In a surprise move, Susan Patrick, head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, announced July 26 that she will leave the Bush administration in August to assume control of the Virginia-based North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL).

Patrick made the decision to step down as the nation’s top ed-tech administrator after less than two years on the job. “I didn’t plan to leave the department,” she said of her new role as president and chief executive of the nonprofit NACOL. “But this was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.”

When contacted by an eSchool News reporter, the Education Department (ED) confirmed that Patrick will step down effective Aug. 6. Though the administration has yet to name a successor, officials said they will be “actively looking” to fill the position.

ED officials said there are no immediate plans for changing the federal office, but they stopped short of guaranteeing its long-term survival, noting that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings will evaluate the department’s “technology needs externally and internally before making any decisions.”

But Patrick’s departure, though sudden, is probably less drastic than it might appear. With President Bush safely locked into a second term, Patrick, like many other outgoing government officials before her, says the time is right to pursue new opportunities.

Perhaps best-known for her role in helping to create the latest National Educational Technology Plan (NETP), Patrick spoke with eSchool News about the reasons behind her departure and her new role as a national figurehead for the advancement of virtual learning.

“I really felt like I accomplished a lot during the three and half years I was with the administration,” she said, pointing to the release of the NETP and the creation of summer leadership conferences designed to help educators understand the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law as proof that she had accomplished the bulk of what she set out to do when taking over in March of last year (see “ED’s new tech chief sets her agenda“).

Patrick, an agency veteran, was appointed by former Education Secretary Rod Paige to fill the post vacated by her predecessor, John Bailey, who left to help with President Bush’s reelection campaign.

And her contributions have not gone unnoticed.

“As director of the Office of Educational Technology, Susan Patrick has played an integral role in the implementation of No Child Left Behind,” said ED’s chief of staff, David Dunn. “She successfully led the department’s efforts on the 2004 National Education Technology Plan and has spent several years developing and coordinating the department’s educational technology policies. Susan shares our goal that every child can learn and has worked tirelessly to help provide leadership to the nation in the use of technology to promote achievement.”

At NACOL, Patrick plans to use her knowledge of the ed-tech landscape to promote the continued adoption of online learning in schools. Though schools are beginning to realize the value of online learning as a tool for reform, Patrick says, the majority of institutions still are not using these technological resources to their full potential.

“We’re just beginning to see the potential of what the internet, and especially online learning, will do for education,” Patrick said. “Today’s students want more options when it comes to education, and our global economy is demanding students are equipped with rigorous coursework and real-world skills.”

Patrick draws most of her support for this argument from a 2005 report by ED’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which states that that just more than one-third (36 percent) of public K-12 school districts currently enroll students in online programs. In all, ED estimates there are more than 328,000 online course enrollments nationwide. But analysts have predicted that number could soar to as many as 500,000 in the coming years, Patrick said. And schools need to understand what challenges lay ahead.

“Not since the creation of the printing press have we seen such a dynamic shift in the reinvention and expansion of educational opportunities,” Patrick explained. “Online learning is not a trend–it is a fundamental shift in the way students are learning and a new reality.”

Patrick takes over at NACOL for former Executive Director Tim Stroud. Stroud, once a special advisor on education in the Clinton administration, left NACOL in June to become a program manager with the National Science Teachers Association.

In her new role, Patrick will be responsible for overall management of all NACOL programs, including its Virtual School Symposium and Online Learning Clearinghouse, the organization said. She also will be responsible for implementing NACOL’s strategic plan, including developing projects based on member priorities and collaborating with other education organizations.

“We are looking forward to working with Susan. Not only does she have a wealth of expertise working in educational technology, but she has a passion for creating successful projects through collaboration and exploration,” said Steve Baxendale, chairman of the board for NACOL and director of PRELStar at Pacific Resources for Education and Learning in Honolulu. “Her vision and commitment to online learning, combined with her experience at the U.S. Department of Education, will enable NACOL to achieve its overall goals and objectives and create additional momentum in the online learning community.”

Others in the ed-tech community also are looking forward to Patrick’s arrival at NACOL.

“It makes sense that Susan sees great potential with [NACOL], especially in an era of diminishing support for educational technology from the administration in Washington,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer for the International Society for Technology in Education. “Susan has worked tirelessly in the areas of policy, school transformation, and support for meaningful accountability … and she will be a powerful addition to our community.”

Patrick’s first day with NACOL is scheduled for Sept. 6.

Links:

North American Council for Online Learning
http://www.nacol.org

National Science Teachers Association
http://www.nsta.org

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org