The New Platform for Learning

Archived Information

The New Platform for Learning

March 8, 2012

I have to confess my wife and two children think it's pretty funny that I have been invited to talk about technology at a cutting-edge conference for innovators and entrepreneurs.

It's an understatement to say that I grew up in a technologically-challenged household. We didn't even have a TV when I was a kid. We were not what you would call "early-adopters."

But I've changed—we all know what happens to dinosaurs—and the reason I've changed is that I've seen the tremendous transformational potential of technology in education. I really believe that technology is a game-changer in the field of education—a game-changer we desperately need to both improve achievement for all and increase equity for children and communities who have been historically underserved.

Technology is making us so much more efficient. It allows teachers to personalize education for more and more students. Teachers and students can track progress in real time and not have to guess as to what is actually being learned.

Technology offers children the opportunity to work at their own pace, pursue their own interests and passions, and provides access to more information through a cell phone than I could find as a child in an entire library.

Technology enables working adults to learn on their own schedule. It eliminates geographical barriers to knowledge.

Technology is replacing the paper and pencil, the textbook, the chalk board and the globe in the corner of the room. It will soon replace the bubble test on which so many local accountability systems are based.

It's no exaggeration to say that technology is the new platform for learning. Technology isn't an option that schools may or may not choose for their kids. Technological competency is a requirement for entry into the global economy—and the faster we embrace it—the more we maintain and secure our economic leadership in the 21st century.

Fortunately, there are progressive educators in school systems all across America who are finding bold and creative new ways to use technology in the classroom. This innovation is happening in big cities, small towns, and even in entire states across the nation.

Just this week, Mark Edwards, the visionary superintendent from Mooresville, North Carolina came to our department to meet with our management team. Three years ago, he gave every student in 4th through 12th grade a laptop. Almost overnight they saw gains in school attendance—new forms of collaboration between teachers and students—and ultimately gains in reading, math and graduation rates.

Rather than the kind of whole school instruction that has been so common in public education for more than a century—his students now work in small groups and independently pursue areas of interest.

Mark describes his teachers as "roaming conductors"—circulating around the room reviewing work, challenging students, and answering questions—one-on-one.

Parents can track their children's progress every night from home—and that's one reason that the community strongly supported an increase in local taxes to keep the program going. And the cost was not prohibitive—about $225 dollars per student per year. Mooreville is near the bottom—100th of 115 school districts in North Carolina in terms of school funding. They actually have less to spend on each student compared to almost all other districts—they simply spend it smarter.

For a decade now, the State of Maine has also given a laptop to every middle school student. The Open High School in Utah has completely switched to digital content, and they are in the process of providing every student in grades 6-12 with a laptop.

In Florida, close to 100,000 students attend virtual schools. Idaho is the first state in the country to require students to get at least two high school credits through on-line courses, and they are phasing in laptops for all high school students and teachers. What can access to a laptop mean to a teacher? When I visited Joplin, Missouri—a community that has made an amazing comeback from a devastating tornado—one young girl told me she had never liked school before and didn't want to come back following the tornado, until she found out that she would be given her own laptop.

Finally, when I visited the School of One in New York, I saw up to 80 students sitting in a math class working in small groups, large groups or as individuals. In this big, unstructured-looking class, you could hear a pin drop—everyone was engaged. Several teachers roam the classroom offering individualized support to the kids. We gave them a grant so they can continue this work and expand it.

We're doing much more to encourage technology in the classroom. In 2010, we issued a comprehensive Education Technology Plan to support the broader trends in education today:

  • Aligning learning materials with the college and career-ready standards that states have voluntarily developed and adopted.
  • Engaging students by tailoring learning to their individual needs and interests and providing real-time information to teachers, parents and students themselves about student learning.
  • Connecting teachers with their peers so they can share learning materials and classroom strategies.
  • And building the infrastructure to support this learning environment, and using technology to become more productive.

Karen Cator, who is a real star on our team, led the development of this plan, and she spoke here yesterday. She served in public education for many years and then spent time at Apple. I hope you have an opportunity to talk with her because she is eager to bring your ideas to the larger education community. She is helping lead the country where we need to be.

The list of panels at this conference is evidence of both the ambition and creativity of this movement to bring technology into the classroom. It focused on assessment and digital ethics. You are talking about supporting teenage entrepreneurs and using interactive art to enhance math education. Some of you are using game design to improve STEM education—the potential there is here.

