Policy & Advocacy | December 2012 Digital Edition | Feature

In Predicting Ed Tech's Future, SETDA Marks Safe Bets and Wildcards

Geoff gets his boss at the State Educational Technology Directors Association to speculate about what 2013 will look like for ed tech now that the Obama administration is continuing for a second term.

This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's December 2012 digital edition.

As a futurist, I have a hard time predicting the future, because that implies that there is only one future, and that we have no impact on what may take place in the days and years ahead. While trends are under way and decisions have already been made that will determine, to some degree, what may happen in time, the actions we take today will go a long way toward creating the future.

Now that we know the results of the election, I have asked Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, to respond to a few leading questions about what educators can expect from the federal government in the next couple of years when it comes to supporting educational technology.

Fletcher: What do you think is the impact of the presidential election results on the field of educational technology?

Levin: As much as I'd like to say that the outcome of the presidential election signals a dramatic shift toward or endorsement of educational technology, the real answer is a bit more complicated for two reasons. First, I don't see partisanship as a determining factor in whether policymakers support educational technology funding or programs per se. Rather, the differences have to do more with perceptions about how technology helps or hinders other reforms that policymakers are keen on advancing.

Now don't get me wrong, the parties do have different views regarding the federal role in education. A second term for the Obama administration should result in vigorous arguments for more federal education funding and a more activist federal role in education than the alternative would have brought us.

Nonetheless, recall the praise from Gov, Romney for Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the campaign trail. I think the policy shifts that a Romney administration would have brought to DC would have been smaller in practice than many following the campaigns might have come away expecting. And, ultimately, Congress is the body that has to pass the federal education budget. The president has a major role, but does not in any way dictate the outcome.

Fletcher: I'm a little surprised to hear you say that. Isn't an Obama and Democratic Party victory good news for educational technology advocates?

Levin: It is good news in that we are likely to see a larger federal education budget overall than we'd likely have gotten under a Romney administration. One hopes that within a larger budget, there'd be more room for investment in educational technology programs.

On the other hand, some of the most vigorous advocacy for educational technology in the last couple of years--at least at the state level--has come from the other side of the aisle. Republicans in Idaho unsuccessfully tried to launch a statewide 1-to-1 program, for example, and [former Florida] Gov. Jeb Bush has been a leading advocate for digital learning through his foundation and Digital Learning Now!

Much of the difference between the parties has to do with how they'd implement technology in schools, but, in my view, we can't even have that debate until there is a universal expectation that technology is integral to the day-to-day experience of students in schools nationwide.

Maybe I've been working inside the Beltway too long, but I don't see educational technology as a partisan issue. It is too important for our children's future to be perceived as only a pet issue for one side or the other.

Fletcher: You said there were two reasons that it's hard to predict the impact of the election on the field of educational technology. What's the second reason?

Levin: The second reason I think it is hard to predict the impact on the field of educational technology of a second term for President Obama is that his first term was marked--from my perspective--with pretty mixed messages. During his 2008 campaign for the presidency and during the transition time immediately following his election, support for educational technology programs and funding was a priority. With administration support, the stimulus invested $650 million directly into educational technology programs.

One short year later, though, with political appointments made and in place at the US Department of Education and the White House, the administration reversed course and zeroed out this same funding stream in its budget request. A Republican Congress intent on trimming the federal education budget was only too happy to oblige.

Fletcher: You're talking about the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program, right?

Levin: Correct.

Fletcher: In spite of whacking EETT, the Obama administration launched a number of new initiatives, including the National Education Technology Plan and the National Broadband Plan focused on education.

Levin: Right. The Obama administration has signaled that the use of technology in education is important in a variety of ways. I think their leadership has been instrumental in driving private investment in new educational technology tools and services from foundations and the venture capital community. They've also argued for more research and development targeted to technology approaches and have provided important leadership in helping the K-12 sector start to come to grips with core interoperability challenges that are going to hold us back if not addressed. These elements probably will continue as under-riding currents over the next few years.

Ultimately, I think the judgment as to whether President Obama has been good for educational technology will hinge on the implementation of the forthcoming assessments of Common Core (that is, the Race to the Top Assessment Program).

Fletcher: Why Race to the Top Assessment? What's the intersection between high-stakes assessment and educational technology?

Levin: I suspect that school district leaders in states that have adopted the Common Core are only now starting to hear more about issues related to one of two new assessments that will be rolled out in 2014 in their schools: PARCC or Smarter Balanced. To date, most of the action related to these new assessments has been at the state level, as states are working together to design not just new tests but new high-stakes assessment systems from the ground up. It has been challenging work, but it will set the stage for what many hope will be next-generation assessments-- assessments that both do a better job of capturing the full range of student knowledge, skills, and abilities and result in information that is actionable and can be used to support improved teaching and learning.

Make no mistake that this is a tall order, but here's the connection: The federal funding that is enabling the states to do this work placed a requirement that any new testing system to be developed had to be technology-based. That's both smart--because we won't get a better student assessment system in this country until tests are universally delivered on a technology platform--and an enormous challenge. It's a challenge because it begs the question as to whether each participating state has a technology infrastructure and sufficient devices in every school available to support testing.

Fletcher: But how does this relate to improved teaching and learning? Focusing on technology-based testing could take us backward, couldn't it?

Levin: It is important to keep in mind the fact that digital testing requires digital learning. The first time students experience authentic tasks designed to elicit their knowledge via technology cannot be during the testing window. The implications for the changes required in teaching and learning with technology and for professional development are huge.

Ultimately, the questions regarding the impact of the president's policies on educational technology--and student success--are going to play out between now and 2014. Will the administration double down on their approach by providing assistance and funding to states and districts in meeting the technology challenge for all students and schools, or will we see a shift in policy and emphasis? Will they broaden the message about educational technology to include teaching and learning, or keep a narrow focus on testing? Do they have the political will to see through what they've launched in partnership with the states?

It promises to be an interesting few years. Stay tuned.