What is the Impact of Technology in the Classroom? A Q&A with Jim Shelton

September 16, 2014  • Keosha Varela

Above, watch Jim Shelton, deputy secretary at the US Department of Education, speak with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson about the impact of technology on student learning.

What is the impact of technology on student learning? According to Jim Shelton, deputy secretary at the US Department of Education, the benefits of adding digital educational tools to curriculum extend far beyond the classroom. Shelton, who is known in the education world for his work in the intersection of education and innovation, recently spoke about the subject at the Aspen Institute (watch the video above to view the full conversation).

Below, Shelton offers a deeper dive into the advantages of incorporating tech in schools.

Aspen Idea: How much does technology in the classroom impact student learning?

Jim Shelton: When students have access to powerful mobile devices and digital resources that are continually updated, they realize that learning doesn’t stop with the last bell of the school day. They become accustomed to learning being an integral part of all aspects of their lives, which establishes ongoing learning habits lasting long after graduation. In addition, technology empowers students to take control of their own learning. By providing students with tools to engage and create, as well as monitor their own progress, students are put in the driver’s seat and become owners of the learning process.

In February, we hosted the first ever White House Student Film Festival, where we asked kids to tell us about the role that technology plays in their classrooms. We asked them to tell us why technology is so important, and how it will change the educational experience for kids in the future. They responded with nearly 3,000 films, 16 of which were screened at the White House. In one film, eighth-graders talked about a class project where they designed cook stoves for developing countries with the help of Ugandan students through online video chatting. What the amazing range of contributions to the film festival proves is that we don’t know what teachers or students will do with these new tools to advance learning — and that’s exactly the point. It’s about new possibilities and creativity.

AI: There are many technological innovations in existence today that can be implemented in schools. What is the key to making the best use of these digital products? 

JS: These [technologies] offer their greatest benefits to students only when teachers and principals have the skills and support to leverage them. According to a recent survey, almost one-third of teachers said that the greatest obstacle to using technology in their classroom was their need for professional development. A 2012 PBS survey showed that 91 percent of teachers have access to computers in the classroom — but only one-fifth say they have the right level of technology. That’s why President Barack Obama’s budget proposal this year included a new grant program for states to develop comprehensive plans ensuring that educators can master new technology and harness it to benefit students — while protecting student security and privacy online.

The US Department of Education also released guidance to states and districts making it clear that they could use existing federal funds to support professional development on using technology effectively, both to improve learning experiences for students but also to increase collaboration and sharing of resources among teachers thousands of miles from each other. There are hundreds of online communities where teachers across the country connect to share best practices and support each other in improving their craft. In October, we will celebrate “Connected Educators Month,” where teachers and leaders from across the country will participate in a series of events focused on using technology to support and engage teachers.

Fewer than 30% of schools have the broadband they need to teach using today’s technology.

AI: While state-of-the-art technology is ever-present in many US school districts, other, underprivileged districts face difficulties providing students with access to those same tools. What is the federal government doing  to balance the playing field?

JS: The ConnectED Initiative is a call to work together across the public and private sector, across local and federal government, and among schools and communities to ensure all students have high-speed wireless in their classrooms, learning devices to access the Internet, high-quality digital learning resources, and teachers who know how to use these resources to transform learning. The goal of ConnectED is to give access to high-speed broadband Internet to 99 percent of students in US public schools by 2017.

This year, the Federal Communications Commission made an additional $2 billion available to provide 20 million more students with high-speed Wi-Fi in their classrooms and libraries over the next two years, which we believe will help more students get a great education, train them for the jobs of the future, and continue to build a more competitive US economy.

The challenge is great: today, fewer than 30 percent of schools have the broadband they need to teach using today’s technology. That connectivity will be the bedrock of a transformation in the classroom experience for all students, regardless of income. As Obama has said, “In a nation where we expect free WiFi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?” American companies are answering the president’s challenge to support this initiative with $2 billion in private commitments for America’s students and teachers. ConnectED is about more than wires and wireless: it’s about getting tablets and laptops into students’ hands, loading them with high–quality educational software and content, and preparing educators on how to use technology to enrich the learning experience.

AI: What role do parents play when it comes to student learning through these new technologies?

JS: Parents play a key role in fostering the effective use of technology to support learning as many great learning apps are designed specifically for use at home. Choosing apps that allow children to create, design, and make while limiting apps that simply allow children to consume media is an important role of parents.

In addition, technology also allows parents to become more engaged with the learning process through tools that provide real-time access to information about their child’s progress and the ability to communicate virtually with school teachers and leaders. Parents are also a key element in teaching safe use of these powerful tools. In collaboration with schools, parents have the important responsibility to teach their children how to be respectful and safe digital citizens.

Jim Shelton is deputy secretary at the US Department of Education.