eSN Exclusive: At a time when the need for global competitiveness looms large and the academic performance of the nation’s students is fueling policy debates from local school boards to the White House, Tim Magner, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ choice to head the federal Office of Educational Technology (OET), believes technology will play an integral role in helping educators prepare students for life and work in the 21st century.

In an interview with eSchool News, Magner said he’s looking forward to the challenges–and opportunities–that await him in his new role as the country’s top educational technology official. A former software executive and Education Department (ED) veteran, Magner talked about the ways in which technology continues to transform education. He also underscored the federal government’s commitment to preparing students for success in the global workforce–this, despite recent budget cuts to critical funding measures such as the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program and other federally funded grant initiatives designed to support technology in the nation’s schools.

“It goes without saying that, personally and professionally, this is an exciting position to be in,” Magner said of his new post at the department. “This is an exciting time in education, where we are looking at it really being the backbone of our national effort to be competitive and to create the next generation of entrepreneurs and scientists and teachers that we have in this country.”

Magner said he looks forward to working with members of the ed-tech community, both in schools and on the advocacy front, to “create a dialogue” that will highlight the continued importance of technology in education and get stakeholders talking about new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

From the use of innovative technologies by teachers in the classroom, to the integration of statewide data systems designed to track and analyze student progress, Magner said technology is “giving us the information we need to improve education across the board.”

Thanks to these and other emerging technologies, he said, the opportunity is greater than perhaps ever before for educators to transform traditional learning environments–and make the instructional adjustments necessary to reach a new, highly digital generation of learners.

Going ‘horizontal’

The first person to head OET since former director Susan Patrick left the department last August to lead the North American Council for Online Learning, Magner believes the key to realizing technology’s promise lies in each school system’s ability “to think systemically.”

“It’s really seeing all the ways that a cogent and comprehensive technology platform can be used to deliver efficient and effective education services and engage students in their own learning in a way that, I think, can be really transformational,” he explained.

When discussing his goals for the future of educational technology in the United States, Magner draws parallels to the medical field, where the rapid advancement of technology has dramatically improved the ability of doctors to diagnose and treat complex illnesses.

“Technology is really helping teachers collect, organize, and deliver instruction in all sorts of new and interesting ways,” he said.

Much as it has in medicine, Magner said, technology is getting to a point now in schools where its presence is so ubiquitous that educators can begin thinking seriously about how to integrate it into every facet of the school day, whether it’s to provide a much-needed boost in the classroom, improve the quality and efficiency of front-office functions, or track and monitor individual student progress in order to differentiate instruction.

“Technology is really becoming a horizontal in schools,” he said, “in the sense that it’s critical not only in delivering education, but in helping manage education systems” such as data warehouses, complex school transportation and procurement systems, and other back-end processes essential to a school district’s day-to-day operations.

‘What works’

Of course, Magner realizes, having a vision and getting students and teachers to buy into that vision aren’t necessarily the same.

For its part, he said, OET will continue to work with teachers and others in the ed-tech community to spread awareness about the benefits inherent in a technology-rich education. Apart from attending national conferences and serving as an advisor to executives at the federal level, Magner said he intends to convene special focus groups to discuss the impact of new and emerging technologies in schools, visit institutions experimenting with new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, share best practices with policy makers and school leaders nationwide, and continue to pursue research that validates the effectiveness of technology in the nation’s schools.

“We need to know what works, and we need to know how things are working, if we are going to continue to focus our time, effort, and resources on developing them,” he said, adding that ED will “do its part” to understand the problems and challenges faced by teachers in the classroom and provide the resources necessary to drive instruction effectively.

‘Hard choices’

Educators can be forgiven if they greet this last statement with some degree of skepticism– especially considering that President Bush recently proposed cutting more than $3 billion from federal education spending in his 2007 budget. The president’s proposal, which would mark the largest cut to federal education spending in nearly two decades, also calls for the elimination of EETT, the primary source of federal funding for school technology. In the 2006 federal budget that Congress approved in December, EETT suffered a near 50-percent cut that already is being felt in school systems from California to Iowa (see story:

Fending off criticisms from ed-tech advocates who argue that ED’s rhetoric of late does not match the administration’s actions, Magner reiterated a line often uttered by his predecessors: that funding for school technology can be found in several programs throughout the federal budget, and just because money for certain technology-specific programs is not available doesn’t mean ED had underestimated the need for technology in the classroom.

“There are resources across the federal government’s investment; there are a variety of other programs outside of EETT, for example, where money can be used to support the integration of technology,” he said.

Calling federal technology funding for schools “an important part, a critical part” of the budget, Magner also noted that federal dollars make up a very small percentage of the total amount spent on education in the U.S. By and large, he said, the bulk of education funding has come, and will continue to come, from state and local governments.

“When you look at the amount of federal dollars in education versus state and local governments, I think it’s somewhat unrealistic to expect that percentage is going to make up the bulk of what schools and districts need in order to educate children,” he said. Again, said Magner, it’s time to take a more systemic approach. He added: “It’s a really a combination of federal, state, and local resources that I think we need to look at as the set of resources that are going to support instruction.”

Though Magner empathizes with educators struggling to make do in light of recent budget cuts at the federal level, especially to long-standing programs such as EETT, he says the cuts are “a result of the fiscal environment we are currently living in.”

In trying to balance what the administration considers more pressing spending priorities, including the ongoing war in Iraq, hurricane relief in the Gulf Coast, a ballooning federal deficit, and other immediate funding measures (such as tax cuts), the reality is that sometimes the president and Congress have to make “tough choices,” Magner said–and spending cuts, like it or not, have to come from somewhere.

“It’s no different, really, than some of the choices we have to make in our own lives,” he said. “Sometimes you have to make tough decisions. Sometimes you have to make hard choices.”

A bright future?

But even with the proposed reduction in federal funding expected for next year, Magner said there is plenty for ed-tech advocates to be excited about.

For one, he said, the effective integration of technology is not something schools should feel they need to pursue on their own. These days, he said, more and more schools are taking advantage of public-private partnerships, reaching out to neighboring businesses and resources in the corporate world for help in providing additional resources and preparing students for the challenges that lie ahead.

As the former head of education initiatives for software giant Microsoft Corp., Magner said he believes public-private partnerships between schools and corporations are an excellent way for businesses to invest in the future of their communities, and they represent a chance for schools to offer more opportunities to their students.

Having been on “both sides of the desk,” Magner said public-private partnerships provide a “win-win” situation for schools and vendors, opening the door for a unique, two-way relationship between vendors and the educators who deploy their solutions in the classroom.

He added: “A lot of the innovation that is occurring in the way technology is being used in schools actually is going on in schools. Teachers, educators, and administrators around the country are constantly developing new models for how technology can support instruction.”

What’s more, Magner said, new and emerging technologies such as simulation, gaming, online learning, and artificial intelligence–which have had traction in the business world for years–now are starting to crop up in schools, as tech-savvy educators look for ways to create “next-generation learning environments.”

These days, Magner said, the challenge is “matching up what we expect our students to know and be able to do and, frankly, what our country’s expectations for our next generation of students are in this globally competitive society.”

Going forward, he said, the question is not how schools can integrate technology, but rather, “How can we, as a country and as local communities, come together to make sure that students have access to the kinds of high-quality teaching and great learning experiences that are going to prepare them to take care of us in the future?”

In having the opportunity to work with the nation’s schools, Magner said, it’s a question he hopes eventually to answer.


U.S. Department of Education