IT Infrastructure & Management

Innovation on the Agenda

By Katie Ash — June 14, 2010 4 min read
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The Obama administration is urging educators and policymakers 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,” says 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,” says 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.”

President Obama has often cited technology as the engine that drives innovation and growth in the U.S. economy, a belief shared by 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 this spring 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 says. “We’re particularly pleased that it calls for a cabinet-level chief technology officer-like position for school districts.”

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.

In President Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, funding for the Enhancing Education Through Technology 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 federal EETT program. About 200 educators, including representatives from those organizations, held a series of meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill this spring 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.

Cator adds that personalized-learning approaches should emphasize interactivity. “Personalized learning is very participatory,” she says. “It’s not an isolated practice.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Digital Directions as Innovation on the Agenda

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