SPECIAL FEATURE| Tech Roundtable

2020 Vision: Experts Forecast What the Digital Revolution Will Bring Next

Directors of the federal Office of Educational Technology both past and present—as well as a range of ed tech leaders nationwide—predict what the digital revolution has in store for the next decade, while taking account of its impact to date. Plus: a timeline of learning technologies

In September 1993, Linda Roberts was appointed inaugural director of the newly created Office of Educational Technology within the US Department of Education. The phrase “surfing the internet” was but a year old, and the tide was still low for the few knowledgeable enough to test the waters. Broadband and wireless held significance only to the most sophisticated techies.

So much has changed since then, but Roberts (who headed the Office of Educational Technology until 2001) and two of her three successors, John Bailey (2001-2004) and Karen Cator (the current director, appointed to the position in 2009), agree that the most dramatic technology-enabled transformations are still ahead of us. Recently, the three of them sat down with T.H.E. Journal Editorial Director Geoff Fletcher to discuss how far we’ve come in education technology, and where we can expect to go.

Looking back over the last two decades, what have been the most important education technology developments?

Linda Roberts: Two have been phenomenal. One is, of course, the internet and the vast world of information and resources, and the ability to connect with people that we didn’t have two decades ago. But the second part is the mobility we now have, so that the resources and connections are in our hands wherever we go. Those two developments, combined, are shaping the future.

John Bailey: The internet and broadband have been transformative in enabling all sorts of reforms. Online learning wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the internet revolution and the next-generation broadband networks we’re seeing now. When you look at any of the innovations that we’re talking about in education technology, the common denominator is the internet and broadband helping to create the platform.

Eric Marcos, math teacher, Lincoln Middle School, Santa Monica, CA

Do you think education will look a lot differently in 10 years?

“It’s absolutely unbelievable how slow change occurs in a school system. Even if something is proven to be a great idea or something we should try, it takes a long, long time to change the whole thing—administration, teachers, parents, students. I almost expect things to look not too different in the next 10 to 15 years, unfortunately, and that’s not something that I wish.”

In more recent times, the progress that has been made with data systems, while not sexy from a policy standpoint, is enabling the personalization in projects such as School of One [the New York City program providing individualized instruction through multiple modalities]. We are now on the verge of seeing new technologies and innovations enabled by the data that has been collected by schools, teachers, and state systems.

The private sector has moved much more rapidly in implementing technological tools than education has. Why is that, and what are the prospects for that changing?

Karen Cator: One of the huge developments over the last 20 to 25 years has been the advent of the personal computer—and the part about it being personal, I think, is where we have missed the mark in education. We’ve been sharing: having a computer lab down the hall or two computers in the back of the classroom. In many cases, even education professionals have not had access to their own personal computer. Across all other industries, professionals have gotten used to having their own computer where they can keep their connections, the entire portfolio of all of their projects, and their presentations. We have not gotten to the level of personalization that we need to. Given that education is a knowledge industry, we need to figure out how we get every student his or her own personal device.

“I hoped that technology would be seen as not just within the realm of ed tech directors but embraced by the broader community—teacher groups, principals, superintendents, governors. We’re now seeing that in pockets, but it has been slow.”—John Bailey

Roberts: I absolutely agree. We’ve treated technology as a scarce resource in education, and as something extra rather than something essential and part of everything we do. This becomes striking when you look at the applications in other aspects of our lives. A lot of people assume there is more use of technology in education than there actually is because it’s so ubiquitous in the outside world. We need to act on the assumption that technology is as important as the school bus.

Mary McCaffrey, CEO of TH(i)NQ Ed

What will be the next transformative step in tech-based education?

“I think we’re going to see the revolution from the students, if we can keep them engaged. We’ve separated the world of our students from their school world. When they go to school, the only thing they have is social—their friends they see. We block out the rest of the their life—their texting, their phones, their computers, for the most part their digital world. I don’t think the students are going to put up with that. The students will lead this revolution if we keep them engaged and give them hope that they can make use of these technologies that they love in their private lives and make use of them for learning. Teachers will come along with that because teachers’ role will change. In my 2020 vision, we’ll have teachers as facilitators and mentors, and the students will be directing, leading, and collaborating, even as early as elementary school. The relationship between students and teachers will be, on a whole, much different and more valuable.”

