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Investing in Technology: The Public Relations Problem

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By Sara Nolan

A few weeks ago, the Department of Education introduced its Digital Promise, an initiative to invest in “breakthrough technologies" aimed at transforming the way teachers teach and students learn. Though the message from the top about the importance of leveraging technology seems to be clear, it's a different story on a local level.

A recent SIIA study indicates a decline in what had been steady progress toward schools and universities building technology and e-learning into their frameworks. Karen Billings, vice president for Education for the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), links this change in part to the economic climate. She notes that it's not just budget cuts, but also the emotional impact of those cuts -- and of prolonged economic hardship in general -- that's affecting how schools buy and integrate technology.

“I liken it to the situation that many companies are finding themselves in,” she says. “Even if they find themselves with some money in the bank, they're waiting longer before making any decisions about what to do with it. They are too nervous about the future.” Particularly when it comes to bringing in new technology, she says, schools are taking a longer time to evaluate the products and their potential impact and long-term viability because they think “they can’t afford to make the wrong decision.”

In this highly charged context, however, sometimes even the right decision can seem like the wrong one. “There is definitely a problem in communication of those programs,” Billings says. She's referring to the flack that schools face when community concerns – and media headlines – focus on issues like budget cuts, layoffs, and overcrowding. “Computers in the classroom might be right for one school in a district while at the same time they’re needing to close another school because it’s under-performing or under-enrolled. But once it hits the papers, it’s ‘They’re closing schools and adding computers.’”

As the PTO co-president from tech-rich, budget-embattled Kyrene recently put it in the New York Times article, “You don’t go buy a new outfit when you don’t have enough dinner to eat.” This is recession psychology, and it has a powerful hold on the way we will fund technology in education going forward.


These aspects of recession psychology at work speak to the current state of our “animal spirits” – the human emotions and outlooks that drive economic action. In the book Animal Spirits:
How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism
, authors George Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller address “the sense of trust we have in each other, our sense of fairness in economic dealings, and our sense of the extent of corruption and bad faith.” What those animal spirits seem to need now -- if they are to be boosted in this or any other area of the economy -- are equal parts hope and hard facts.

In Billings’ analysis, this means that educational technology companies need to be prepared to speak to current and potential users in terms of long-term value for their investment – especially in terms of instructional and administrative efficiencies. “Some schools might choose to switch to a virtual field trip, for example” she says. “They save money on gas, buses. But that needs a lot of bandwidth, so that’s where the investment is.”

Take, for example, the cost of iPads. Last year, Presidio Middle School in San Francisco piloted an algebra class using the iPad, funded by the publisher of the algebra curriculum, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Pam Clisham, the principal, knows well that the devices are costly.

"They’re expensive, but so are textbooks," she says. "If you had one iPad and all of your textbooks were on your iPad, it would be the same cost. Right now textbooks are running $50 or $60 dollars a piece, plus supplementary materials." Once you add the cost of each textbook per student per year, the investment in the devices are more than justified.

But it's more than just about buying the devices. It's about the mindset around change. When it comes to deciding on priorities, former Governor Bob Wise, president of the Alliance of Excellent Education, said recently: “By the time you get to a consensus, that technology has leapfrogged over you. What you have to do is to provide flexibility that allows systems to move. It’s recognizing that technology is like water, it finds its levels, it moves.”

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