Susan Patrick, new head of the federal Office of Educational Technology (OET), is calling on schools to adopt a more integrated approach to technology across all facets of their operation–from classroom instruction to front-office administration.

In an interview with eSchool News, the country’s top ed-tech administrator said she is not interested in pursuing “technology for technology’s sake,” but in looking for ways technology-driven solutions can contribute to the broader goal of helping all students learn.

To do that, she said, will require a culture of communication and an open-mindedness about learning that encourages all stakeholders–including students–to speak their minds about the direction of educational technology in America’s schools.

Education Secretary Rod Paige on March 26 tapped Patrick, an agency veteran, to head the OET, part of the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Patrick had served as acting director since Feb. 2, when she succeeded former director John Bailey, who left to join the reelection campaign of President Bush.

Patrick is charged with coordinating technology programs and policies to further the mission of the department and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), including virtual education and eLearning, student data management systems, online assessments, and the national ed-tech plan.

Technology is becoming the adhesive that unites formerly disparate parts of the education enterprise, she indicated. Unlike the paper-based environments of old, where every facet of education–from classroom teaching to student assessment and front-office administration–existed as its own separate entity, Patrick said the technology-infused schools of today require a more integrated approach, where one institution cannot be expected to survive without the others.

“Every administrative system, in a sense, becomes an instructional system,” she said. For instance, if a school uses Geographic Information Systems technology to plot its bus routes, and those buses show up 15 minutes late for school because of a mistake traced back to improper training, the mix-up no doubt affects the administrator who made the error, but it also has consequences for those students who missed out on valuable class time.

The same can be said for a student information system that collects volumes of personal data, but provides no means for educators to extract those data in a meaningful way that can aid in instruction, and so on.

Research and best practices

To address these concerns, Patrick said one of OET’s goals going forward will be to reduce the complexities of data management and student assessment systems and to help educators locate solutions that best fit the needs of their students.

To do this, Patrick says her office will continue to build on ED’s What Works Clearinghouse, an online repository of systematically evaluated research to help educators more easily identify scientifically proven teaching methods and instructional practices as required by NCLB.

For instance, OET is currently overseeing a three-year, $15 million initiative that will look at 10 statewide technology projects from across the country–from virtual classroom initiatives to professional development programs–and will use these examples as a blueprint for success in other states.

In all, ED has committed more than $56 million to 28 different research projects geared toward evaluating various approaches toward technology in the classroom.

By expanding the number of proven solutions and best practices available to schools, Patrick hopes educators will need to spend less time worrying about which solutions work and be able to devote more time to using proven solutions to meet the achievement and accountability standards outlined under NCLB.

Though Patrick acknowledges that conducting high-quality research sometimes takes longer than most educators would like, she cautioned that such projects are necessary to convince policy makers that technology is having its desired effect.

Without proof in numbers, she said, there’s no guarantee of funding. “Policy makers want to see a return on investment,” she said.

A national vision

Patrick is also taking up where her predecessor left off in overseeing the development of a new National Educational Technology Plan.

In seeking input from all stakeholders, she has continued the legacy that Bailey created. OET received thousands of suggestions from students, parents, teachers, and industry professionals before the March 12 deadline for comments, with contributors asking the department to focus on three main themes: professional development, ubiquitous computing, and the needs of today’s students.

“I believe it’s very important to use a two-way feedback process in drafting large-scale national policy,” Patrick said. From students’ perspectives, she said, it was amazing to learn how technology exists seamlessly in their everyday lives. Whether it’s eMail or instant messaging, students–as communicators–tend to be far ahead of teachers and parents. (See “‘Ultra-communicators’ demand more eMail access, better software,”

Using respondents’ comments as guidance, ED is in the process of drafting its final report, though Patrick was unable to say exactly when the plan would be available.

Learning online

Virtual schooling is another priority. Patrick said she plans to continue pushing online courses as a supplemental option, especially for students in rural areas who otherwise might not have access to high-quality instructors and more advanced courses.

But online instruction is more than just a supplemental solution for students in remote locales. According to Patrick, the benefits of virtual schooling now extend to educators seeking professional development opportunities, as well as at-risk students who might learn better in alternative environments.

Virtual schooling presents its challenges, too. As the practice of online learning continues to gain in popularity, concerns are mounting about whether students who enroll in online courses receive the same amount of attention and commitment from educators as those who attend traditional schools.

Though it’s not yet the case everywhere, Patrick said she believes it is possible for students to receive a high-quality education no matter what learning environment they choose. The key, though, is to ensure that cyber schools are held to the same standards of accountability as traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

For a virtual school–or even a supplemental online course–to be effective, she contends, online institutions must employ highly qualified teachers; offer strong, scientifically-based curricula and content; and provide innovative teaching methods that engage students’ interest.

Educators also must recognize that virtual learning requires a shift in thinking away from traditionally localized forms of education to an open system equipped to deal with the problem of long-distance learning. That is, if a student in Colorado opts to enroll in a virtual course taught by an educator in Florida, policy makers and administrators must do what they can to ensure that certification and accreditation polices are configured to deal with such relationships.

For most students, she said, the issue won’t necessarily boil down to a choice between cyber school and old school, but will encompass a “blended approach” that combines certain aspects of virtual learning with the benefit of in-class, in-person instruction. Just because a child opts to attend regular classes at his or her local high school doesn’t mean that child won’t have an opportunity to reap the benefits of online learning, she said. With options that run the gamut from video streaming and conferencing to real-time assessment and internet research, Patrick said there’s no end to the type of technology-integrated solutions that can help students learn.

Preparing for tomorrow

In the long term, Patrick said, OET is concerned not only with how well technology is used in schools, but also with how students’ relationship with technology will prepare them for their future.

To help in this transition, Patrick said she will continue to support such ongoing initiatives as ED’s Interagency Working Group on Advanced Technologies for Education and Training, which was designed to explore ways technology could boost the productivity of learning while at the same time lowering its costs and helping to make the U.S. workforce more competitive globally.

As part of the program, OET officials are joining forces with other government agencies to explore ways in which emerging technologies create efficiencies in the workforce. The department also plans to work with technology and software providers to identify solutions and find ways to integrate them into the learning process. The idea is to expose students to the same types of technologies they will encounter as they venture from school into the work world.

Other initiatives include ED’s ongoing support of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a public-private organization whose members include the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Apple Computer, Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems, Dell, Microsoft, the National Education Association, and SAP.

With the goal of promoting information and communications technology literacy, Patrick said the partnership is working to devise a framework for educators to follow as they implement the technology-literacy provision of NCLB, which states that all students must be technology proficient by the eighth grade. Results from that framework are expected as early as this summer, she said.

Responding to critics

Ed-tech advocacy groups such as the International Society for Technology in Education and the Consortium for School Networking have been critical of the Bush administration’s attempts to eliminate several technology-specific education initiatives, including the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program, saying this demonstrates a lack of leadership and commitment to ed tech at the federal level.

In response to these concerns, Patrick echoed her predecessor, saying ED is more committed than ever to providing money for technology in the nation’s schools. Instead of supporting technology-specific programs, she noted, the department has sought to have technology infused throughout its various programs–including the $1 billion Reading First Grants and the $12.4 billion Title I program.

“We need to keep our eyes on the overall picture,” Patrick said. “More than ever, federal dollars are being used to support technology.”


U.S. Department of Education (ED)

ED’s Office of Educational Technology