ED’s new tech chief previews national plan

As America’s brand-new director of education technology, career educator Karen Cator underscores the determination of President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to develop "a transformative agenda" for the nation’s schools and colleges. She said the U.S. Department of Education (ED) will unveil the first draft of the administration’s National Education Technology Plan next month.

"Technology will be in play in every aspect of the education-reform agenda," she said. 

In a speech at New York’s Princeton Club on Dec. 1, Cator–a lifelong educator, technology executive, state school official, and education advocate–gave a preview of the plan to more than 200 ed-tech providers and investors at the Ed-Tech Business Forum, a program presented by the Education Division of the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA).

In broad terms, Cator said in an interview with eSchool News, the administration’s ed-tech plan will seek to bring to fruition the president’s vow to make the United States first in the world in the number of college graduates by 2020 and to give every willing student at least one year of postsecondary education.

The plan will address the imperatives of global competition, Cator said, but also will stress the importance of global interdependence. It will focus on ensuring effective teachers are present "in every zip code," on seamlessly bridging the gap between the wide array of technology students use outside of school and the more limited technology available to them in the classroom. She said America’s ed-tech plan will promote careers in science, technology, engineering, and math–but now will add an emphasis on the arts, because, as Cator explained, creativity is essential to lifelong success in the age of technology.

Cator indicated the unveiling of ED’s national ed-tech plan might roughly coincide with the release of the national broadband initiative from the Federal Communication Commission. The dovetailing of those two elements of the national agenda, she said, will provide the best chance in decades for genuine, technology-driven, systemic reform.

Although Cator had been on the job less than four weeks when she spoke at SIIA, she noted that work on the nation’s ed-tech plan has been under way for months. According to those engaged in that work, the plan will involve these four focus areas:

"Learning: Enabling unprecedented access to high-quality learning experiences. Everyone, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities, should have increased access to meaningful, well designed, and readily available learning experiences, throughout their lives.

"Assessment: Measuring what matters and providing the information that enables continuous improvement processes at all levels of the education system. Students, teachers, parents, and administrators should have access to the kinds of data that can enable better instructional decisions and provision of educational resources.

"Teaching: New ways to support those who support learning. Technology can enable mentors, coaches, and peers to better support learning both in and out of school. Teachers can benefit from resources provided through technology and from anytime-anywhere professional interactions, including collaborations to share and refine effective techniques and resources.

"Productivity: Redesigning systems and processes to free up education system resources to support learning. In an era of scarce resources, education systems need to take advantage of new technological and content solutions to reduce spending tied to inefficient systems and processes. This effort includes more effective approaches to education R&D to increase the pace of innovation and the scaling of effective practices."

More information from the national ed-tech plan working group work may be found at www.edtechfuture.org, Cator said.

As a result of early community outreach and public input, seven elements of the plan already are emerging. These will have to do with international benchmarks, new assessment strategies, longitudinal data, "effective teachers in every zip code," a rethinking of time and space (what students and teachers do and when and where they do it), how to apply the insights of neuroscience to education, and personalized, student-centered learning.

"The biggest hole," Cator said, is in research, development, and evaluation. It’s critical, she explained, to go beyond anecdotal observations that students "look happy and seem to be learning." The question for any ed-tech application, she said, should be, "How do we know it works?"

A key for educators in these challenging times, Cator said, will be to persuade policy makers that education technology will allow schools and colleges to make more efficient use of existing resources.

Educators, Cator suggested, should reflect on how to ask students questions in an era of ubiquitous information and on how to ensure that technology helps teachers teach what matters. According to Cator, other pertinent questions include these: How do we sustain and scale up promising practices? How do we create conditions to learn about best practices, products, and services?

For the education reform agenda to take hold, she said, "we need to identify and disseminate success stories."

A unique window of opportunity exists right now, Cator pointed out: "We have a genuine chance right now to transform education." This opportunity likely will be available only once in our lifetimes, she said.

Here are some highlights of the education and experience of the new director of ED’s Office of Educational Technology.

• Received a bachelors degree in early childhood education from Massachusetts’ Springfield College,
• Received a masters degree in school administration from the University of Oregon,
• Worked with Apple Computer beginning in 1997 and left the job as the director of education leadership and advocacy,
• Chaired the Partnership for 21st Century Skills from 2006-07,
• Lead technology planning and implementation in Juneau, Alaska, where she also served as special assistant for telecommunications to the lieutenant governor, and
• Served on the board of directors of the SIIA Education Division.


Software and Information Industry Association Education Division

Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education

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