National Ed Tech Plan Advocates Radical Reforms in Schools

If there were any doubts about the Obama administration's intentions toward education technology, the United States Department of Education settled them Friday with the release of the first public draft of the National Education Technology Plan (NETP). The 114-page document reveals an intent not only to infuse technology throughout the curriculum (and beyond), but to implement some major--sometimes radical--changes to education itself.

The plan, titled "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology," sets forth, in part, a manifesto for change, questioning many of the basic structures of American education, enumerating the principles of change that are the foundation for the plan, and setting goals and recommendations for achieving this change.

Questioning Assumptions and Establishing Principles
Some of the assumptions the plan questions are foundational in public education, including age-determined grade levels, measuring achievement through "seat time," keeping students in the same classes throughout the year, and even keeping individual academic disciplines separate. It also, however, seems to advocate a "more is more" approach, continuing Education Secretary Arne Duncan's previous call for longer school days and school weeks (spent in physical classrooms), in addition to the extension of learning though technological means.

The draft also seems to question, at times, the basic premise that K-12 should be limited to the confines of kindergarten through 12th grade. The plan advocates tighter integration between K-12 and higher education, using the phrase "K-16" on a few occasions and referencing "K-12" generally (but not exclusively) in relation to higher education, and, in particular, in the context of collaboration between secondary and post-secondary institutions.

For example:

Postsecondary education institutions--community colleges and 4-year colleges and universities--will need to partner more closely with K-12 schools to remove barriers to postsecondary education and put plans of their own in place to decrease dropout rates.

And elsewhere:

The Department of Education should promote partnerships between two- and four-year postsecondary education institutions, K-12 schools, and educational technology developers in the private and public sectors to design programs and resources to engage students and motivate them to graduate from high school ready for postsecondary education. Support should start as soon as possible in students' educational careers and intensify for students who need it. States, districts, and schools should experiment with such resources as online learning and online tutoring and mentoring, as well as with participatory communities and social networks both within and across education institutions to give students guidance and information about their own learning progress and their opportunities for the future.

Meanwhile, the guiding principles behind NETP, as stated in the draft, follow along these lines as well, rejecting many current practices and favoring new approaches to everything from teaching and assessment to the role of the federal government in education.

At the core is the principle that technology should be the driving force behind implementation of the education plan. As stated in the NETP draft:

The model depends on technology to provide engaging and powerful learning content, resources, and experiences and assessment systems that measure student achievement in more complete, authentic and meaningful ways. Technology-based learning and assessment systems will be pivotal in improving student learning and generating data that can be used to continuously improve the education system at all levels. The model depends on technology to execute collaborative teaching strategies combined with professional learning strategies that better prepare and enhance educators' competencies and expertise over the course of their careers.

The model also depends on every student and educator having Internet access devices and broadband Internet connections and every student and educator being comfortable using them. It depends on technology to redesign and implement processes to produce better outcomes while achieving ever-higher levels of productivity and efficiency across the education system.

The document also lists several other principles on which the plan is based, including:

  1. The education system is failing in large part owing to a failure to engage students.
  2. Learning experiences need to change with the times.
  3. Assessment needs to be more formative.
  4. Data collected on students would be better used if it could be shared amongst agencies.
  5. There should be new approaches to teaching, including collaborative teaching teams and technology-driven distance programs.
  6. Groundwork should be laid to make learning resources available everywhere at all times to all students.
  7. Industry can serve as a model for leveraging technology.
  8. The federal government has a larger role to play in education than it has in the past.

Goals and Recommendations
NETP sets out goals in five broad areas: learning, assessment, teaching, infrastructure, and productivity.And it lays out 23 recommendations to help achieve those goals.

In the category of learning, NETP strongly advocates a 21st century skills approach, with a particular emphasis on individualized learning ("instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, pace of teaching, and instructional practices"). Specific recommendations include creating new standards and objectives grounded in 21st century skills and designed for use with technology; creating flexible, universally accessible resources; and using technology and "advances in the learning sciences" to enhance education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The goals set forth for assessment include using assessments as data collection tools that can be applied immediately to improve student achievement. Assessment leading to individualized, continually updated instruction is emphasized.

NETP also sets forth as a goal the transformation of teaching away from its current "solo practitioner" mode, replacing it with "teams of connected educators" working in classrooms that are "fully connected to provide educators with 24/7 access to data and analytic tools as well as to resources that help them act on the insights the data provide."

Recommendations for teaching include:

  1. The development of collaborative networks and expanded resources for teachers.
  2. Promotion of technological fluency among teachers through pre-service and in-service development programs.
  3. Developing "career-long personal learning networks" for teachers using technology.
  4. Making more learning resources available to teachers through technology, "especially where they are not otherwise available."
  5. Developing "a teaching force skilled in online instruction."

Infrastructure in the draft NETP is expanded to include not only information technology, including, of course, broadband connectivity, but also "people, processes, learning resources, policies, and sustainable models for continuous improvement...."

Goals set forth for productivity are more complex and incorporate some of the goals in other categories. "To achieve our goal of transforming American education, we must rethink basic assumptions and redesign our education system," according to the NETP draft. "We must apply technology to implement personalized learning and ensure that students are making appropriate progress through our K-16 system so they graduate. These and other initiatives require investment, but tight economic times and basic fiscal responsibility demand that we get more out of each dollar we spend. We must leverage technology to plan, manage, monitor, and report spending to provide decisionmakers with a reliable, accurate, and complete view of the financial performance of our education system at all levels. Such visibility is essential to meeting our goals for educational attainment within the budgets we can afford."

A complete copy of the draft is available on the U.S. Department of Education's Web site here.