Learning Technologies Can Transform America’s Educational and Economic Future

“We have reached another ‘Sputnik Moment,'” in terms of the opportunity for the United States to transform education, according to Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton, in his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. His remarks were part of the subcommittee’s Feb. 14 hearing, “Raising the Bar: How Education Innovation Can Improve Student Achievement.” The assistant deputy secretary focused on three core ways that learning technology is poised to transform education: increasing access and equity; transforming teaching and learning; and accelerating and enhancing educational research and development. Other hearing witnesses were John White of Digital Learning Now, Preston Smith of Rocketship Education, and Holly Sagues of Florida Virtual School. Click here to view the full hearing to hear what Jim and his fellow witnesses shared about innovation and technology in education.

Digital Learning Day: No Better Time to Consider Our R&D Investment in Technology and Education

Each time I have a conversation with a questioning child or watch a teacher help a student grasp a new concept or make an important new connection, I am amazed. The potential of children and the power of teachers to change lives — moment-by-moment — are both awe inspiring. When those two phenomena intersect, you know that you are witnessing something special.

We desperately want our children to experience those moments as often as possible. We want them to love learning, to love school, and to use both to find their passions and fulfill their dreams. For many, even of those who did “well” in school, we want them to experience what we did not: to have those “special moments” be the norm rather than the exception, to have school be the place where the most exciting learning happens, to have every teacher be the teacher who “gets” them.

Each day in this country, we ask millions of teachers from preschool thru college to create those special moments for each child in their care — to match each student’s needs, interests, and personal circumstances with the perfect content, instructional approach, and support so they can make sense of that big idea or master that critical skill or negotiate that challenging person or situation. We ask them to do this for each of the 20 to 40 to 400 students in their class, each class of the day, almost every day of the week. And we ask them to do this well and do it with passion because those are so often one in the same.

We want all of this and we ask all of this and yet we have invested more in improving the buses that take our children to school, than we have in researching and developing the tools and resources that will help students and teachers achieve our lofty expectations and more importantly their incredible potential.

Over the last century, the capabilities of doctors, lawyers, engineers, farmers, drivers, artists, musicians, and countless other professionals have been transformed by technology. In less than a century, doctors have gone from literally “practicing medicine” to being able to diagnose and treat almost every known disease;  and through technology, nurses now have capabilities that doctors, a few decades ago, only dreamed about. What’s more, these transformative practices are available to doctors and nurses in almost every corner of the country. Musicians can access compositions and performances instantaneously, produce scores from original music with the click of a button, and compose and jam together in real time from places that span the globe. Each of these professions can do more of what they do best in ways that take less time and effort than most in their fields would have imagined a short time ago. They have been empowered to take their crafts to another level, elevating their professions, increasing their reach, and allowing them to serve (well) people who previously would have been denied the opportunity.

We have the ability to do the same for our teachers and our students. We can put the resources of the world at their fingertips just when they want and need them, diagnose their needs and preferences at a pace, scale, and level of granularity and with so little burden that our current testing and evaluation debates will become anachronisms, and make teaching even more impactful, more sustainable, and more interesting for both teachers and students. However, this will not happen on its own or simply by holding teachers more accountable or by just putting technology in their hands or the hands of their students. These are necessary but insufficient conditions.

Research, Development and Innovation have been the keys to transformative improvements in almost every sector. Education underinvests in R&D relative to each of them. The U.S. defense and health R&D budgets are somewhere between 50 and 100 times bigger than the education R&D budget. This is not only inconsistent with our stated values and our highest aspirations; it is also counter to our national interests. As President Obama said, “we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

Within the next four years, we can construct a new infrastructure for research, development, and innovation in education, leveraging technology to not only enhance learning but to accelerate the pace at which we learn about learning. For the first time in history, digital learning will allow us to (cost effectively) study the process of learning at greater levels of detail and insight than just the outcomes of learning, and to come to conclusions empirically on critical questions that have remained the fodder of ideological debates for as long as any of us can remember.

And, when we do, teachers will be empowered by new research, new tools, and greater capabilities, making their lives and those of the students, whom they touch, better for it.

No one asks if we invest in R&D to render doctors irrelevant or engineers or farmers for that matter.  To the contrary, their associations advocate for more investment in R&D for their sectors. But who is advocating on behalf of educators, education and our children?

Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton, in a TEDx Mid-Atlantic talk last October, outlines a new infrastructure for learning about learning – one that capitalizes on digital learning’s potential to help all children, and adults, achieve their full potential.

Jim Shelton is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement.

February 6th is Digital Learning Day, a national celebration of educators that shines a spotlight on successful instructional technology practice in classrooms across the country. Participation is free, and a highlight is the National Digital Town Hall that will be simulcast live from the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

From Innovation Clusters to Datapalooza

“By accelerating the pace of innovation in educational technology, we will have the opportunity to close the achievement gap, improve national competitiveness, and drive economic growth,” according to Richard Culatta, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology, in the November/December 2012 issue ofEDUCAUSEreview. Find out how innovations from fields outside of education — innovation clusters from bioscience and open data initiatives from the health care industry, for example — can point the way to the desired acceleration. Click here to read “From Innovation Clusters to Datapalooza: Accelerating Innovation in Educational Technology.”

Unlocking Human Potential Part I: The Cost of Conflating Potential and Performance

Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton speaks at TEDx MidAtlantic on Saturday, October 27, 2012.

Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton speaks at TEDx MidAtlantic on Saturday, October 27, 2012.

I recently gave a TEDx MidAtlantic talk entitled Unlocking Human Potential: Why We Need a New Infrastructure for Learning about Learning. My premise was that we have the opportunity to tap into vast amounts of latent human potential; but, to do so quickly, we need to build a new national research agenda and apparatus focused on breakthrough learning outcomes.

The theme of this TEDx event was Be Fearless: Take Risks. Be Bold. Fail Forward — IMHO a perfect theme for all of education today. I have come to believe that “being fearless” requires one to ask oneself two foundational questions: (1) What do you believe (is possible), and (2) what are you willing to do? Therefore, I began my talk by addressing a common misconception that limits our ability to believe unprecedented learning outcomes can be produced at scale. Consciously and subconsciously, we often allow the conflation of potential (capacity) and performance to limit what learning outcomes we believe can be achieved by all learners. However, without entering the long and embattled debate about the existence and shape of the bell curve describing individual intellectual potential, we can turn this misconception on its head.

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i3 Project Directors Gather to Learn, Share, and Begin a New Project Year

Solving pressing education problems at scale, managing challenges posed by geography, engaging the community in school improvement, and sustaining reform efforts beyond federal project funding —these topics and more were tackled by i3 (Investing in Innovation) project directors and other key leaders who gathered in Washington, D.C., this past July. The i3 team held this second annual Project Directors Meeting on July 19-20, bringing together Department staff, i3 project directors and project personnel from the 2010 and 2011 grantee cohorts. Project evaluators and education leaders were also important contributors to this event. The event provided the grantees a range of experiences designed to assist them in their work as OII grantees and to help them build relationships with other i3 projects and personnel.

For those who received i3 support in FY 2011, the opportunity to get advice and guidance from their FY 2010 peers was invaluable. “It was especially great to hear that others were facing some of the same challenges I face,” said first-year project director Toria Williams of the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools.

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Panel Shows What’s Possible in Education Technology

Last Monday, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and committee member Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado co-sponsored a briefing on innovation in public education through the use of learning technologies. More than 50 Senate staff members came to hear from a panel I moderated that featured leaders in the ed tech field.

The panelists, Dr. Stephen Elliott (founding director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Arizona State University), Jennie Niles (founder of the DC-based E.L. Haynes Public Charter School), and Jeremy Roberts (director of technology for PBS Kids Interactive), all concurred that the promise of technology to transform education has fallen short of expectations for the past two to three decades. However, they also all agree that we are finally at a time where many factors are converging to overcome historic barriers: increasingly ubiquitous broadband, cheaper devices, digital content, cloud computing, big data, and generally higher levels of comfort with technology among the general population.   

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Looking Back and Ahead: The View from OII’s Assistant Deputy Secretary

This past calendar year, a number of new programs and initiatives were launched and many of OII’s existing programs were refined to align with the Department of Education’s commitment to being an “engine of innovation” for the U.S. public education system. Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton discusses the highlights of the past year and provides his thoughts on several important issues facing education in this February interview with The Education Innovator.

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The Innovation Agenda

To deliver an excellent education to every child and to ensure U.S. global competitiveness, President Obama has set the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.  Though ambitious, this goal is attainable through bold reform and innovation spanning the education pipeline from early learning to college.

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