And here's a panel that is bound to raise a few eyebrows: "Supersizing the Classroom—3000 Students and Beyond." Now, I must say that I was relieved to see that this was not about pre-school but is in fact about how to improve those dreaded survey courses in college. Colleges across the country are both reducing costs and improving student outcomes in those introductory classes through the use of technology.

Clearly, there is a lot of creative thinking happening here, and I just want to say that we in the education community are hungry for your ideas. While the education sector has moved more slowly than many of us would have liked it, this area, this world is changing. I see that and sense that everywhere I go. Every educator wants what's best for her students—we just have to persevere and push through some of the real barriers to entry.

K-12 education is a $650 billion dollar industry in America. Higher education puts the education sector well over a trillion dollars. This is opportunity to do well, and to do a lot of good. Unlike in many other nations, however, America education is decentralized.

We have 15,000 school districts and 95,000 public schools independently deciding how to teach and in many cases what to teach.

That's one of the strengths of our system and a source of innovation. But decentralization can also complicate the spread of technology. I know that some of you have encountered bureaucratic obstacles in your efforts to work with school systems. Please don't be discouraged. Kahn Academy, by creating great content and delivering it directly to young people at home, is forcing schools to change both how students learn and teachers teach in school.

School leaders today are under a lot of pressure to cope with diminishing resources and rising expectations. They don't always see how investments in technology can save money down the road.

Thankfully, we have partnership like one with former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who are pushing states to have more tech-friendly policies.

So—just keep doing what you're doing—and we will do all we can at the federal level to support the use of technology in education. Let me tell you some of the things we are doing already.

First of all, President Obama is deeply committed to STEM education. His goal is to create an education system that produces more people like you—with the creativity and technical skills—not only to invent new educational programs and software—but to help us lead in every other field.

We've created a Learning Registry to help teachers and parents discover resources on-line and learn from each other. Here in Texas alone, there are almost 900,000 users of their education portal. We have made technology a priority in competitive funding programs like our $4 billion dollar Race to the Top initiative.

And, as a nation, we have invested heavily over the last 20 years. The E-Rate program generated billions of dollars to upgrade technology infrastructure and today—virtually every school in America has some form of internet access.

Through the Recovery Act across agencies—including the Commerce Department, Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission—we have expanded broadband services to literally thousands of additional communities with the plan to connect them all by 2015. Now the FCC, which has been a great partner, is working with providers to support access to low-income children in their homes to help close the digital divide.

Insuring educational equity is at the heart of the federal role in education. That is why Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Act in 1965. Today, our two biggest pots of money target low-income students and students with disabilities—and both of them allow for investments in technology.

In Higher Education, our biggest investment is in Pell grants so low-income students can fulfill their dreams and go to college. We've gone from about 6 million Pell grants to 9 million Pell grants just in the last three years, above a 50% increase, and our community colleges are bursting at the seams. The only way to serve more students is by leveraging technology in innovative ways.

In so many ways, technology is a powerful force for educational equity. That fight—to give every child regardless of zip code or family background—access to a world-class education is what drives so many of us every day. Technology can level the playing field instead of tilting it against low-income, minority and rural students—who may not have laptops and iPhones at home. It gives a boost to students with disabilities and students learning to speak English. It opens doors for all students as long as we make sure that the students most in need have access.

And it helps our teachers and leaders, especially those working in our toughest schools with our most disadvantaged students, by providing them with effective lesson plans and teaching strategies that help them educate and motivate each child. We have to deprivatize public education, breakdown our hardworking teachers' sense of isolation in their individual classrooms and open up a much better world of tools, supports, and resources for them.

Technology gives teachers the kind of professional development they have been asking for—individualized to their unique interests and needs. Today, DC and Tennessee are both using technology to create customized teacher training programs.

It gives teachers the information they need to figure out what their students need. Unfortunately, assessment in education is behind every other field from medicine to consumer behavior to sports, politics and entertainment. Everyone is getting data in real time and using it to make decisions. Education needs to stop always being the laggard, step up!

Ultimately, technology should make a teacher's jobs easier, more marketable, and more fun—and that will make them more effective.

We talked to some teachers in a school system that just brought in new technology two months ago and they were already raving about how much time it saves.

They said their students are much more engaged. Young people see adults working in front of computers. They know that's the future. The more that our classrooms connect to the real world, the more likely that our kids will take school seriously.

