Technology Vision Pursued With New Urgency

By Andrew Trotter — March 05, 1997 6 min read
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For the director of the Department of Education’s office of technology, there is plenty of reason to feel trapped in the limelight.

President Clinton has named education his top priority and stated that access to computers and the Internet is essential for children to make the most of their lives. Many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree. And a similar classroom-technology emphasis is being sounded in corporate America and many national education groups.

Perhaps more important, technology and learning are hot topics in schools and people’s homes.

Linda G. Roberts, who directs the technology office and also serves as a special adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, could take pride in this course of events. After all, for more than a decade, she has been a prominent student and relentless advocate of technology’s potential for education.

“She’s been instrumental in bringing the right kind of attention to appropriate uses of technology in schools,” said Cheryl Williams, the director of the Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education, an arm of the National School Boards Association.

But Ms. Roberts senses the deal is not done.

Despite the momentum, the calls for classroom technology could lose force, or efforts could be diverted down the wrong channels. Politicians of all stripes could fail to deliver. Ms. Roberts frets about getting the nation’s teaching corps trained to use technology in the classroom and delivering telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries.

Ms. Roberts, 55, said there are plenty of reasons not to pause and bask in her achievements. She must now start answering tough questions and show results to Congress, to the White House, and to school leaders across the country.

A Grassroots Focus

Her days at the Education Department’s headquarters here are full of the drumfire of meetings and phone calls. One day recently, the meetings at her small conference table laid out strategy for congressional hearings on the department’s fiscal 1998 budget request. She also hosted corporate officials who stopped in to discuss their own school technology plans.

Visitors face an old hand at the new technology. In the 1980s and up until she joined the department, Ms. Roberts directed a series of studies at Congress’ now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment. The reports on software, distance learning, adult literacy, and teaching skills snapped into focus developments in the computer and telecommunications industries and in school reform circles that were making educational technology a vital enterprise.

Since being hired for the $119,856-a-year post by Secretary Riley in 1993, she has applied her knowledge of those issues at the highest levels in the department.

“All of us are aware of the importance of technology in education,” Mr. Riley said. “But to have somebody in those key policy meetings who makes sure it’s injected as a critical topic is important--and it ends up being part of the solution.”

Ms. Roberts began her career in 1962 as an elementary school teacher and reading specialist.

In 1967, while teaching in Oak Ridge, Tenn., she was invited to join a group of television producers, researchers, and creative artists in her native New York City who were brainstorming on how TV could be used to teach reading to young children. The result was “Sesame Street.”

“I went in with no sense at all that TV could be a resource for learning,” she recalled, “and came out with a set of ideas that had evolved” to encompass using puppets, songs, and a new medium to teach literacy.

As a consultant to the show over the next decade, her main contributions came from watching it periodically from elementary classrooms in Appalachia or in an inner city. Despite her degrees from Cornell University, Harvard, and the University of Tennessee, she continues the habit of seeking a grassroots vantage point.

“She came out and visited us,” said Kurt Steinhaus, the technology coordinator in the New Mexico education department. “She understands how to take the technical, political kind of language that most people in her realm talk about and translate it into plain words.”

David Byer, the director of government affairs for the Software Publishers Association, a Washington-based trade group, said she reliably represents the concerns of his group in policy meetings even if she does not agree.

“I feel I go to the White House and bring every kid and principal and software developer and state policymaker who’s involved in this arena of educational technology,” Ms. Roberts said. “They’re there at the table.”

Making a Difference

When Mr. Riley asked her to be technology adviser--the job did not previously exist--she saw an opportunity to turn research into policy. “I don’t care about technology; I care about making a difference,” she said.

Mr. Riley urged an entrepreneurial approach, she recalled, “to be strategic, have a plan of action. I took that as an incredible opportunity.”

One contribution was to help initiate the first survey of school technology by the National Center for Education Statistics. The 1994 finding that only 3 percent of the nation’s classrooms had access to the Internet helped set a baseline and define goals to wire more schools.

According to the latest NCES survey, the percentage of wired classrooms has risen to 14 percent.

She also helped conduct a series of hearings with researchers, educators, and parents across the country that shaped the national long-range plan for school technology unveiled by Mr. Riley last June.

Over the next three years, Ms. Roberts wants to intensify efforts to help teachers use technology effectively.

According to the 1996 NCES survey, only one teacher in five uses advanced telecommunications, such as the Internet, at all.

Teacher preparation is emerging as a potential Achilles’ heel as more schools gain access to technology. And Ms. Roberts is also closely monitoring public and private discussions over the proposed “E-rate,” under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission, that would give schools discounts on advanced telecommunications services. The discounts would be a “legacy” that could keep low-income schools from missing out on technology, she said.

Some major phone companies are murmuring threats of a legal battle if they feel slighted by the final FCC rules. When one telephone lobbyist outlined those gripes in a phone call, Ms. Roberts disputed his point and told him, “The phone companies are going to look like real SOBs when they talk about their revenue streams.”

“They keep talking about it like they’ll be putting in their money,” she said after hanging up. “It’s me who’ll pay,” she said, not forgetting exactly who pays phone bills.

Such candor also erupts as she discusses a working retreat with 23 members of Congress recently in Aspen, Colo. She’s told her staff that President Clinton’s technology programs will face careful scrutiny.

Dealing With Congress

She detected that lawmakers will want quick assurances that officials are helping schools block access to Internet pornography--a politically charged issue that could sidetrack other business if it’s not handled effectively. And she is preparing for bigger questions, too.

“If I were a member of Congress,” she told her staff of four during a meeting, “I’d have questions about effectiveness--how is the money being used. And prove to me we are really using these dollars.”

She told her staff to have ready an array of concrete examples of school technology use. Yet she noted that despite demands on Capitol Hill for quick answers, the payoff in wisely used school technology will come slowly.

“We must emphasize that it takes years to see the impact. Test scores won’t rise within six months, " she said. That hardly dims her enthusiasm, however, for the changes technology may soon bring to schools.

“It’s like an avalanche,” she said. “And we’re part of it.”

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