that’s not automatic.
How do we know what students are or are not learning?
Knezek: Haha. Well. I wouldn’t look to our standardized test results.
Frankly, our assessment system is a tremendous shortcoming for determining whether students are learning what they need to learn. In all honesty, I don’t believe we do know what students are learning.
What do we do about assessments?
Knezek: I don’t know. I thought we could talk to different policy makers but I wonder.
What would you do improve education technology?
Knezek: I would design teacher observation protocol and a student portfolio that demonstrates mastery of any subject. It could be a written report or a science fair project, but it is the idea of a product and mastery. It comes down to valuing our teachers. We have to acknowledge that the teacher can do informal comprehension checks, either electronically or face-to-face.
What kind of tech tools do you use?
My most important tool is my browser. I use Firefox, Safari some. Other than that, I use a budgeting function to oversee the organization. I use my email app really heavily but increasingly, I text.
Last question, mac or pc?
Knezek: I’m mac all the way. I don’t have an iPhone or Blackberry. People laugh at me. I use my cell phone for texting and voice. I think it’s time. Smaller is better for browsing.

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