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National Ed Tech Plan Puts Technology at the Heart of Education Reform

Is Teaching 'Keeping Up?'

In remarks at SETDA's Leadership Summit and Education Forum, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the world has seen tremendous technological transformations over the last 15 years, from the Web to e-mail to mobile communications. But, he said, education isn't keeping pace.

Therese Mageau, THE Journal's editorial director, was on hand for the discussion.

"Unfortunately," Duncan told attendees, "the last 15 years have not produced a similar transformation in the way teachers teach and the way children learn. Sure, schools are starting to adapt technology in their classrooms. Many are using smartboards instead of chalkboards. They’re posting homework assignments on the Web for their students to track. And many use e-mail to communicate with parents and students. Our schools have barely begun to tap the power of technology to personalize and accelerate learning. They've made evolutionary progress. But they have not embraced the potential transformative potential of technology."

United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today released the final version of the Obama administration's National Educational Technology Plan (NETP), a federal policy statement that puts technology at the heart of proposed changes to the way education is delivered in this country.

The secretary spoke to education leaders this morning at the 2010 SETDA Leadership Summit and Education Forum, an annual event of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. It's been taking place this week in National Harbor, MD.

The plan, initially revealed in its draft form back in March 2010, emphasizes fundamental changes to classroom instruction, including the adoption of practices in use by business and the extension of learning (including both longer school days/years and access to learning via the Internet). At the same time, the plan also calls for increased flexibility in academic schedules and a reduction of the emphasis on "seat time" to determine student promotion through grade levels. Like its draft predecessor, the final version of the plan maintains the original NETP's emphasis on these drastic changes, as well as an increased emphasis on assessment.

Called "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology," the plan, "calls for applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement.," Duncan said in an open letter accompanying the plan.

He continued: "The model of learning described in this plan calls for engaging and empowering personalized learning experiences for learners of all ages. The model stipulates that we focus what and how we teach to match what people need to know and how they learn. It calls for using state-of-the-art technology and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) concepts to enable, motivate, and inspire all students to achieve, regardless of background, languages, or disabilities. It calls for ensuring that our professional educators are well connected to the content and resources, data and information, and peers and experts they need to be highly effective. And it calls for leveraging the power of technology to support continuous and lifelong learning."

The final version of the plan organizes objectives into five broad categories, including assessment, infrastructure, learning, productivity, and teaching.

Category 1: Assessment
NETP's approach to assessment continues the emphasis on the use of standards assessments to collect data on student competency to help drive decision making at the school, district, state, and federal levels. But it also emphasizes ongoing, formative assessments to be used in the classroom "in the course of learning when there is still time to improve student performance, and involving multiple stakeholders in the process of designing, conducting, and using assessment."

The plan also calls for an increase in the breadth of standards assessed.

Technology's roles in assessment should be many and varied, the plan suggested. For example, technology should be used, according to the plan, for analytics to help determine what's working and adjust policies based on the data collected. But on a smaller scale, technology should be used in the classroom for ongoing assessments using interactive tools such as student response devices (also known as "classroom clickers") and multimedia to reinforce concepts and measure progress. And online learning can be used to gather data about student learning that simply can't be measured in a traditional classroom setting.

The stated goal for assessment in NETP is for the "education system at all levels [to] leverage the power of technology to measure what matters and use assessment data for continuous improvement."

Category 2: Infrastructure
The infrastructure goals for the plan are to provide students and teachers with "access to a comprehensive infrastructure for learning when and where they need it."

According to the document released today, although technology permeates many schools, the infrastructure still doesn't exist to allow the kind of pervasive access to learning that will be required to transform the traditional education model.

Among other things, the plan calls for:

  • "Broadband everywhere," with adequate bandwidth and reach to serve learners in and out of school;
  • Internet access devices for every student and teacher, including computers, smart phones, tablets, or other technologies;
  • Open resources for education, including public domain or open source materials;
  • Standards for interoperability; and
  • Increased use of the cloud for service delivery.

