Realizing Technology’s Promise for Education Needs Committed Action by All of Us

Over the past few months, I had the opportunity to attend and participate in several events that explored the intersection and promise of education and technology. Although each conference covered distinct topics, considering them in retrospect reveals a common question worth exploring: given recent developments and trends, is it inevitable that technology will improve education and opportunities for our kids? Technology clearly has tremendous potential to improve education, but there are some real barriers that prevent that change from being inevitable. That’s hardly a controversial statement, but I’ll say more in a moment.

Summits point to a movement underway

First, some background about the events. In May, I attended the Reimagining Education Summit co-hosted by the Department of Education and the MacArthur Foundation. As I wrote at the time, I left that conference thinking that there was tremendous opportunity (and challenge) in “designing and creating learning experiences for our students that properly match our modern, connected world.”

In July, I attended the US Ignite Application Summit in Chicago. This event highlighted the work of innovators and technologists developing next-generation applications in areas ranging from education to health care to public safety. I participated in a panel discussing the various ways that the federal government supports such work, which of course includes OII grant programs such as the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund. The featured applications demonstrated how superfast Internet networks can be used to deliver improved services and experiences in each of those areas. For example, in the education space, one demo illustrated how students anywhere could take a virtual “field trip” to a faraway museum or aquarium, where they could take an interactive, immersive tour, featuring live discussions with experts and complex 3-D models and demonstrations.

In August, I joined another panel at a STEM summit, Learning in the Digital Age, hosted by Scientific American magazine. There, I discussed the President’s ConnectED initiative, emphasizing our belief that technology has the potential to empower teachers to create new exciting and engaging learning opportunities for kids, regardless of income or geography. Professors, educators, advocates, and business leaders shared their views on how technology will change education; there was universal agreement that the possibilities were thrilling and the future exciting.

Finally, just last week I had the opportunity to attend an education technology summit co-hosted by the LEAD Commission and several other organizations, where a diverse group of leaders and thinkers came together to discuss the urgency and opportunity of upgrading our schools’ capacity to support digital learning. We spent a lot of time discussing E-rate and broadband infrastructure during this last event, but just like the other events, the day began, ended, and was peppered throughout with enthusiasm about the potential of technology to be a powerful equalizer in education. As I said back in May, it truly feels like a movement is underway.

Things are different this time

Of course, we’ve been told before that technology would reinvent education and create a world of new opportunities, only to be disappointed when that didn’t pan out. For a number of reasons, things are different this time. High-speed broadband creates the capacity to use powerful learning tools that support truly engaging virtual experiences (like the ones shown at the US Ignite Summit). Learning devices, such as tablets and laptops, are increasingly affordable. And there’s a wealth of high-quality, standards-aligned digital educational content available now, with more and more being produced every day. Further, because technology plays a greater role in the lives of many teachers, parents, and students, a digital transition in our schools can be that much smoother. All of this is enabling teachers across the country to create more personalized learning environments for students.

Deliberate and strategic action needed

This is all encouraging, but getting back to the original question: Is all of this change inevitable? Given these developments, can we all just sit back and wait for the technological revolution to sweep across our nation’s education system, creating transformed learning tools and platforms that empower ALL educators and excite ALL students and engage ALL parents? Of course not. Achieving this goal requires concerted, coordinated action. That’s why President Obama launched the ConnectED initiative: to ensure that all students can gain from advances in education technology, regardless of geography or income.

It’s no secret that we face a serious digital divide in this country. And the reality is that unless we take deliberate, strategic action, that divide could actually widen as technology becomes a bigger part of a 21st-century education. If we don’t pay special attention to making sure advances in technology create opportunities for ALL students, especially those who currently don’t have access to world-class resources, we will have squandered this unique moment. Thankfully, that idea is catching on.

Sujeet Rao is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement.