Stronger leadership, creative financing, access to broadband internet service, more digital content, and interoperable data systems are among the new priorities spelled out in the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) long-awaited release of its latest National Education Technology Plan (NETP).

Pairing educators’ suggestions with parent comments and input from thousands of students across the country, the plan–released Jan. 7–establishes a “national vision” and strategy for the effective use of technology in the nation’s schools. The final document, which ED plans to submit to Congress later this year, includes recommendations, cases studies, and an array of online resources designed to help educators prepare students for success in the 21st century.

To realize its vision for educational technology, ED offers seven recommendations for policy makers and school leaders:

  • Strengthen ed-tech leadership at the state and local levels;
  • Consider innovative budgeting;
  • Improve teacher training;
  • Support eLearning and virtual schooling initiatives;
  • Encourage broadband access;
  • Move toward digital content; and
  • Integrate data systems. (For more information, see “Seven Major Action Steps,” page 35.)

“We must rethink education to take advantage of the tools available through the internet and how we can better engage the students,” said Susan Patrick, head of ED’s Office of Educational Technology and a chief architect of the plan. “A fundamental question that emerged from the feedback we received was, Are our schools ready for today’s students?'”

Patrick said the goal is to shift the focus from counting the number of computers in the nation’s classrooms to understanding how technology can be used to better all facets of the education system, from data management and reporting in the front office to student learning at school and, in many cases, from home.

In an age when nearly 90 percent of the nation’s classrooms are connected to the internet and 9 in 10 children between the ages of 5 and 17 use computers, ED did something it had failed to do while drafting the nation’s two previous ed-tech plans: It asked students for their opinions on what should be done to improve the use of technology in their schools.

“Today’s students are far more sophisticated in the use of technology and in understanding the intricacies of what is possible, and they want to help us transform education,” said Patrick. “Students are empowering themselves in ways we never would have imagined.”

According to the report, the technology that has so dramatically changed the world outside our schools is now changing the learning and teaching environment from within. This change is driven by an increasingly competitive global economy and the students themselves, who are “born and comfortable in the age of the internet.”

In many states, the explosive growth of online instruction is already complementing traditional instruction with high-quality courses tailored to the needs of individual students, the report stated. At least 15 states provide some form of virtual schooling to supplement regular classes or provide for special needs, and about 25 percent of all K-12 public schools now offer some form of eLearning.

With the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, talk of increased accountability and assessment has dominated the national conversation, giving rise to a focus in this report on the value of online assessments and improved data management.

“We haven’t harnessed the power of technology to inform daily decisions,” said Patrick in June, speaking to a group of educators at the National Educational Computing Conference. “There are places doing this, but we have to move forward as a nation.”

But while the plan was meant to include the voices of all students, some people question whether it accounts for students with disabilities and those with special needs.

“The needs of disenfranchised populations, such as minority students, are mentioned, but conspicuously absent are the needs of students with disabilities,” said a release from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) in response to the report.

“We certainly applaud efforts to ensure that American students benefit from the explosive growth of technology in education, but what about the more than 6 million students with disabilities?” asked Martin Blair, NCDAE’s policy director.

“It seems that with this plan, millions of American students will be left behind,” added Cyndi Rowland, technology director for NCDAE. “There is no mention of universal design or assistive technology. It is tragic that so much energy and effort was placed on developing a plan that does not appear to include everybody.”

Looking at the plan from a policy perspective, others were less critical.

The new plan “provides a framework for the education community to move beyond simple task automation to transformation of the learning environment,” said Bob Moore, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and executive director of IT services at Blue Valley Union School District #229 in Kansas. “Just as technology has transformed other industry sectors, education could reap similar benefits if federal, state and local authorities exercise strong leadership and vision–and provide the necessary resources–to implement the plan’s top priorities.”

“CoSN is especially pleased that the new National Education Technology Plan mirrors our own technology policy priorities: leadership, smart budgeting, professional development, and the use of data in powerful ways to improve learning,” added CoSN CEO Keith Krueger–though he said the federal government has yet to provide the financial backing necessary to realize these goals. “We urge the administration to demonstrate its commitment to the National Education Technology Plan’s vision by supporting, through its FY06 budget proposal, adequate resources for states and school districts to implement it.”

Despite lawmakers’ vocal support for an increased technological presence in the nation’s schools, several ed-tech lobbyists and other education activists, including CoSN, have criticized the Bush administration and members of Congress for hawking a well-intentioned philosophy that appears out of touch with the nation’s fiscal reality.

The grumblings grew louder in November, when Congress approved a massive $191 million cut to the Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program, slashing the nation’s primary ed-tech funding initiative by nearly 30 percent. The larger-than-expected reduction came less than one year after Congress closed the doors on the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) program, a $62.5 million initiative intended to help new teachers integrate technology into their instruction.

In response to criticisms about the current fiscal landscape, Patrick said ED has every intention of continuing its push toward improved technology and instructional integration in the nation’s schools. Whether critics realize it or not, she said, the money needed to subsidize the plan is out there. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

Though Patrick sympathizes with educators’ frustrations surrounding the budget, she said there is additional money available for technology through Reading First and Title I programs, as well as through the reallocation of money at the state and local level.

“We have to look at the way we are spending money on everything–not just technology,” she said. “This is not just about ed-tech. This is about education.

“The goal,” she pointed out, “is student achievement.”

See these related links:

U.S. Department of Education

National Education Technology Plan

National Center on Disability and Access to Education

Consortium for School Networking