Bailey: The other challenge we’ve faced is that there are many efforts to get technology into schools, but often, especially at the local level, there has been insufficient attention paid to what needs to change to make sure the technology being acquired is used to its full potential. [Amazon.com Chairman and CEO] Jeff Bezos is not asking, “How can we make a bookstore better?” but “How do we transform the notion of a bookstore?” The Department of Health and Human Services is investing $20 billion in funding a transformation in the way we keep medical records, order prescriptions, and track medical errors to reduce those errors. It’s not just automating; it’s transforming. Computers and the internet and other sorts of connectivity by themselves aren’t going to change organizations. Concentrated leadership focused on making institutional changes is what’s needed to take advantage of these opportunities.

What developments that have failed to take hold have disappointed you, and what can we learn from them?

Cator: We have so many interesting pockets of excellence—classrooms where you see students completely powered up, engaged, doing real work, solving complex problems, grappling with interesting information—but we haven’t figured out how to scale those up. And likewise, we see pockets of amazing research. For example, all of the funded research from the National Science Foundation over the years has not resulted in as much commercialization of products or implementation of new strategies as we would like to see. The reason is that we have a distributed system. But we can use the power of technology to change this.

Bailey: There are two areas I had high hopes for that only now are we beginning to see some real progress around. I had thought a lot of personalization engines and adaptive systems would have scaled further at this point than what they have. The great hope for a lot of these technologies is that they personalize the instruction to students’ individual needs and learning styles. We’re now beginning to see some powerful models there, but it has taken time. I also had hoped that technology would be seen as not just within the realm of ed tech directors but embraced by the broader community—teacher groups, principals, superintendents, governors. We’re now seeing that in pockets, but it has been slow.

Scott Kinney, senior vice president of global professional development, policy, and education outreach for Discovery Education

When did you get the sense that technology was changing education?

“When I started in education in the mid ’90s, I was the first instructional technology coordinator for a small district in western Pennsylvania; there was never a person in this position before. My first day on the job, the assistant superintendent showed me around the district, introduced me to some people, took me to lunch, and then showed me my office and handed me a stack of papers and said, ‘Now, do whatever it is you do.’ In that stack of papers was a grant for the internet. I quite literally was able to bring the internet into a school and connect a school to the world outside and a world of learning. But I remember sitting around and talking with our building principals: ‘How do we think this thing called the internet can really impact teaching and learning in the classroom?’”

Roberts: I believed we would finally have better tools to understand what students are successfully learning and what they aren’t learning. I agree with John that there are some exciting examples of powerful ways to collect data that captures learning and allows us to make good decisions. But unless we invest in edge-of-the-envelope research—not research that proves what we already know, but research that helps us invent the next generation of tools and resources—I fear we’re going to continue to be slow in our progress.

Research was emphasized in No Child Left Behind. But in some cases, has the reliance on scientific evidence for making changes served as a barrier to technology growth?

Roberts: The notion of scientifically based research and evidence was a very important dimension of NCLB. But there can be unintended consequences to good intentions. Our definition of scientific research and what evidence really is about has been drawn too narrowly.

“We’ve been sharing: having a computer lab down the hall or two computers in the back of the classroom. We need to figure out how we get every student his or her own personal device.”—Karen Cator

Bailey: Scientifically based research has a role, but it can be a limiting factor to certain innovations, in the sense that these types of studies are very expensive and complicated, particularly given how “messy” our education system and the types of students we serve are. And so I think there’s going to be a rich debate about what evidence should look like and how government can fund some of that high-risk but potentially high-reward research and investment in innovation that can be transformational. It would be great to see ESEA [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which authorizes federally funded education programs administered by the states] build on NCLB to focus not just on research that already has scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness, but that aims to get innovative solutions to a point where they can be studied.

