The dog days of summer are here and the kids are going back to school. So let’s take a break from private-sector e-Learning and focus on public education.

This is important. Across the country, public schools are in trouble. There’s no money. The Federal government basically is broke and most State governments are under water. Increasing debt has led to a cut in all types of services, including education. Everywhere, educators are told to do more with less.

This all comes at a time when we are asking more of our schools. Not just to teach the three R’s, but to give our kids the skills and perspective to cope with an increasingly complex world. Parents turn their precious children over to the schools for 12 years and expect to get highly educated, productive citizens in return, ready to compete with a billion other kids around the globe. No small feat.

As a member of my local board of education, I see the challenges our schools face first-hand. And I know that we in the learning technology field can help.

Visit your neighborhood school and look around. In the library, you will see computers connected to a host of databases. Some libraries are now so digitized that they are actually shrinking as they provide more virtual services. After a slight tinge of horror, I’ve learned that this can be a good thing. Activity in traditional library services may be down, yet online access is thriving.

Teachers are moving from chalkboards to whiteboards to PowerPoint. Use of tools like Moodle and Blackboard is growing. More technology? Sure. More instructionally effective? It depends on teacher know-how, administrator support, school board advocacy and investment, and community involvement.

Unfortunately, for too many schools, shiny new technology can be intoxicating. You get new stuff, as if the “getting” was the bottom line, but you never really think, systematically and pedagogically, about how it will enhance learning. Yet some schools are using technology in interesting and valuable ways. Like using computers to add richness to classrooms, incorporating online research, multimedia, simulations, collaboration, and content creation tools to enhance creativity and critical thinking, and bringing the outside world into the classroom, giving kids a bigger window to see what lies “out there.”

What you will likely see less of is asynchronous online courses, aside from the occasional virtual presentation, because they surface all kinds of issues for school culture, characterized by some deep and highly intransigent beliefs about what can and can’t be done. How can e-Learning programs that allow students to finish at different times reconcile with 50-minute periods and 16-week semesters? What would the role of teachers be if computers actually delivered the instruction? How would school districts budget for all of this? What about security? And this is just a taste of the ongoing challenge.

E-Learning professionals have been there. We have overcome a host of barriers to develop processes and programs that work. We can modify these approaches for schools. We can push school districts to rethink what they are doing, and we can demonstrate cost-effectiveness. Some say that changing public education is like turning a battleship in a bathtub. That’s understandable. But I also know that schools will start to fail if we don’t rethink how kids learn and how to best use modern learning technology. It’s not a panacea, but an important tool. And our kids, who are growing up as digital natives, are certainly ready for it.

Eight suggestions

So, what can we do? Here are eight ways you can help in your own school district:

  1. Go to school board meetings and ask how your schools are implementing technology. Ask for demonstrations, not just words. Bring an example with you to show them what’s possible.

  2. Make absolutely sure technology literacy is a key component of the curriculum. Don’t simply assume that if kids have computers at home, they’re all set. Work with parents on this.

  3. Lend your expertise. Join your local school district technology advisory committee. If there isn’t one, start one. Schools need all the (free) help they can get.

  4. Support school libraries and librarians. They are key drivers of much of the digital action in the schools.

  5. In spite of the economic crunch, push your school district for more funding for learning technology. Help schools understand the value of getting the technology – and the pedagogy – right. Look into consortiums with neighboring school districts, county groups, and State agencies. You need not do all of this alone.

  6. Press for grants and stipends for teachers who want to experiment with learning technology. Give them the means to make it happen, and then share your success stories.

  7. Support teacher professional development in learning technology. Peer mentoring and in-service days have the potential for skill building in this area, if done right.

  8. Finally, and most importantly, fight the perception that technology is an unnecessary luxury. Technology is an integral part of 21st century life and 21st century learning, yet it is amazing that we often expect our schools to function as if they are still little red schoolhouses on the prairie.

We may not all have kids in school right now but we’ve all been there. We know what an important investment education is. Look at your workplace, your employees, and your business. Ask yourself what the consequences will be down the road if public education fails now. Ignoring the education crisis is the epitome of short-term thinking. Learning technology alone will not save the schools, but it can help. It just needs a little leadership from us.

Disclaimer: This article is my opinion alone and does not represent the position of the Hillsborough, N.J. Board of Education or the Hillsborough, N.J. School District.