What you should be asking is, 'What are you doing with technology that you couldn't do before? Are we just using it to digitize traditional processes, or are we using it to really reinvent learning?' —Richard Culatta

SALT LAKE CITY — In the education community, there is a common analogy comparing emerging technologies and blended learning models with the common pencil.

The concept behind the analogy is a hypothetical world where writing, pencils and books do not exist. Then, when the pencil appears as an emerging technology, as tablet devices and competency-based learning programs are now, the question is whether it would be quickly embraced, or whether policymakers would call for pencil pilot programs to study their effect on classroom learning.

Richard Culatta, who serves as acting director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology, demonstrated the pencil analogy Monday to guests of the Early Education and Technology for Children conference at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center.

Culatta shared statements culled from Twitter in which a particular technology had been substituted with the word "pencil," such as this one: "If we give every student a (pencil), we will have no control over the things they write."

Too often, he said, a new technology's efficacy is measured by its effect on existing practices, rather than the new learning models that it makes possible.

"Asking, ‘Does technology make a difference in education?’ is sort of like asking, ‘Does paper make a difference in education?'" Culatta said. "What you should be asking is, 'What are you doing with technology that you couldn't do before? Are we just using it to digitize traditional processes, or are we using it to really reinvent learning?'"

The idea of personalizing and individualizing education is powerful, he said. Educational technologies allow for more autonomy and individual choice as students work toward proficiency.

Culatta said the best examples of implementation he has seen include three things: the ability for students to move at their own pace, the ability for students to choose between various learning activities, and learning activities that are tied to a student's personal interests.

"You can do that without technology, but it would be really hard to do," he said.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who attended the conference, said he was encouraged that the department of education had made digital learning a priority. Stephenson said the country's rankings among industrialized nations shows there is a crisis in American public education that can't be solved by individual states.

"We can't solve America's problems just by solving it in Utah," he said. "We need to assist legislators across the nation in knowing what their options are and what they ought to be doing to support local schools."

In his position in the Utah Legislature, Stephenson has been a vocal advocate for individualized learning and educational technologies. He said the 19th-century classroom, in which similarly aged students are taught or "batch processed" as a group, is insufficient to meet the needs of individual students who are sometimes far ahead or far behind their peers. 

"It's hard for a teacher to reach all of those students with a common presentation," Stephenson said. "Technology can actually individualize that instruction precisely for that student."

Stephenson said he recently visited several technology-equipped classrooms in the state with a group of educators and lawmakers. He said it was incredible seeing the students simultaneously reading aloud into a set of headsets without the need to compare their abilities with each other.

"They are moving ahead at their speed, without the tension of the reading group, and it's a joyful experience," Stephenson said.

Similar to how accountants use electronic spreadsheets or engineers use computer-assisted design software, technology is not intended to replace the teacher, he said, but instead is a modern tool to help instructors do their job more efficiently and more effectively.

But technology is not necessarily a cure for all of education's ills, Stephenson said. To be successful, technology must be matched with the skills of qualified educators to address the needs of individual students.

"Badly deployed technology hurts children's education," he said. "Don't deploy it badly, but when deployed correctly, it is a real boon to education and educators."

Benjamin Heuston, president of Waterford Institute, which is hosting the three-day conference, agreed. He said the question asked of educational technologies shouldn't be whether it helps students learn, but instead how it can be used to help students learn.

"If it's well-implemented, you can do things you never dreamed of," Heuston said, "but if it's poorly implemented, then it just gets in the way."

But Keith Proctor, a training and development manager at BYU, said the discussion of proper implementation and innovation continues to neglect what he feels is the central issue with educational technology. He said the question that should be asked is how to leverage technology to improve the relationships between students, parents and educators.

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"Traditionally, education and learning have been community endeavors, and what we're seeing more and more is this individualized approach," Proctor said. "I'm excited for the technology, but I think if all we do is pursue the technology, we're missing the big picture, which is that people learn, not computers."

Proctor said it's the people using the technology, and not the technology itself, that determines whether a new learning method will be successful at improving student performance.

"Technology is just a medium," he said. "It doesn't do the teaching for you."

E-mail: benwood@deseretnews.com