Cator: We spend so much time proving what we already know rather than figuring out, specifically as it pertains to technology, how to do some rapid prototyping. The way people design new products and services today happens by doing—trying things and very quickly understanding whether it’s working or not. The opportunity with data systems is to do just that. If students are using technology, we should be able to rapidly understand how they’re doing.

Reauthorization of ESEA is likely to come up next year, which could mean a departure from NCLB. What impact has the law had in the 10 years since it was implemented, particularly on the integration of technology?

Bailey: One good thing to come out of No Child Left Behind is the notion of focusing a spotlight on the achievement gap and the fact that there are groups of students who aren’t well served. It has helped to shine a light on schools and systems that need improvement, although there is a debate as to whether that light was too widely shone.

Cator: NCLB gave us some visibility into achievement gaps and helped by disaggregating data and enabling us to think about it differently. We will be building on that. This is a journey, and the notion that you can throw something out and start over again is not realistic.

What role can technology play in changing the way we assess students, teachers, and schools?

Cator: Race to the Top [which funds states whose education systems are moving toward the US Department of Education’s school reform goals] set aside $350 million for the states to create an entirely new generation of assessments. One of the problems with our current system is we have the testable standards, and then we have the ones we say are nice to have but that we can’t really test now. These have been relegated to “bubble” tests. The opportunity now is to go way beyond the bubble test, to create a new generation of assessments that can give us much better information for students, their teachers, the school, the district, and the system as a whole. The entire world of assessment is about to change dramatically, and technology is going to be central to that.

Roberts: To be able to measure learning in a variety of ways rather than be limited by paper and pencil, it seems to me, is incredibly important, and ties closely to the development of the new content standards. And you can’t do any of the assessments that are being talked about without technology.

No Child Left Behind has had a dedicated technology fund that has fluctuated significantly. This administration is pushing for a new, more integrated approach. What can be done to ensure that true integration of technology takes place?

Cator: It’s striking the amount of integration that already exists, but just by happenstance. What we need to have is a much more integrated approach. One of the things missing is any kind of consideration of the infrastructure for learning. The opportunity for students to use technology to learn, the use of technology for assessments and professional development—all of that can easily be integrated into other programs, but it really is this notion of the infrastructure for learning that we have to grapple with to make sure we don’t leave it to chance.

Bailey: In August, when Congress passed a jobs bill to provide $10 billion to help states prevent teacher layoffs, part of the way it paid for it was to take back some of the broadband funding—about $350 million—and essentially kill the Ready to Teach program that was funding a lot of online professional development. One of the challenges we’re going to have is convincing Congress not to rob these innovation programs to help support some of the status quo approaches.

Cator: It’s pretty amazing, actually, the amount of money that’s being poured into broadband build-out across the country. The $350 million that got pulled back to help with the jobs bill was out of a $7.2 billion fund for broadband build-out. So we’re laser-focused and trying to build a map and transparency around where we have broadband and where we don’t, so that we can get very systematic about it.

Roberts: The broadband funding that has happened is phenomenally important, particularly for rural areas across the country. This country has got to invest more heavily in broadband. We ought to have a set-aside in every major federal education program that says 5 to 10 percent of the program has to go toward both expansion and maintenance of the technology infrastructure, because that infrastructure is absolutely critical to doing all of the things we’re talking about.

We also need to focus like a laser at every opportunity not just to fund technology for technology’s sake, but for the sake of innovation and improvement in the way we teach and learn through the most effective use of the technology capabilities. Reading First [a federally funded program to help states ensure that all children have the ability to read by the end of third grade] spurred a lot of technology development because of the way it required new kinds of assessments that didn’t work with paper-and-pencil technology. Those are the kinds of things that are really important.

Let’s talk about textbooks. What will be the fate of the traditional one print textbook per student, per course, per grade level?

