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GUEST COLUMN: Technology is changing the world

A few days ago one of our principals interviewed a prospective staff member via Skype. From the Forestview staff offices the interview team conducted a discussion seen and heard in real time on a laptop computer. The teacher candidate lived in another state, in another time zone. The candidate asked and answered questions about her qualifications for a teaching position, and the Internet became a vehicle for having a professional discussion about who should join our organization and work with children in our community.

Yesterday one of my adult daughters, having just returned from a vacation in the Rocky Mountains, told me how she was able to find and reserve a campsite, preview and map a great hike, and set up a lot of her trip from her passenger seat during the drive to Colorado! For fun, my 11-year-old son last night showed me how to play an old (1980s!) video game on our new television. My son, like so many of our community’s children, is a true digital learner, comfortable with gadgets and new tools and using them to learn and to have fun. The 21st Century technology is everywhere and it is amazing! It is changing how we work, how we communicate, and how we compete with  the rest of the world. Schools must participate as full partners in this revolution.

A few weeks ago we trained over 450 certified staff in a new email, calendar, and document software package which will allow us all greater flexibility and opportunity to work with students, parents, and colleagues. Staff all over the district will begin pilots next year of classroom use of newer mobile technologies like tablets (iPads, iPods,  and others) in addition to the laptops, smartboards, and other interactive presentation tools already established in many of our classrooms. Training and staff development is constant, ongoing, and moving as fast as the new tools and applications are being developed. Teachers are attending workshops and talking with statewide colleagues throughout the summer as we begin to move to cloud computing and prepare for the advances of mobile technologies already adopted in other states and other districts.

Through some relatively small investments we hope to yield a great amount of learning about how best to move ahead helping our students ‘power up’ rather than ‘power down’ when they walk in the schoolhouse door. Our teachers and administrators are already being challenged to think about technologies in new ways. Think of the cell phone. Though we still have rules and practices about how a student can or cannot use a phone in school, how can we harness the power of smart phones to accelerate learning? I spend a lot of time watching Little League baseball games on summer nights. I’m not the only parent who, while watching a son or a daughter, has checked a Twins score, sent and deleted a few emails, ordered food for after the game, or called a grandparent from my bleacher chair. Technology is all around us, and some of our challenge is opening up our own minds as educators about the possibilities of helping students use new tools to learn differently, to learn within groups and individually, and to make sense of this new and rapidly changing world.

When educators talk about 21st Century Skills we talk a lot about new technology, but when we are asked what we expect to do with new technologies we are sometimes less clear than we should be. What skills are we trying to enhance? I think the 4 Cs are a good start. Critical thinking is one such skill.  Communication is another.  Collaboration is a third. Creativity — so downplayed in our last 10 years of testing and accountability — is a fourth.  All of these skills will be necessary for workers and citizens, and all of these skills will be enhanced by brave, well-trained educators who learn with their students and who work to embrace the reality that surrounds us. The Brainerd Public Schools need to move forward in smart, sensible ways to provide the children of our community skills, opportunities, and access to effective and meaningful technology.

STEVE RAZIDLO is superintendent of the Brainerd School District.