Can We "Out-Innovate" and "Out-Educate"?

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President Barack Obama visited bold-named Silicon Valley companies yesterday with a big goal in mind:

"Very clear in his call to invest in new industries, to innovate and to focus on the education of our children -- precisely in order to grow the economy and create the jobs," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

In his on words, Obama said recently: "To win the future, America needs to out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build the rest of the world."

A couple of months ago, I spoke to Obama's Department of Education's Director of Technology, Karen Cator, about the Nation Educational Technology Plan, and how schools can innovate given the vast budget cuts and lack of access to basic Internet sites. Here's part of our conversation.


Q. What advice do you have for states and districts that may want to provide unfiltered broadband access in schools (to allow YouTube, Facebook, etc.) as teaching tools, but must comply with Children's Internet Protection Act?

The bottom line is that we do need to figure out how kids can be safe and out of harm’s way and not exposed to inappropriate materials online.

But the filtering programs we have are fairly rudimentary. We need more intelligent filtering programs, safer search environments, smarter technologies so that people aren’t just shutting down large swaths of the Internet. There’s a lot on YouTube, for example, that could be safe and really instructive, but since it’s just in one bucket, a lot of schools just shut down YouTube.

The other thing we need are rules that keep up with the times. And that’s hard to know, for example, whether we should we allow teachers to be friends online with students in a social network. It depends on what the purpose is, is it homework assignment, are they purposely engaged in appropriate roles of teacher and students. So we need better rules.

But overall, we need an ever-better education framework for teachers and students to understand these technologies. When new technology comes out, students may be the first to understand how it’s used. And in schools we tend towards being risk averse -- for very good reasons -- but we tend to shut them down.

What we’re finding now is that social networking in particular, poses pretty significant problems with cyberbullying. So the question is, can we create closed social networks so students in a safe environment can learn how to collaborate online, be social online, how to behave well online, and understand that their voices are amplified.

The School at Columbia University in New York City, for example, has their own internal social network that they’re all a part of that’s not open to the outside world. It’s an environment for elementary school students to learn how to work with each other online.

Our students are going to grow up in a globally networked society and we want to teach them the rules of the road, to stay safe, to keep their information secure, how to maintain privacy, and how to behave appropriately online. And how these closed social networks manage themselves might be an interesting place to do this.

Q. The NETP specifically points out schools that use cell phones as teaching tools. How do you respond to those who view cell phones as distractions?

We need to basically admit that we live in a world of distractions. The ability to engage students becomes maybe more difficult, but also more important. Getting students involved in interesting learning projects, things that will keep their attention, their engagement, those are the kinds of things that need to be developed still.

Cell phones have some of those tools that can be helpful during the course of the day. They have the whole Internet (or some do), they do have calculators, and a variety of tools and resources that could be helpful throughout the school day. So we’re balancing the question of, if we let cell phones into class, are they going to be so distracted texting and doing other things rather than doing what teachers want them to do. That’s a classroom management issue that we have to continue to stay on top of.

Q. Just like any other classroom management issue.

Right, it really is. A lot of this is the same behavior and a new opportunity to do it.

Q. What's your position on creative reallocation of funds in order to pull schools and districts into the 21st century?

We’re going to have to figure out how to reallocate funds. It’s not like we’ll have more money to add on the side. We have to think of our core mission: What are the required elements of building a high-quality, productive education environment? I think that’s the only way to be successful. We have to think of the ways we’re spending money now, and ways we can be more productive.

The productivity section of the National Education Technology Plan gets at the essence of how we can do more, better, even faster with the same amount of resources.

There are some great examples of reallocation of funds. Morrisville School District in North Carolina went through their entire budget and found where they can save money, if in fact, every student had a digital device. Think about what’s on a digital device – you can have a calculator, research materials, maps, writing tools, school binder, calendar, books and content, you can have your assessment.

We can’t think of it as whether we can we buy a device with content instead of a single textbook. It’s more like whether we can we provide a device with all of the tools and resources that students need every single day. And there is a creative way to reallocate funds. For example, we should be able to save on paper doing that, the paper budgets in schools could be used.

One of our problems right now is that we’re funding two systems: a paper-based system and we’re beginning to fund a technology-based system. That’s not sustainable. We have to make the leap to a digital learning environment from predominantly print-based classroom to see both increased improvements in productivity and learning, and to see cost savings that would fund the digital environment.

And to do this, we have to think of it as a system. There are a variety of funding pots that can fund different parts of the infrastructure. There are community-based grants, Department of Commerce grants and agriculture programs that fund broadband build-out. And we have to think of it as a system, with the focus of improving productivity and opportunity for everyone to learn.

