By Any (Affordable) Means Necessary: Technology Infrastructure Challenges in the K-12 System

Will this be the generation we look back and shudder at the lost opportunity? Advances in technology have provided such huge opportunities to reform education, the slow pace of change is enough to cause reformers of all stripes anxiety attacks. But often lost in the pressure to integrate new opportunities into the classroom is a dose of reality: new technology is great, but only if schools have the basic infrastructure.  In our rush to bring about something new and better in education, we can’t forget the limitations school districts face today.

It’s so simple it’s almost disheartening: much of the education system in the United States lacks the basic technology infrastructure that we take for granted or should expect.  In a previous post, the fiscal restraints imposed on the California State University system were highlighted as an opportunity for private actors to engage the system by providing some of the necessary infrastructure to change the way higher education works.   But those same opportunities often do not exist at the K-12 level for a variety of reasons -less centralization, more fragmentation in infrastructure, and larger numbers of students and student needs.

These issues were illustrated in a recent New York Times article, In City Schools, Tech Spending to Rise Despite Cuts. The article notes that “$542 million next year alone that will primarily pay for wiring and other behind-the-wall upgrades to city schools.”   But in addition, “the city is also planning to cut $1.3 billion from its budget for new school construction over the next three years, and to eliminate 6,100 teaching positions, including 4,600 by layoffs.”

This seeming conflict, and resulting controversy, raises two issues.  First, technology is increasingly important to schools because it provides a better Return On Investment.   And, while it’s unfortunate that such terms would seep into education reform, it’s a necessary reality given today’s economic circumstances.   School districts lack the funding to provide anything extra, everything is being cut to the bone.   Hence an increase in the money invested in technology makes sense in the long-run, especially with so many programs offered at low to no cost online, e.g. the Khan Acadmey.  Second, school districts are woefully far behind in their infrastructure. This is especially important since budgets are being slashed.   Put another way, before we can reap the benefits of investments in technology, the United States must still actually make the investments in connecting our classrooms to the Internet and the plethora of online academic tools that are emerging for online education.

This is just an example to highlight one of the greatest threats to fixing education today -lack of basic infrastructure.   Failure to invest significant sums in our education over the last several decades has made the recent economic challenges even more painful.  But unlike a road, pushing off repair of the education system will have much more serious long-term ramifications. Children that are falling behind today are unlikely to catch up tomorrow.

So where does this leave K-12 education?   Is all lost?  No.   Because as much as K-12 might be behind Higher Education in terms of technology, they’ve also avoided some minefields as well -remember laser discs?   What’s important is to remember that in our rush to innovate and reform, we recognize the reality of structural limits so that we can provide real solutions to actual problems, not just high minded theory or political rhetoric (by politicians or business leaders).

Here, more than ever it’s important for community leaders to think inventively about how to integrate technology in our classrooms at the lowest cost by any (affordable) means necessary.