U.S. Ed-Tech Plan Calls Attention to ‘Digital-Use Divide’

By Benjamin Herold — January 05, 2016 5 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education’s most recent blueprint for how technology should be used in schools calls for improving teacher training and drawing attention to what it describes as a “digital-use divide” between active and passive uses of digital and online content and tools.

“We really see the plan as a vision for the country of what ed tech could be in our classrooms if it’s implemented in the way we think is best,” said Joseph South, the deputy director of the department’s office of educational technology, in an interview.

But while educators and observers hailed the fifth National Education Technology Plan—released last month and the first one issued only in a digital format—as a compelling statement of what’s possible, attempts to institutionalize the vision it lays out will face big hurdles, according to ed-tech experts.

Hard Choices

Among the most significant: the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The comprehensive federal education law, now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, has left states and school districts to face tough choices in the coming years about whether to use federal dollars for technology or other pressing needs.

The last national ed-tech plan was released in 2010, a time when digital tablets were just coming on the market and the notion of digital “personalized learning” was still being developed. Five years later, the conversation has shifted from whether schools should use technology to how it can be used most effectively, the new plan contends. The country has also made big strides in improving the broadband and Wi-fi infrastructure serving schools and in providing classrooms with laptops, iPads, Chromebooks, and other digital devices.

The new plan focuses on five areas: learning, teaching, leadership, assessment, and infrastructure. As a guide to educators and policymakers, the document profiles various exemplars, ranging from the Cities of LRNG initiative, a nonprofit that uses technology to connect young people to a wide range of learning opportunities inside school and out, to a digitally enabled classroom collaboration between teachers in Denver and Cook County, Ill.

Outlining a National Vision for Better Tech Use in Schools

The U.S. Department of Education’s 2016 National Education Technology Plan includes a call to action, examples of best practices, and recommendations for the field in key areas, including:


Technology can support “engaging and empowering learning experiences in both formal and informal settings,” the NETP says. Especially important are “personalized” learning opportunities optimized to meet the needs and preferences of each child; choice for students over what, when, and how they learn; and a focus on “non-cognitive competencies,” such as persistence. Games, simulations, and 3-D imaging software are emerging technologies to watch, the plan contends, and schools should focus on using technology to provide “active” learning experiences such as computer programming and media creation.


“Effective use of technology is not an optional add-on or a skill that we simply can expect teachers to pick up once they get into the classroom,” so teacher preparation and professional development around effective technology use must improve, the NETP argues. Federal officials hope to support teachers in collaborating via online communities and in taking leadership roles in their own schools around the effective use of ed tech. One key recommendation: developing a “teaching force skilled in online and blended instruction.”


Responsibility for articulating and implementing a strong vision for using technology in schools cannot be delegated, the NETP says. Through its Future Ready initiative, the U.S. Education Department is supporting superintendents in collaborating with each other and key local stakeholders, providing the resources and guidance needed to implement personalized learning models, and ensuring school access to adequate technology infrastructure.


The NETP calls for the use of technology to “imagine and redefine assessment in a variety of ways,” including more unobtrusive measurement of students as they learn; greater focus on assessing complex skill sets, such as problem-solving ability; more real-time feedback for educators and students alike; and better dashboards to visualize assessment results and other data in more user-friendly ways.


“Reliable connectivity, like water and electricity, is foundational to creating an effective learning environment,” the NETP says. Reform of the federal E-rate program should help in school; now department officials hope to see similar efforts to improve access at home. One area that some ed-tech experts would have liked to see addressed in greater depth: interoperability issues, so that information from the various software programs used by districts can be merged more easily.

—Benjamin Herold

Even though such “early adopters” have garnered plenty of attention, some longtime observers say the real challenge confronting the ed-tech field in 2016 and beyond is helping best practices take root more widely.

“We need to be very clear-eyed about where we are in terms of access, types of technology usage, and the challenges of institutionalization,” said Douglas A. Levin, the president of the consulting group EdTech Strategies and a contributor to the new plan. “The reality out in many districts around the country is that we are actually pretty far away from the vision that is laid out in the plan.”

Focus on Equity

Like its predecessors, the new document places a heavy emphasis on issues of equity.

Now, though, the most pressing digital divide has to do with how technology is used in the classroom, the plan contends. The department hopes to see more “active” uses of ed tech, such as coding, creative media production, design, and collaboration with experts.

The plan also calls for districts to shift away from buying print textbooks and instead make wider use of digital open educational resources, which are licensed to be free to use, revise, and share.

And one of the plan’s greatest areas of focus is on improving teacher training and professional development.

“Across the board, teacher-preparation and professional-development programs fail to prepare teachers to use technology in effective ways,” the document says.

The department’s South said teacher-preparation programs bear the primary responsibility for fixing the problem. Ideally, he said, colleges and universities would move away from single stand-alone technology classes for prospective teachers, and they would also focus more heavily on training teachers to work in blended environments that merge face to face with computer-based instruction.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which represents about 845 of the nation’s 1,500 or so university-based teacher-preparation programs, took exception to the criticism.

“I can’t think of one teacher-preparation program that doesn’t have integrated technology in their curriculum,” said Rodrick Lucero, the group’s vice president for member engagement and support. “The naysayers who are critical maybe haven’t spent time in classrooms.”

The focus on training was also part of the recent legislative struggle around reauthorization of the ESEA.

As recently as this past summer, ed-tech advocates hoped that a new federal education law would include an amendment known as I-TECH, which would have meant dedicated funding for schools to address the issue of teacher education around technology use.

Although the U.S. Senate approved the amendment, it did not make it into the Every Student Succeeds Act ultimately signed by President Barack Obama. Instead of dedicated technology funding, states and districts will receive block grants that may be spent on a broad array of needs, ranging from arts programs to Advanced Placement classes to suicide-prevention efforts.

A New Set of Problems

Advocates and department officials say they’re glad that spending on ed tech is allowed under the new law but disappointed that the money is not specifically earmarked for technology-related purposes.

“It’s going to mean challenging decisions for states and districts on how they allocate those resources across a number of diverse possibilities,” South said. One concern is that the gap between technologically savvy states and districts and the rest of the country could grow even more pronounced. Those who have articulated a strong vision for how digital tools and content should be used have developed the capacity to turn those plans into reality, and should be able to find ways to further incorporate the tenets of the new National Education Technology Plan. Others, however, might struggle.

As it stands, said Levin of EdTech Strategies, the new national ed-tech plan “looks like a hymnal for the true believers” to use for inspiration and encouragement.

But whether the federal government’s new blueprint can take root more widely may hinge on the degree to which it shapes the federal government’s philosophy and rules around distributing the resources to be made available through the new block-grant program.

“The legacy of this plan is dependent entirely on its influence over the regulatory work the department is about to embark on under ESSA,” Levin said.

“It’s going to be the implementation of the new law that really actually drives people’s behavior.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2016 edition of Education Week as U.S. Ed-Tech Plan Calls Attention to ‘Digital-Use Divide’


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