Q. How can decision-makers figure out when to invest in a new technology, knowing that it'll change again quickly, whether it's an iPod Touch, or an iPad, or another e-reader? How can they know it's worth the investment?

I totally understand that. It’s a risk whenever you move into new environment, and in education we’re pretty risk averse. But I do understand the sentiment.

But we can’t focus on devices, then we get attached to something that’s fleeting. Whether it's going to last for four or five years, or whether there will be something better, it’s just the way technology evolves. We need to focus and clearly articulate on what we want students to be able to do.

We want them to write and to write better, and be able to edit, and have the tools of writing. We want them to read, to leverage tools of the text that the screen can provide, which is much more enabled than text on a page. We want students to do research, to find data sets online, the tools, the stimulation, the assessments. If we focus on those things, the actual device becomes less daunting. Because today, it’s one device, and it might be another one tomorrow. But whatever devices we have are going to enable students and teachers to do those things that we clearly say we want them to be able to do. And that's when we’ll feel better about our decisions.

And if we focus on what we want them to be able to do, that actually doesn’t change as frequently, and that isn’t like technology. It just becomes a more enabled environment.

I think we’ll see some people experimenting with a variety of other strategies as well, potentially welcoming devices that students can bring from home. If we can begin to have that kind of mine/theirs/ours types of devices, then a couple things might happen. One, the support is more distributed, because students are empowered and responsible to support their devices, and second, the funds that school districts have can go further. And bottom line, you can get closer to having a more productive environment and increase opportunity for all students.

Q. How is the achievement gap addressed in the National Education Technology Plan? How can technology bring the best education for students of all races and cultures?

I believe learning technologies can be designed and developed to increase the opportunity for every student to learn. We can create a much more productive system so that every student is doing what’s much more productive for them on any given day. There’s a lot of research about learning that has to do with ensuring that content is personalized, that it takes into consideration prior experience and development of languages, for example. There are a lot of things we can do if we’re able to leverage digital technologies to personalize the learning environment.

Also, there is an overwhelming need to make sure that we do fully believe that all students can learn and deserve the best possible opportunity. We’ve been focusing on that opportunity for people of all ages. There are something like 93 million under-educated adults. So if we think of building out that opportunity to learn for people of all ages, some of the tools and resources might be the same for a 33 year-old wanting to be retrained to be a medical technician, some of those tools might be the same as what they missed in high school, so they can be available to students of all ages to learn.

We have a tremendous need to create a more productive education system and to improve the opportunity for people of all ages.

And we must also understand the importance of early learning. The Department of Education just funded the Ready to Learn grant, focused on taking to scale the use of media and trans-media and providing scaled opportunities for young children to develop language, a sense of story, skills of early literacy and early math. We know early learning is really important for addressing that achievement gap as well.

We need to leverage learning technologies that will help us leapfrog where we are today to vastly improve the opportunity to learn.

Q. Do the guidelines that go along with Race to the Top align with the NETP?

Bottom-line priorities for Race to the Top are to improve opportunities to learn for teachers and for students. So they’re very aligned. Race to the Top talks about highly effective teachers and highly effective leaders, and the technology plan has an entire chapter on how technology can improve opportunities for teachers to be highly effective by making sure they have all the resources they need, the data they need, access to experts and expertise.

The best example of how they fit together is the allocation of funds set aside for assessment. There’s a whole section in the Technology Plan on assessments. And there’s $350 million that Race to the Top awarded to two consortia to develop new assessments that will be entirely technology-based. So they have the opportunity to leverage technology to make sure they’re using the best of adaptive tools, best embedded assessment, best ways of making sure that assessment turns into really good information to help students, teachers, schools, and systems get better and better.

And that’s totally aligned with the plan. Though they weren’t done in tandem, these two things definitely come together, and the NETP definitely supports Race to the Top.

Q. With all the work that’s been done on the grassroots level to push for many of the guidelines in the NETP, why do you think now is the time for it to come to pass?

I’m not a historian, but I really do think that now is the time. The new data about how we’re doing, the new PISA data, the assessment data that gets published, the growing understanding that we have an economic crisis in our country … Secretary Duncan likes to say we need to educate our way out of the economic crisis. It’s a matter of social justice, of national security. The importance of education is one part of it.

The second part of it is the convergence of technologies. For one, it’s better, faster, cheaper, more mobile. The second thing is the proliferation of digital content, like the Khan Academy, very low-tech lessons, as well as the highly produced digital content that’s freely available online. And the third is the proliferation of social networks, people learning from each other online. Plus, you have the opportunity for new assessments.


These are the kinds of things, you put all this together and you have a huge opportunity.  We have a tremendous need to create a more productive education system and to improve the opportunity for people of all ages, starting from early learning all the way to job and career training, for everyone. And the only way to scale is going digital.