THE BLOG
07/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Defense of iSchools

On a recent visit to the NYCiSchool, one group of students gathered around a computer to edit a video for a humanitarian campaign and another created a "Call to Action" website for Zimbabwean refugees. Down the hall, one teacher drilled a student on amino acids for the upcoming Regents exam and another stood before a classroom of students, delivering a trigonometry lesson.

The iSchool, a new high school in SoHo that incorporates technology into everyday learning, encourages students to take an active role in their own education and go beyond what they find in a textbook. For example, students take a self-paced online course to prepare for the Global History Regents Exam and also study the subject in depth with their peers and teachers. Often, students connect digitally with students, authors, or newsmakers in other parts of the world to add context to what they are studying.

Some people think of technology as a way of turning teaching and learning into a mechanical process. But the team at the iSchool and others who are using technology in innovative ways show us that technology isn't about turning schooling into widget making. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. It's about rethinking the way teachers teach and children learn. Schools like the iSchool are creating a new model that allows students to pace and challenge themselves and allows teachers to spend more time focused on providing individual students with what they need to succeed.

Clayton Christensen, a leader in thinking around how technology can change American schools, explains that investing in computer equipment and other technology isn't gong to change outcomes for students. He writes: "The United States has spent more than $60 billion equipping schools with computers during the last two decades, but as countless studies and any routine observation reveal, the computers have not transformed the classroom, nor has their use boosted learning as measured by test scores. Instead, technology and computers have tended merely to sustain and add cost to the existing system."

He says the solution is to "introduce the innovation disruptively." In other words, he thinks we need to use technology to create solutions for the people who currently aren't being well served by our schools.

That means giving students tools they need to learn more effectively, and it also means giving educators and parents the tools they need to improve learning.

That idea--completely reimagining schools in order to better serve our highest need students--is what has been behind many of our biggest innovations in recent years and what is driving NYC21C, an initiative I think is the most exciting work we are now embarking on here in New York City's public schools.

In the past three years, the New York City Department of Education has created a number of technologies that allow teachers, principals, and parents to better understand students' strengths and weaknesses and create academic programs that are tailored to the students' needs.

Our Achievement Reporting and Innovation System helps parents and teachers gauge whether students are on track to meet New York State requirements and learning standards. It then allows teachers to reach out to colleagues across the City to find people facing the same challenges and share strategies. Within schools, teachers, principals, and coaches are using this information to spot trends and tailor instructional strategies for individual students and groups of students. On a smaller scale, new technology-based ideas are popping up at schools across the City.

For New York City, the next big change is to change our technology "culture," so we begin using modern tools to rethink the way our schools and classrooms are organized to most effectively engage students and bolster their achievement. I think this transformation will help us to create schools that will truly prepare our students to succeed in our high-tech, global economy.