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Under Trump, Ed-Tech Leadership Is Big Question Mark

By Benjamin Herold — May 05, 2017 8 min read
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From his seat in the East Room of the White House, Joseph South had a clear view of Barack Obama’s teleprompter, and he watched as the president veered off script during a 2014 speech to more than 100 school superintendents.

The leaders were assembled to sign a pledge committing to improve digital learning in their districts, part of the federally supported Future Ready program. Off the cuff, Obama began telling stories about the inspiring ways he had seen educational technology being used in classrooms across the country.

“It was spot-on, and it aligned perfectly with all of our priorities,” recalled South, a former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology. “It makes a big difference when you have a president who is personally invested in this vision.”

Two and a half years later, Obama is out of office. His successor, Donald Trump, has focused his K-12 education agenda around school choice and local control. While new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says she believes in the importance of educational technology, she has so far declined to say whether she intends to continue support for Obama administration initiatives. The office South once headed is now in its fourth month without a permanent director.

The uncertainty raises a big question: Who will be the source of K-12 technology leadership in the coming years?

Among ed-tech leaders, there is no clear consensus as to what will happen next. South and other Obama-era officials say their work—around such issues as district technology leadership, open educational resources, personalized learning, and “innovation clusters”—will continue regardless of what the new administration does, thanks in large part to nonprofit partners.

State Leadership Questions

State officials hold a somewhat different view. Individuals involved with key ed-tech efforts in Connecticut, Indiana, and Utah, for instance, say the federal Education Department was often piggybacking on work that states were already doing. It will be disappointing if Washington’s interest in educational technology wanes, they say, but states will have little problem resuming a leadership role if necessary.

Some longtime observers of the ed-tech arena, however, are more skeptical of states’ ability to fill the void. It could be hard to sustain the Obama administration’s priorities, they say, because its ed-tech initiatives came with few new laws, regulations, or funding. In some cases, the Education Department may also have overreached, seeking to proactively shape trends and markets, thus setting itself up for a backlash.

And for all its attention to innovation, the Obama administration in 2011 eliminated the federal government’s lone dedicated funding stream for educational technology, the $100 million Enhancing Education Through Technology program.

With more cuts in the federal education budget potentially looming in the fall, and the Trump administration clearly signaling its general preference for market-based solutions, it could be that private-sector technology companies will have an opportunity to step into a vacuum, said Douglas A. Levin, a consultant with EdTech Strategies and a former director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

“There’s no indication to suggest the Trump White House will lend its voice to this issue,” Levin said. “And the notion that states will somehow invest in innovation during a time of dramatic scarcity is not realistic.”

#GoOpen Policy Challenges

The federal #GoOpen initiative offers a window into the changing policy landscape.

Launched in 2015, #GoOpen sought to encourage states and school districts to adopt “open educational resources,” or free digital instructional materials that users can alter or share as they see fit.

While working as a classroom teacher at Danville Community High School, Molly Yowell helped lead Indiana’s involvement in the initiative.

Its biggest impact?

“It gave validity to the work we were already doing,” Yowell said.

The real driving forces for Indiana schools’ pursuit of free digital curricular resources, she said, predated #GoOpen. Among them: a surge of classroom digital devices, a move toward online state testing, and a 2011 state law that gave districts more freedom to adopt curricular materials other than traditional textbooks.

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, a group of Indiana districts began curating and sharing free digital content. That work took root and expanded locally. Similar dynamics played out in other states.

Eventually, ed-tech leaders in Washington took notice.

Along with such partners as Amazon Education, the federal Education Department sought to boost the uptake of OER, relying heavily on the power of the bully pulpit.

The attention was welcome in Indiana, Yowell said.

But it didn’t mean any new money. There were no new mandates. The department’s partnership with Amazon (around a new online platform that was supposed to make it easier for teachers to host and find open digital content) ran into problems.

And some critics say that while the Education Department’s support for open resources was well-intentioned, #GoOpen is an example of misplaced focus. The department misread the landscape, encouraging educators to think of OER as supplemental resources rather than whole-course curricula, argued Larry Singer, a former executive at the educational publisher Pearson who is now the CEO of Open Up Resources, a nonprofit that aims to provide complete open-resources curricula to districts.

“Rather than supporting study and research, the department tried to predict a market outcome,” Singer said. “Government generally is not very good at that.”

Expanding ‘Innovation Clusters’

South, the former director of the office of educational technology, disputes that claim, saying the federal department supported a variety of OER models.

So far, though, just 108 districts have signed the #GoOpen pledge. Only 22 of those have followed through and fully replaced a textbook with open content, according to Kristina Peters, the #GoOpen fellow at the office of educational technology until earlier last month.

So, while the open-resources movement overall continues to grow, it’s not at all clear that federal involvement is a main reason why. Nor is it clear that the momentum behind open resources will slow if the Education Department turns its attention elsewhere.

“We have so many awesome educators in Indiana who think this is what’s best for kids,” Yowell said. “Regardless of what’s happening in Washington, they’ll get the work done.”

Douglas Casey has similar feelings about the future of “education innovation clusters,” including the one he helps broker as the executive director of the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology.

The idea is to help schools, ed-tech vendors, and researchers collaborate more easily. In Connecticut, relationships between the three parties began organically. When Casey learned that federal education officials had a framework for what he was already trying to build, he leaned on the department for ideas and support.

But Connecticut’s innovation cluster will continue, even if federal interest doesn’t, he said.

“The U.S. Department of Education is a resource, but there are a lot of great innovation leaders that we draw on,” Casey said.

That was also the philosophy behind Future Ready. The feds played a significant role in drawing attention to the effort, but the actual work of convening and supporting district leaders was, and remains, the responsibility of an independent nonprofit organization, the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Support from the Education Department and its office of educational technology has been valuable, and more would be welcome, said Thomas Murray, who does policy advocacy for the alliance. But the idea from the beginning was to make sure that Future Ready could withstand any political changes.

“It was vital that the program not be seen as a political endeavor,” Murray said. “We didn’t want this to be a red or a blue thing.”

‘Bipartisan Goals’

Murray is among those who say they have little idea what the Education Department’s technology priorities will be under the Trump administration.

DeVos isn’t providing any clarity. Through a spokesman, the secretary declined a request for an interview.

“The department is reviewing and assessing all ongoing and existing projects, initiatives, and plans to ensure they align with the administration’s priorities,” a department spokesman said in a statement.

President Trump has been vocal about his commitment to deregulation. Already, that has meant delaying the implementation of an Obama-era rule that would have required any curricular materials produced with federal grant money to be “open” for use, reuse, and modification by the public.

In addition, Congress last month approved just $400 million in Title IV aid to states, money that may be used for a variety of purposes, including technology. Ed-tech advocates had been hoping for the full $1.5 billion that was written into the Every Student Succeeds Act.

And both Trump and DeVos have been clear about their faith in the private sector, leading some observers to believe that companies working in ed tech will soon have an opportunity to exert much greater influence over federal education policy.

However the federal priorities evolve, it seems clear that Washington’s role in promoting educational technology will change.

Under President Obama, the idea was to use the power of the federal government to shine a spotlight on innovative work at the local and state levels, then support the spread of such efforts through partnerships, policymaking, convenings, and documents such as the National Educational Technology Plan.

“The previous administration understood that everything is impacted by technology, so they baked it in across all of their priorities,” said South, the former federal ed-tech official. “I’d be watching to see if the new administration understands the power of ed tech to accelerate bipartisan goals.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Under Trump, Ed-Tech Leadership Is Big Question Mark

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