A new Canadian study confirms what we already know intuitively: when technology actively engages students it has a dramatic and positive impact on student performance.

Superintendent Edwards from Mooresville, North Carolina also talked about the sense of discovery that his students feel—that they can go on-line and talk to someone in another state or another country. My 10 year-old daughter loved the opportunity for her class to skype with a class of students in Mali.

With just one click, children go way beyond the walls of their classroom and the pages of their textbooks and the barriers in their community.

Technology-driven learning empowers students and gives them control of the content. It challenges them to think critically and make decisions—the same kinds of challenges you and I face in our work every day.

And college students who are struggling with the rising costs of college can get more and more of their material through open education resources saving thousands of dollars over the course of their college career.

Along with the Department of Labor, we have a new partnership between community colleges and the private sector to fund the creation of new curriculum for growing fields like health care and green energy—and all of the curriculum that is created will be open-source and publicly available.

I know that in this setting I'm preaching to the choir. Entrepreneurs like you are way ahead of the curve. People like Sal Kahn who has made over 2700 learning videos available and delivered to over 190 million visitors for free. Products like the ones you all are showcasing here hold the potential to transform classrooms. University partners like MIT, Yale, Tufts and the University of California are doing the same.

Learning technology can be a major export industry for America. But don't think that other countries aren't thinking about it. Places like China, India, Brazil and Israel are all pushing hard to bring technology into the classroom and create the products that will shape the future of education.

American entrepreneurs like you—in partnerships with the kind of teachers we have in this room today—need to own and lead the field—just as we have in so many other fields. Those of you leading start-ups are job-makers, not just job seekers. I love your creativity and bravery.

So I'm here today—not just to encourage you—but to plead with you—to invest in education and in the technologies that support learning—to push us hard and push the field hard to move in this direction—and to be our full partner in the broader effort to rebuild the American economy with education as the foundation. We have to educate our way to a better economy and we can't get there without you.

Now—I also want to leave you with one final thought because this issue too often gets sidetracked into a silly debate over whether we need computers or teachers—when everyone knows we need both. Great teachers with access to great technology transform children's life choices.

Next week, thousands of America's finest musicians—guitar players, drummers, horn players and singers—will flood the City of Austin in an annual celebration of cutting-edge music and creativity. Young people from colleges and communities across America will come to watch, talk, dance, and have fun.

They'll have cell phones, iPads, laptops, and other tools to communicate, socialize, and gather. They'll see it live and watch on-line. The performers will chronicle their every move on social media.

Musicians today use technology in countless ways to get their shot at stardom here at South by Southwest. They download music and create band profiles on the web. They record, share and sell their music without ever leaving their bedrooms. Technology corrects their mistakes in the studio.

In fact, the music industry and other art forms like film and photography are so completely infused with technology today—and dependent on it—that it is hard to imagine them without it. Today, technology pretty much does everything for the musician except for one fundamental thing:

It can't write a song. We have yet to invent a technology that will produce "Born to Run" or "Let it Be."

Even if Beethoven had a computer, the Fifth Symphony would still have come from that mysterious gray matter between his ears—and it's important to remember that as we think about the role technology plays in education.

It's a tool to help children learn and to help teachers teach. It's a tool to help parents stay abreast of what their children are learning. It's a tool to hold ourselves and each other accountable—so that we can get better, smarter and faster.

At the end of the day—education and technology are about people and ideas. Why is Facebook so popular? Because it brings people together.

Why is technology so exciting? Because it tells us so much about ourselves and about others.

Why are we all here in Austin?

You could have found a lot of this information without coming to South by Southwest. But you're here because there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Nothing can replace the conversation that leads to inspiration or the handshake that leads to a partnership.

The future of American education undoubtedly includes a laptop on every desk and universal Internet access in every home. It definitely includes more on-line learning.

But a great teacher at the front of the classroom will still make the biggest difference in the lives of our students. All of us here can point to that great teacher who inspired us and shaped our lives.

So I urge you today to make teachers your partners and your advocates. Their voice carries a long, long way. They are the ones who will take your product from the drawing board to the classroom. They are the only ones who can make this work.

Working together, entrepreneurs and educators, like the amazing combined talent here in this room, can create a world that we can't even imagine today.

Our kids are begging for it. They can't wait. America can't wait. You can and will make it happen.

Thank you.