Compass: Equip students for the digital age and watch them learn

How often have Alaska's schools had the opportunity to accelerate learning and contain costs at the same time? Not often.

Yet, such is the opportunity that lies before us today as we work to better prepare students for a rapidly changing world while adapting to diminished state resources.

As Darwin observed, "It is not the strongest ... or the most intelligent species that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."

Our schools need to change. Our kids need to compete with students across the globe. We can't keep doing what has always been done and expect different results.

But there's good news: Classroom teachers in some parts of Alaska have transformed learning to more than double the previously expected learning gains.

How did they do it? By using the tools of today instead of the practices of the past. Technology cannot replace good teachers but together learning can be transformed.

In recent years, there has been an explosion in educational content available digitally from vibrant, interactive 3-D modeling and engaging multidiscipline simulations to personalized learning platforms and master teachers available on demand to accelerate and amplify what goes on in classrooms. It is almost mind-boggling how quickly even our youngest students can learn with the right means of engagement.

Last year, Gov. Parnell proposed a One-to-One Digital Initiative that would have begun putting these types of tools in the hands of young Alaskans and, over the course of four years, would have enabled all students to have access to the world of digital content.

Working with the Association of Alaska School Boards, which has more than 10 years experience developing One-to-One programs, the initiative enables districts to choose the devices that best suit their students, provides professional development and proven implementation strategies and establishes a two- to four-year refresh cycle for keeping pace as technology changes -- all the while using the economies of scale from a statewide pool.

In fact, the cost would be less than districts now spend on technology purchases. Districts are currently spending more than $28 million on items included in this project. In the first year, the cost would be only a fraction of that amount, and at full implementation after four years, the cost would be $15.5 million from the state and $9.6 million from the districts for a total well below the $28 million being spent now.

What an opportunity. Can you imagine what it means for Alaska if being remote is no longer a barrier or if our kids lead the nation in technology utilization?

Smart business people know the power of adapting quickly to technology and the foolishness of postponing it. For Alaska's larger districts going one-to-one is almost impossible, using today's "catch as catch can" capital grants.

Most schools in Alaska have some of these devices but generally they are shared among several classes. Using this thinking, what if kids could use yesterday's tools, say paper and pencils, twice a week for an hour?

Or what if we shared one set of textbooks among five or six classrooms? Parents in my school district would be furious. Yet the digital tools available are far more powerful than textbooks.

And why are we watching teenage boys drop out to play Xbox when they could use the same kind of simulations to learn math and science?

Last year's proposal was visionary and transformational. It was passed in the Senate but was left out of the budget in the House. Should we let the opportunity die? I'm hoping it will be considered again next session with more Alaskans well-informed about its potential.

Do we want our kids prepared for the past -- or the future? If our schools fail to adapt quickly, Alaska's future economy, not just its schoolchildren, will pay the price.

Sue Hull is the immediate past president of the Association of Alaska School Boards and a member of the Fairbanks School Board. More information is available at