President Joe Biden and his team are taking the reins of the federal government at a critical point for education technology.
Millions of students are still learning from home, bringing an urgency to longstanding problems like the “homework gap” and the continuing need for effective online teaching strategies. At the same time, schools and districts are still trying to prepare students for jobs in an increasingly digital world in which artificial intelligence is likely to play an outsized role.
So where should educators expect the Biden administration, and in particular, Miguel Cardona, the Connecticut state chief, who Biden has tapped to lead the U.S. Department of Education, to start? Expanding internet access, ed-tech experts say.
“There’s a short-term and a long-term homework gap problem,” said Jon Bernstein, founder of the government relations and consulting firm Bernstein Strategy Group, which represents a number of education groups, including the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE. Many districts are still all-virtual, he said, and are “likely to remain that way for the rest of the year. We need immediate resources to ensure every kid has a connection through a device or hot-spot.”
In his Coronavirus response plan, released Jan. 21, Biden called for $130 billion to help schools reopen, plus another $350 billion to help states make up for budget cuts brought on by the pandemic’s economic impact. Some of that could be used to help students and teachers get connected at home, through hot-spots, internet service provider packages, and satellites, Bernstein suggested.
He is hoping the administration will choose to work through the E-rate program, which helps fund connectivity at schools and libraries, since educators know about it and are already comfortable with it.
But more action will be needed to solve the so-called homework-gap problem for good, Bernstein said. The homework gap is basically the struggles students face completing homework when they do not have reliable home internet access.
“There’s a longer-term solution that’s needed here that might involve infrastructure,” Bernstein said. “Hot-spots are not a final solution. What we really need is some moonshot effort to make sure that every American household, or at least households with kids, have a broadband connection.” Eighteen percent of students do not have access to broadband internet at home, according to a 2019 Associated Press analysis of census data.
Biden took the first step at expanding internet access last week when he signed an executive order encouraging the Federal Communications Commission to take steps to “increase connectivity options for students lacking reliable home broadband, so that they can continue to learn if their schools are operating remotely.” He also appointed a new acting FCC commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, who has advocated for expanding broadband access and is a champion of the E-rate.
Professional development could get more resources
Ed-tech advocates also have their eyes on the office of education technology at the U.S. Department of Education. The office had a robust role during the Obama administration, but wasn’t given the same level of resources or staffing under the Trump administration.
In particular, the new administration will have a chance to shape the national education technology plan, which provides a playbook on best practices for just about everything related to education technology. The plan was last updated in 2017. What’s more, both Cardona and Cindy Marten, the superintendent of the San Diego Unified schools who has been nominated to serve as deputy secretary, have first-hand experience in the COVID-19 era. Both of their nominations will still need to be approved in the Senate.
“We have a deputy secretary and a secretary who have had to make digital learning work for their kids. That could have an impact on policy,” said Reg Leichty, the founder of Foresight Law + Policy, which advocates for the Consortium for School Networking, a group of school district technology leaders.
The Trump administration proposed eliminating Title II, the $2.1 billion federal program funding teacher training. Advocates are hoping Biden and company will head in the opposite direction, providing more money for professional development.
The workforce isn’t “going to go back to being technology free,” said Melinda George, the chief policy officer for Learning Forward, an organization that represents educators who offer professional learning to other educators. She is hoping that the administration will help more districts connect teachers with one another and make sure educators can use technology for their own learning.
Richard Culatta, the CEO of ISTE, seconded that suggestion. “Whenever we see an imbalance where there’s significantly more money spent on software” than on teaching teachers to use it effectively, “it almost always ends badly.”
A look at Cardona’s record in Connecticut
Culatta, who led the Education Department’s technology office during the Obama administration, is also hoping the Biden team will help districts preserve some of the problem-solving they have done during the pandemic, when nearly every school in the country offered some form of online learning.
“We’ve actually found some good, important solutions because we’ve been forced to,” Culatta said. “The worst thing that could possibly happen after COVID is if we went back and forgot about the elements that we’ve learned during this time.” The department has a role to play, he said, in helping states and districts hold on to that progress.
Meanwhile, he said, districts and schools could use some additional resources for an issue that’s become critical: Digital citizenship. Instruction in this area has to move beyond simply teaching kids to be courteous online, he said, and the federal government can help provide leadership there.
“We have been thrust into this world where many of our most important life moments happen in digital spaces not physical ones,” he said. Schools need to be helping to develop digital citizens who know how to “fact check, be inclusive online and how to find solutions to problems through technology.”
Culatta is optimistic about the choice of Cardona, who became Connecticut’s commissioner of education in August of 2019.
During Cardona’s tenure, the Nutmeg State undertook a major task: Providing every child with access to the internet and digital devices. Though there had been a push for expanding internet access for years, policymakers began to feel a real urgency when COVID-19 hit and most students were required to learn virtually. The state is using money provided by Congress for coronavirus relief to cover the cost of the program.
The work is just getting underway, but the commitment the state is taking on is a big deal in itself, Culatta said.
“Nobody else has made that statement” of pushing to expand connectivity to every household, he said. “Just that alone is a big move.”
Cardona’s office did not lead the effort, but he was supportive of it, said Doug Casey, the executive director for the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology, which works on technology initiatives for preschools, K-12, higher education, and adult education.
Cardona, who grew up in a housing project, has a “passion for equity,” Casey said, and saw the push for digital access as part of that mission.
And when COVID-19 forced schools to pivot to remote learning, Cardona was a “big proponent of encouraging districts to share their best practices,” rather than “sending the message that the department knows everything about remote learning.”
His team also did a good job curating resources from around the state that districts could use to improve the experience for their students and teachers, Casey said.
What’s more, Cardona “sees technology as a really important lever to break down barriers of opportunity,” Casey said. “He understands what these challenges look like at a really personal level.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as Here’s What Educators Should Expect From the Biden Administration on Education Technology