Cator: I think over the next 18 months or so we’re going to see a transition from a predominantly print-based classroom to a digital classroom in which students have devices and the content is provided for them online in a much more flexible and customizable manner. We can take advantage of the power of technology to do things like simulations, visualizations, and games with better feedback, better adaptive materials, and better opportunities to personalize and conduct deep research on things that students are interested in. We’re going to move away from the notion of a print-based textbook toward a new platform. I’m hopeful about this.

Bailey: There are all sorts of interesting revolutions that will come out of the movement toward interactive textbooks and multimedia. Using the Kindle app on my iPad, I’ve been loving the social highlighting feature in which you can see the passages in the book that hundreds of other people have highlighted and thought were important. That suddenly takes textbooks and reading to a whole new level. I’m not sure if I would agree with Karen that it’s 18 months away, but it’s closer than most people think it is.

Roberts: Textbooks are content and they are also curriculum. They organize a lot of things for both teachers and students, but in an imperfect way, and now there are so many ways to make the content and the organization more useful. The challenge for the publishers is to find ways to be profitable that don’t rely just on the sale of the textbook.

Cator: Picking up on what John said, the true innovation is not merely the digital textbook, but when you can get together with other people around the content, and when we begin to think about learning as being participatory and social. We’re social animals. We like to learn with each other. We like to learn by talking and expressing. These platforms offer an amazing opportunity to push the envelope on personalized learning and work with others in the classroom to combine thoughts and share notes.

Thomas Frey, futurist, executive director of the DaVinci Institute

What barrier needs to be moved out of the way in the next 10 years to allow the education system to take advantage of the available technology?

“Who is the most famous school teacher in the world? I end up with a lot of blank stares when I ask that question. If I ask you who is the most famous radio talk-show host, you can probably name three or four. If I ask you who the most famous newspaper columnist is, you can probably name three or four of them. The difference is in one word: syndication. Teachers haven’t been able to syndicate their work because they’re owned by the institution they’re working for. We have fifth-grade math being taught by 10,000 teachers across the country every single day. Why do we have such a duplication of effort? Say there’s someone out there who is just exceptional at teaching fifth-grade math. Somehow they’ve mastered this like nobody else. We’re able to package it and deliver that course through some online medium that would enable students to learn from the best. They could sit at the feet of the true master, not the teacher who happens to have been hired for that job at their school. That teacher would become the most famous fifth-grade math teacher in the entire world. Teachers would become the celebrities of the students of that age.”

What role will social networking play in education over the next several years?

Roberts: We haven’t talked very much about teachers and school leaders, but if we could harness the social networking tools to bring together these communities to share what they’re doing to innovate and make good decisions, we can make professional development much more meaningful and useful to the people we’re trying to reach.

Cator: In the Department of Education we now have a Communities of Practice RFP [request for proposals] out to design research that steps back and asks what are the technologies and the methodologies, but more importantly how would people actually connect online as professional educators? What would be the interactions? What help do they need? What are the questions they would ask? Where would they go to find assistance? And secondarily, what would they do in terms of giving back? What would be the kinds of places they would aspire to publish within? We have not begun to scratch the surface in how we can leverage these technologies, environments, and innovations for powering up the professional educator.

Roberts: K-12 professionals are the most isolated in the world, and one of the arguments we made in the new [national] tech plan is that teachers have got to be connected with their peers, with the experts out there, with the community that is most likely to help them. It shouldn’t be something they have to think about; it should be part of the way they work.

Projecting ahead to 2020, what will students’ experiences look like?

Cator: We’re talking about the opportunity for students to wake up in the morning with a strong sense of purpose that they’re going to school because they are in the business of learning. They are empowered with their own device, their own learning record, their own feedback. They know what they’re going to do next without having to wait for someone to tell them. And they have access to the people around them—not just physically around them, but people who might be online, the experts, anyone who can help them get where they need to go. They will still go to a place and still have these people called teachers who are working with them and are connected with their work.

“In 2020, students will be able to learn no matter where they are. [They] will have the opportunities and resources to go as far as they possibly can as learners.”—Linda Roberts

Roberts: In 2020, students will be able to learn no matter where they are. The whole playing field has to be leveled; the key to the future is that students will have the opportunities and resources to go as far as they possibly can as learners.

