The Obama administration urged educators and policymakers last week to embrace a host of digital-learning approaches it says will make K-12 schools better, including putting a computing device in the hands of every student.
Guided by an overarching goal set by President Barack Obama to raise national college-completion rates from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020, the first National Educational Technology Plan issued by his administration outlines the big-picture approaches it says U.S. schools need to employ in the areas of classroom learning, assessment, teaching, infrastructure, and productivity to help meet that goal.
The plan, titled “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology,” was written over nine months by educators, researchers, and policymakers, with input from the public. It emphasizes the importance of leveraging technology to customize learning for each student, citing tactics such as mobile computing and online coursetaking.
It recommends enabling every student to learn through digital technology in school and at home, a 1-to-1 computing approach using cellphones, laptops, and other mobile-learning devices that is taking hold in a growing number of school districts.
“We have to get way more kids over a higher bar,” said Karen Cator, the director of the office of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, “and to do that, we really have to be looking at innovations and the kinds of things that will allow us to do that.”
“Learning is at the center of the whole plan,” said Ms. Cator, who took over as the head of educational technology initiatives for the department in November. “Technology allows us to create more engaging and compelling learning opportunities for students and allows us to personalize the learning experience.”
“Learning is at the center of the whole plan. We have to get way more kids over a higher bar.”
U.S. Office of Educational Technology
President Obama has often cited technology as the engine that drives innovation and growth in the U.S. economy, a belief shared by Ms. Cator, who was an executive for Apple Inc. before joining the department, and other educational technology advocates.
And the plan rings that bell, saying the use of technology in schools does not sufficiently reflect or build on the ways students use digital tools in their lives outside school, or how technology is used in the professional world. That must change, the plan says, to fully tap the intellectual potential of today’s students and prepare them to compete for the jobs of the future.
And federal, state, and local policymakers must help make those changes happen, it argues.
“Most young people can’t remember a time without the Internet,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech at the Association of American Publishers’ annual meeting last week in Washington. “But right now, many students’ learning experiences in school don’t match the reality outside of school. We need to bridge this gap.”
Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking is pleased with the plan.
“It calls for a systems approach to change, and it anchors that in learning,” he said. “We’re particularly pleased that it calls for a cabinet-level chief technology officer-like position for school districts. The specificity of the plan is quite in contrast to what we saw,” in previous ed-tech plans drafted by the federal government.
But making those changes, people in the field say, requires support to build a stronger technological infrastructure in schools and expand opportunities for professional development for teachers and administrators. That takes money, and so far, some advocates for educational technology don’t see the federal financial support matching the rhetoric from the administration.
“The vision lays out a number of opportunities around the importance of the role of technology in rethinking the way we do education, but [that vision] requires leadership, and you have to invest in that,” said Mr. Krueger. “The [federal Enhancing Education Through Technology] program is critical as part of that.”
In President Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, funding for the EETT program is eliminated and folded into a broader initiative called “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Complete Education,” which allocates $450 million for literacy, $300 million for STEM—or science, technology, engineering, and math—education, and $265 million to support “a well-rounded education.”
A number of ed-tech advocacy organizations, including CoSN, are urging the government to restore funding to the EETT program. About 200 educators, including representatives from those organizations, held a series of meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week to address those concerns.
The plan plays up the role of technology in creating more-personalized learning experiences for students through changes in curriculum, assessment, and teacher education. It recommends improvements and expanded use of multimedia curricula, formative assessments that provide regular updates on students’ progress, and teacher training in how to use digital tools to customize learning.
This month, Education Week began a special technology feature that will appear in every issue of the newspaper, covering news, trends, and ideas about digital learning and administrative uses of tech tools in schools.
Read the winter issue of Education Week Digital Directions to learn more about digital tools for customizing learning, the role of e-learning in personalizing education, teacher use of whiteboards, Twitter in the classroom, and student perspectives about how schools could use technology more effectively.
Ms. Cator added that personalized-learning approaches should emphasize interactivity. “Personalized learning is very participatory,” she said. “It’s not an isolated practice.”
The plan says current assessments in schools fall short of measuring so-called 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. Better assessments, using digital tools, can help teachers identify their students’ strengths and weaknesses sooner and adjust instruction accordingly, it argues.
Teachers also need to be brought up to speed on technological advancements so that they can transform classrooms from isolated learning environments to collaborative, connected teaching models in which teachers use online tools to share and build on best practices, according to the plan.
“Many of our existing educators do not have the same understanding of and ease with using technology that is part of the daily lives of professionals in other sectors,” the plan says. “The same can be said of many of the education leaders and policymakers in schools, districts, and states and of the higher education institutions that prepare new educators for the field.”
The plan also criticizes the education sector for falling behind others in tapping technology for increased productivity.
“Improving productivity is a daily focus of most American organizations in all sectors—both for-profit and nonprofit—and especially so in tight economic times,” it says. “Education has not, however, incorporated many of the practices other sectors regularly use to improve productivity and manage costs, nor has it leveraged technology to enable or enhance them.”
Rethinking Class Time
To become more productive, the basic assumptions of conventional K-12 education need to be questioned, the plan says. Time-based education goals—for example, judging a student’s completion of a course based, at least in part, on how much time he or she spends sitting in class—may need to be reconsidered, as well as how students are organized into groups. Both are changes that advocates for online education have supported exploring.
The plan cites online learning as a way to “extend the learning day, week, or year.”
Susan Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, believes online learning goes hand in hand with increased productivity in education.
“The federal government needs to take a leadership role in providing incentives and removing artificial barriers such as enrollment caps, seat-time requirements, and de facto policies that do not allow any student, regardless of geography, to access high-quality courses taught by high-quality teachers online,” she said.
Another area in which schools will need to undergo a transformation to fully embrace technology is infrastructure, including not only the hardware, software, and broadband connections to support technology, but also the staff, resources, and policies needed to make the changes, according to the plan.
“Our model of an infrastructure for learning is always on, available to students, educators, and administrators regardless of their location or the time of day,” the plan says. “It enables seamless integration of in- and out-of-school learning.”
Although the plan points toward long-term fundamental changes in education, schools and districts can begin to take action now, said Ms. Cator.
“The first action is to read and discuss the plan with peers and colleagues,” she said. “And the second is then to think about this in the context of their own communities.”
Each learning environment is different, and educators should think about how the plan applies to their specific needs, she said.
The plan, which was posted online as part of the Open Government Initiative, will be open for comments and feedback, Ms. Cator said.
“We wanted to model continuous improvement,” she said. “There are a lot of people thinking this through, and it can continue to get better.”
Although the plan won’t likely change as a result of feedback, as the goals become realized, Ms. Cator hopes the Web site will provide a forum to refine the draft and share best practices.
A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as U.S. Ed-Tech Plan Urges Rethinking In K-12 Schools