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After months of anticipation about who would head educational technology initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education, ed-tech advocates praised the appointment of Karen Cator last week, saying the former educator and Apple executive brings to the job a passion for the potential of technology to improve teaching and learning.
The long-awaited appointment comes at a time when interest in how technology can be used to improve education is growing as more K-12 schools offer online courses, use mobile technologies such as cellphones and laptops, and put in place high-tech data-analysis tools.
“We have a lot of work to do because now there is a huge opportunity” to capitalize on federal funding for educational technology and put new technology tools to use to improve teaching and learning, Ms. Cator said Nov. 3 at a meeting of the State Educational Technology Directors Association in Arlington, Va., where her appointment was officially announced by Education Department officials. “We need to craft an entirely new research agenda around this issue so people can’t write that technology doesn’t work. We know it works...but we need to get good at saying and articulating what exactly technology can do.”
The appointment of Ms. Cator, a former teacher and technology director in Juneau, Alaska, comes several months after Timothy J. Magner, who held the post since 2006, left the department. It drew widespread praise from educational technology advocates, some of whom had worried whether the position would be filled at all.
“We’re all delighted that they valued this position, and got someone so well-qualified in there,” said Ann Flynn, the director of educational technology for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. “She has a fabulous national perspective from the work she’s been doing, and the ability to articulate the importance of 21st-century skills for learning. She’ll be a real asset to the Education Department and the education community.”
Critic Question Choice
Not all the reaction was positive, however. Ms. Cator’s ties to the corporate world, and her role in promoting so-called 21st-century skills, suggest that business is high on her agenda, at least one critic said.
“Her primary concern doesn’t seem to be learning, but about inserting the concerns of business into our schools,” said Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington-based organization that promotes a rigorous liberal arts curriculum for all students. “She appears to be someone more worried about the bottom line instead of increasing student achievement.”
The group has been critical of the work of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a network of business leaders, educators, and policymakers that advocates that schools teach critical thinking, collaboration, and technology skills in addition to core content, which Ms. Cator once chaired.
“We have studied that group closely and found it completely lacking in any believable understanding of what our schools are for or what the purpose of education is,” Ms. Munson said. “It appears to us to be a thinly veiled attempt to replace the mission of our schools of educating young Americans with the agenda of the business community.”
At Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple, Inc., Ms. Cator was responsible for the company’s Distinguished Educator Program, professional-development initiatives, and teaching and learning content on the Apple Learning Interchange, an online network where teachers share lessons, strategies, and content-based digital media.
Ms. Cator was in charge of technology planning and implementation in the Juneau school district before joining Apple in 1997. She was on the board of the Software and Information Industry Association’s education division while she was at Apple.
“Karen has in-depth knowledge and first-hand experience on the potential of technology to transform teaching and learning,” said Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of the Glen Burnie, Md.-based SETDA. “She understands that we need to meet and engage kids where they are, addressing various learning styles and individualizing instruction.”
Ms. Cator, the director of the office of educational technology, oversees the Enhancing Education Through Technology state grant program, the federal government’s main initiative for promoting digital learning and research into effective practices. It also is responsible for the department’s grants for improving state longitudinal-data systems and evaluating state technology plans.
In 2005, the office produced the National Education Technology Plan, which laid out recommendations to schools for using technology to meet the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act. Ms. Cator said that updating that plan is one of her primary goals.
She addressed a number of educational technology topics last month as part of a panel at the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age forum at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. During the discussion, she said that “technology offers an opportunity to totally personalize learning.”
Students should be given access to personal tech devices and Web 2.0 tools, Ms. Cator said at the October event. They should also be challenged, she added, to “find their own experts, do their own research, take very complex problems and find out what do we know, what do we need to know to meet this challenge?”
Teachers, Ms. Cator said, are critical to helping students learn how to use technology to learn more deeply.
“The role of teachers [in the digital age] becomes much more about creating compelling assignments that leverage personalized learning and that leverage technology” to challenge students to do their best work, she said.
With her experience in the classroom and years at Apple, Ms. Cator is well-qualified, observers said, to make the case for expanded and more effective use of technology in the nation’s schools.
“I think it’s a positive more than anything to come to this position from the corporate side,” said John P. Bailey, who held the Education Department position for two years, until 2004, and is currently a strategist and consultant on education and technology issues for Dutko Worldwide, a lobbying firm in Washington. “She’s worked with a number of people from local, state, and federal policy perspectives, but she’s also aware of where policy can inhibit innovation in the marketplace.”
Several observers agreed that Ms. Cator’s corporate ties should not be a concern in her new post. Mr. Magner also had corporate roots, at Microsoft Corp., before taking the position.
“We cannot do any of the technology initiatives that need to happen in schools without a robust infrastructure, the appropriate devices, secure networks, and everything else,” Ms. Flynn said, noting that Apple is unlikely to get any kind of advantage from Ms. Cator’s new position. “At some point, schools have to enter into partnership with a selected vendor to deliver a piece of the plan.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Former Apple Executive to Lead U.S. Ed-Tech Office