An Outsider’s Critique of the National Educational Technology Plan

I am not an education industry insider.  I have spent the past few years meeting with numerous experts as well as studying the dynamics of the K-12 system and the market forces driving the industry towards the current precipice it faces.  Notwithstanding the foregoing,  it is my fiduciary responsibility as both a concerned parent and also a believer in the philosophy that the foundation of our society is a function of the level of education of its citizens, that I’m compelled to apply my skills as a strategist in the digital media industry into the realm of education reform.  I have had an opportunity to review the extensive amount of information released by the Dept. of Education over the past few weeks, and I wanted to provide my loyal readers with an independent evaluation of its merits. 

The National Educational Technology Plan is nothing more than the government’s attempt to organize into one document the vast amount of research that has been available for years about the need to integrate technology into the K-12 learning environment.  I see the NETP as a strong baseline document that gets all of the stakeholders following the same script, so to speak.  Looking at it through this lens, I would say that the contributing team did a terrific job at clearly articulating this objective.  It’s a vision document, with some very clear objectives and supporting rationale for integrating technology into the classroom curriculum.  There are some useful examples of best practices, and for those of you who have not been as immersed in the intellectual debate in recent years, you should react to the read by saying, “Wow.  Our government is finally doing what they’re supposed to do, which is to present a strong case for why its time to finally throw out the monolithic, industrial age form of education and redesign the learning environment.  As our society has shifted from a manufacturing to service economy, so must our education system.  In this context, the NETP is quite a motivating tool.  I found the first section about the learning process to be very much in line with what I have been evangelizing over the past few years.  I would, however, have preferred additional focus on the motivational psychology area, which is that a motivated, engaged student, who is enjoying what they are doing in the classroom, will learn far better than students who are less engaged and motivated.  It’s amazing that in the year 2010, we’re finally coming around to the grand deduction that it’s totally acceptable to have fun while learning!

The part that I’m most intrigued about is the section about “A New Kind of R&D For Education.”  A former member of my advisory board for a previous startup of mine was instrumental in helping establish the newly created National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies.  From its mission statement, this organization could be invaluable to our nation’s reform efforts.   I say this because it will be focused on “early-stage,” possibly pre-revenue concepts.  It needs financial fuel, it needs nonpartisan intellectual capital, and it needs to be independently operated, but aligned in a matrix structure with government, academia and private industry.  It is the latter two pieces, creating strong public-private collaboration opportunities, which I truly hope make this national research lab a successful one.  It must be given every fighting chance to succeed and incentives must be put in place so that its value is fully leveraged by the education industry. 

The document was broken down into several sections: i) Learning; ii) Assessment; iii) Teaching; iv) Infrastructure; and v) Productivity.  Each section had goals and recommendations glued together through a detailed narrative. 

I would like to outline for you some of the material items that fell short of my expectations, along with my rationale for flagging them as such, and they are as follows:

  • There was too much theory and insufficient examples of implementation programs, particularly in the manner in which these technological platforms can and should be used in the classroom.   Why was there not a substantive discussion about what we can learn about why education systems in developing countries are gaining ground?

 

  • At the end of the day, we have to get back to the content.  Content drives the adoption of technology.  It will happen in the education system just as it happened with the iPod, HDTV, and possibly, the iPad.  How will we create more competition for learning products that communicate the required content in new and innovative ways that fully maximize the features of the technology being utilized?  Are there examples of for-profit companies that have created compelling educational products for the K-12 classroom?  Why do we continue to believe that only non-profits possess the cutting-edge ideas about integrating technology into classroom learning?

 

  • The Teaching section was the one I was the least impressed with.  While many of the elements are undoubtedly important to the overall vision for learning, there was very little benchmarking included in the section.  Why are teachers in places such as India, Finland and South Korea revered as they are?  Of course we must train our teachers well, but lets make sure we have a compelling compensation package to recruit the best intellectual capital that is available.  How can we expand the talent pool of teachers?  Let me acknowledge that while they did not give the specific data point, the paper does source a statistic that U.S. teachers have less time in their work week for professional development than do their counterparts in countries where students have the best performance on international examinations.  The EduCity example from Taiwan was an interesting anecdote about how a “learning society” could help execute the vision of “connected teaching.”

 

  • While this point is more relevant for a critique of the more politically-charged Blueprint for Reform document outlining the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”), I cannot disagree more with the level of emphasis being placed on tying teacher compensation to test scores.  Let me be clear:  do not infer that I am a proponent of the current teacher compensation/tenure system.  I am a strong advocate of a performance-based system so long as compensation levels are competitive enough to attract people to make teaching a career profession.  Test scores play a role, not the most important role, in a teacher’s performance evaluation.  I can talk from my own experiences when I suggest that just as students should not see their college aspirations shot down by having an “off-day” on test day, the same goes for teachers.  Why are we placing so much emphasis on the design of a test that may or may not accurate assess the skills that are needed in today’s environment?  If we’re moving towards the direction of Common Core Standards, then wouldn’t one deduct from this that assessment must also change as well?  I look forward to hearing other perspectives on this particular issue.

 

  • One other ESEA point I’d like to make.  While this has been somewhat controversial, I actually see some merit to the Obama Administration’s policy of creating three new tiers of schools.  They are i) Reward schools; ii) Challenge schools; and iii) Warning Schools.  As I alluded to in a previous blog post, sometimes it’s more effective to shut down a failing program and build a new one as opposed to trying to fix such a program.   So long as the criteria for classifying the schools is reasonable, this could provide a roadmap as to where we should create new school designs and where we should restructure existing schools.  This is where the debate begins on the question of school choice and how charter schools are established.  I would be happy to discuss this in a future post, but I’m not sold on the premise that charter schools should be largely funded by the public schools in their geographic area.  Fodder for another blog post, I’m afraid.

 

  • The most important question not addressed is how we are going to financially re-engineer the education system.  I’m a skeptic at heart, and I truly hope that the omission of this critically important section is because it will be featured in another document and not a National Education Technology Plan.  Our society has been overusing the term “innovation.”  It’s becoming clichéd, such as “web 2.0,” and “21st century skills.” I hope to shed some light on this idea through a  presentation I’m making at next month’s Immersive Education Summit is evangelizing the concept of an “innovation ecosystem.”  How will a sustainable innovation ecosystem be created?  Forgive me for my pessimism, but it will not happen if we are dependent on the textbook publishers for the only scalable for-profit contributions to the ecosystem.  Funding solely from philanthropy and government grants will not suffice. 

 

I realize this is one of my longest posts, but I hope it provides an objective lens into understanding the recently released National Education Technology Plan.  While not comparing it to our nation’s Constitution, I would like to use a revered quote by Benjamin Franklin in 1787 which may have some applicability:   

“I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does…Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”

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