Interview | Ten Million Members and Moving Forward

Now that’s a lot of people. The Learning First Alliance (LFA) is a partnership of 16 education associations with more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools. “We share examples of success, encourage collaboration at every level, and work toward the continual and long-term improvement of public education based on solid research,” explains Cheryl Williams, LFAs Executive Director. In this interview, Cheryl details how the alliance came to be, technology’s role in transforming education, and what new technologies excite the LFA and why.

Victor: Why did your member organizations form the Alliance? 

Cheryl: The original organization members of the LFA came together in 1997 to pool their research and experience to develop responses to the high visibility “reading wars” being played out in the popular press as pushing to teach either “phonics” or “whole language” in classroom settings. LFA member organizations knew from experience that reading instruction was more complex than an either/or argument that was uninformed and produced materials detailing the knowledge base in reading instruction and the professional development available to help teachers meet the individual learning needs of their students. Before 1997, the leaders of LFA organizations convened regularly for informal conversations in a group called the Forum of Educational Leaders (FEOL).  The relationship was formalized in the coalition created as the LFA.

Victor: As a consortium of most of the largest education associations in the U.S., I would think you have a great birds-eye view of technology in education. What can you share from this view?

Cheryl: The LFA focus on technology in education is fairly recent and has been led by the invitation to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) to join the group which happened earlier this year. While the educational leaders and their organizations support the role technology can and does play in student achievement, the organizational focus was strengthened with the addition of ISTE to LFA membership. The education technology community is working to partner with other educational leaders to spread greater understanding about the role that technology plays in strengthening public schools for all students.

Victor: When you think of transforming education, how do you see technology playing a role?

Cheryl: Technology opens lines of communication within and among the professionals within a school district and the parents and community members they serve. Many of the educational leadership organizations in LFA use communications technology to communicate with members; provide professional learning opportunities; and advocate for the public support of public education. In the teaching and learning context, technology supports project-based learning that’s cross curricular and supports the development of 21st-century skills in students: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication. Further, telecommunications technology allows students to collaborate with other students across the nation and around the world and also facilitates bringing expert instructors in from remote places. Online learning options for older students are also made possible with technology.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Cheryl: The answer to the previous question provides examples of technology’s support in action to provide increased opportunities for students and their teachers to increase the learning opportunities for everyone. Many districts now use web pages, social network sites and email to ensure parents are informed and the community is aware of district initiatives. Fairfax County, Va., is instituting a “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) program in selected schools to facilitate project-based, collaborative projects in social studies and the state of Maine is well into its one laptop per student program that provides portable computing to all seventh and eighth graders in the state.

Victor: Oftentimes the general media has a negative opinion about the amount of money spent on technology in education. How does the Alliance address this?

Cheryl: The Learning First Alliance believes that funding for public schools should be sufficient to support the inclusion of technology to support good pedagogy, as well as the staff and infrastructure to ensure the technology is well used. LFA member organizations individually focus on different aspects of school funding and logically, ISTE focuses its efforts on funding targeted for technology.  Having said that, all LFA members support increased funding to fully equip schools to serve students in a 21st-century environment.

Victor: What advice would you give to schools and districts about incorporating technology into teaching and learning?

Cheryl: Technology in schools and districts should address specific organizational and education needs. Since community support for public schools is essential, technology can be used to garner that support and provide timely communication to stakeholders in the district. The use of a variety of technologies for dynamic teaching and learning activities is predicated on total commitment of the personnel that includes adequate technical support and robust professional development for teachers and instructional leaders. The instruction and the technology should be seamless, so that it’s less obvious that technology is in use and more obvious that children are learning and engaged in new and exciting ways.

Victor: What new technologies excite the LFA and why?

Cheryl: I can’t speak for all the LFA members, but I can say that we do recognize that the rapid development of digital media and the transmission technologies to both create and share that digital information opens opportunities for both student exploration and creation of knowledge that has never before been possible.

Victor: Anything else you’d like to say?

Cheryl: Only that technology is way less important than the professionals in the system and the students and parents they serve. Teaching and learning are relationship-based activities and the tools that technology provides are only as good as the people who use them.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He also writes white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com 

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