"Building an infrastructure for learning," according to NETP, "is a far-reaching project that will require the participation and collaboration of individuals from all disciplines and types of institutions across the entire spectrum of education. It also will require education, business, and government as partners. And it will take leadership and a commitment to a shared understanding of its importance to transforming U.S. education."

Category 3: Learning
The emphasis in the category of learning is a shift toward student engagement and empowerment in their learning activities "in and out of school that prepare them to be active, creative, knowledgeable, and ethical participants in our globally networked society."

The plan envisions a model in which the student is at the center of the learning process, with teachers, parents, mentors, peers, and technology-based supports all contributing to an individual learning environment in which the student is essentially in control.

From the National Education Technology Plan (NETP): a depiction of the new model for student-centered learning.

"In this model, technology supports learning by providing engaging environments and tools for understanding and remembering content. For example, game-based courses use features familiar to game players to teach core subject content, such as history," according to the plan. "Technology provides access to a much wider and more flexible set of learning resources than is available in classrooms and connections to a wider and more flexible set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom. Engaging and effective learning experiences can be individualized or differentiated for particular learners (either paced or tailored to fit their learning needs) or personalized, which combines paced and tailored learning with flexibility in content or theme to fit the interests and prior experience of each learner."

The Obama administration's plan made several recommendations for education leaders to tackle perceived problems with the way students currently learn and what they currently learn. Some of these included:

  • Revising and implementing standards and learning objectives at the state level;
  • Developing learning resources at the sate and district level that "use technology to embody design principles from the learning sciences" and that "exploit the flexibility and power of technology to reach all learners anytime and anywhere"; and
  • Enhancing STEM education for students at all grade levels.

Category 4: Productivity
NETP is calling on schools to adopt models from the business world to increase productivity.

"What education can learn from the experience of business is that we need to make the fundamental structural changes that technology enables if we are to see dramatic improvements in productivity. As we do so, we should recognize that although the fundamental purpose of our public education system is the same, the roles and processes of schools, educators, and the system itself should change to reflect the times we live in and our goals as a world leader. Such rethinking applies not just to learning, assessment, and teaching processes, but also to the infrastructure and operational and financial sides of running schools and school systems."

To this end, the plan is making several recommendations, among them:

  • Developing an actual definition of productivity as it applies to education and determining how it can be measured;
  • Rethinking "basic assumptions in our education system that inhibit leveraging technology to improve learning," including, as addressed in the category of "learning," reexamining the relationship between student and teacher in the learning process;
  • Developing metrics for the use of technology in schools to determine how and when it;s being used; and
  • Creating and implementing "technology-powered programs and interventions to ensure that students progress seamlessly through our P–16 education system and emerge prepared for college and careers/"

Category 5: Teaching
Finally, in terms of teaching, the plan's stated goal goal is as follows: "Professional educators will be supported individually and in teams by technology that connects them to data, content, resources, expertise, and learning experiences that can empower and inspire them to provide more effective teaching for all learners."

The emphasis in the plan is on "connected teaching," in which teachers "create their own online learning communities consisting of their students and their students’ peers; fellow educators in their schools, libraries, and after-school programs; professional experts in various disciplines around the world; members of community organizations that serve students in the hours they are not in school; and parents who desire greater participation in their children’s education."

Among the recommendations for reaching the teaching goals outlined in the plan are:

  • Expanding access to online instructional materials for teachers;
  • Creating communities of practice using social networking technologies;
  • Taking advantage of distance learning to provide expanded educational opportunities for all students;
  • Using technology to provide training to pre-service and in-service teachers; and
  • Preparing teachers for online instruction and approaching teacher certification in a new way to help make online instruction more viable.

The full National Educational Technology Plan can be accessed in PDF form here. An executive summary can be downloaded here.

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to include additional comments from the secretary of education. [Last updated Nov. 9, 2010 at 1:40 p.m.] --David Nagel