Bailey: There are going to be a lot of different ways that students get just-in-time access to the content, the instruction, and the extra assistance they need. Schools will continue to be hubs; they’ll just change in their roles. They will become more like communities where students get help from teachers. It will be a richer, more adaptive experience as the learning adjusts to the needs and styles of those particular students. I see some exciting innovations over the next couple of years.

John Waters, technology journalist, contributing writer to T.H.E. Journal

What computing device will form the basis of 1-to-1 programs in 2020?

“If I had to bet money on the next big thing gizmo-wise for K-12, it would be the tablet. If nothing else, students are going to have tablets for their textbooks. In 10 years, I would be stunned if we had any textbooks in K-12. It’s just not a practical model, given the cost of paper, ink, and shipping. In 10 years, the tablet will be ubiquitous in learning environments. The shift to mobile devices is changing the pedagogical paradigm. These kids expect to have access to all the information on the planet with the touch of a button on a little box in their hand. I was watching [One Laptop per Child’s] Nicholas Negroponte on some show, and he was telling a story of a little girl who was given a photograph to look at. She poked it to try to get it to do things, because that was her expectation.”

Diane Jackson, administrator for media and technology services for Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency (IA)

Why hasn’t technology been used to full effectiveness in schools?

“We have to figure out what our need is first, and then find the tool that best fits our need. Sometimes we find the tool and then try to fit it in. We do it backward. We need to do what’s best for our kids and how they learn. These are their tools. The smartphone is their tool, the iPad is their tool. They think differently than we do. Our schools should be capitalizing on what their strengths are.”

Paula Lenox, information management specialist, Laurel School District (PA)

What will the typical school library look like in 10 years?

“The physical space is going to have to change. As we find ways to provide the information and resources to our students that are electronic, and room becomes available because the amount of print books are less, you’re going to have to redesign your space. I think you’re still going to have some print media in libraries, but I think it’s going to be more of an area where students are going to be doing more collaboration, areas where students are going to be Skyping or video chatting, or learning together in an online environment. I see it more as a café kind of style, less formal—where students come in and have the space to work collaboratively. More modern, less of your typical tables and chairs and silent activities. I see kids coming in with their videocameras and their laptops and saying, ‘We want to do a movie, we want to do a Glogster. We want to put a movie up in our blog. How do we do that?’”

Robert Simpson, teacher learning center director for Malden Public Schools (MA)

How will the ways in which teachers instruct students change?

“What teachers do in the classroom and how they push out content and engage students will be more sophisticated. If they’re doing a science lesson, there’s going to be a part that the student can take away and explore electronically on a mobile learning device. There’s going to be some aspect of reaching out to a content expert, probably worldwide. That’s where we’re headed, and kids want to go that way. They want to see the connecting points between the different subject areas. Right now they go to a class called math and a class called science and a class called English, and they want to see how those things integrate. I think there will probably more emphasis on students creating projects that span across the subject areas.”

Bailey Mitchell, CTO and CIO of Forsyth County Schools (GA)

How will the role of the district technology leader change in the next decade?

“If you’re perceived as being the boxes-and-wires person, you’re not going to have a position. That’s the one thing you need to take note of if you’re in a technology position. Your being in charge of a server room and a network—all of that is moving off-site. It’s going to be hosted and supported by somebody else. Everything we do will be software as a service; we will be paying by the drink. The traditional technology staff structure that we’ve all grown accustomed is going to change drastically. To survive as a school district CTO you’re going to have to solidify the relationship with the teaching and learning leadership. What value do you bring to help with the main business of the district? That’s instruction. A very traditional teaching and learning group in a school district that based its instructional delivery model on textbooks—that’s changing. It’s going online. Well, who has the expertise in how to play in that online space? Typically, it’s the technology department. You’re going to have to get involved in the solutions for instruction and be embedded in that work. If you’re a boxes-and-wires person, you’re just not going to be relevant anymore. You’ll be obsolete.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of THE Journal.