Karen Cator (Digital Promise)

To say the political climate in Washington, D.C., isn’t conducive to getting things done these days would be an understatement.

That’s what makes Karen Cator’s accomplishments in her nearly four years as director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) all the more impressive.

A new national ed-tech plan. Coordination with the FCC on a national broadband plan. The development of an online Learning Registry with open digital content that teachers can use in their classrooms. The Connected Educator project, which explores how educators can learn from each other through online communities of practice—resulting in the first annual “Connected Educator Month” last August.

“I feel really good about the work we were able to do within the context of government,” she said.

Cator left the department earlier this year to become the new chief executive officer of Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization that supports ed-tech innovation. ED has not announced her replacement as of press time.

In an interview with eSchool News, Cator reflected on her tenure as the nation’s top ed-tech chief—and she described how her current organization is building on this foundation of work.

Released in 2010, the latest national ed-tech plan is a “strong articulation” of goals for transforming education with the help of technology, Cator said. It focuses on how technology can help personalize instruction, improve assessment, and enhance teaching and learning.

A section on teachers describes a vision of the “highly connected educator,” which led to last year’s creation of Connected Educator Month. The event is “designed to spotlight ways that educators can learn online with each other,” Cator said, such as by using Twitter and other web-based services to share lessons and ideas.

Another initiative that Cator led in her time at ED was a push to expand “evidence-based approaches” to learning: applying data to the study of how students learn best—and which technologies and pedagogies are most effective.

“We need better data about products and services, so consumers can make better choices,” she said. And this focus on research ties into her current work at Digital Promise.

Launched in 2011 and supported with a mix of public and private funding, including $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Digital Promise facilitates research and development around educational technology. “It has a big mission,” Cator said, but its main goal can be summed up as “spurring innovation.”

One of the ways it does this is by bringing together educators, researchers, and entrepreneurs, such as through a flagship initiative called the League of Innovative Schools.

For instance, League member Utica Community Schools in Sterling Heights, Mich., is working with eSpark, a small ed-tech entrepreneur, to develop apps for a blended learning pilot project serving kindergarteners—a project that was partly informed by a similar effort in another League member district, Napa County Schools.

Utica has redesigned its kindergarten classrooms with a blended learning model that leverages iPads, Cator said. The district is tracking achievement in the pilot classrooms and comparing it to classrooms that are not part of the initial iPad deployment, as well as other benchmark data.

In another example, the Piedmont City School District in Alabama offered a Summer Virtual Academy that let students keep their laptops and participate in summer learning activities through a virtual environment. Along with the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Lab, Piedmont will study the effectiveness of the Summer Virtual Academy in preventing summer learning loss and will share the results.

And in another League-generated partnership, Piedmont is collaborating with Zoran Popovic, director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington. Students in grades 4-6 who are participating in the district’s Virtual Academy are using Popovic’s Refraction game, and UW is measuring their learning gains.

Currently, there are 32 League participants. Cator said the initiative will be open to other districts as well, and her organization is working on an application process. “We want to make sure the capacity to support … future members is there first,” she added.

The latest resource from Digital Promise is a report intended to help schools with ed-tech procurement. Written in conjunction with the innovation consulting firm IDEO, it offers “potential solutions for the oft-lamented challenges in selling and purchasing education technology,” according to the Digital Promise website.

Follow eSchool News Editor in Chief Dennis Pierce on Twitter: @eSN_Dennis.

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