A Rural Revival

T&L interviews Department of Education’s Karen Cator and John White on access for all

This summer the Department of Education hosted a gathering of education-technology experts and rural-school leaders in Washington, D.C., to discuss using technology to overcome distance and increase access to good teaching and learning for students and teachers. More than 100 people came from places as far apart as Alaska, North Dakota, Nebraska, Vermont, and New York to attend. Also present were U .S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; the secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough; the chairman of the FCC, Julius Genachowski; and USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

To find out more about this initiative and other national educationtechnology plans, T&L’s managing editor, Christine Weiser, sat down with the Department of Education’s Karen Cator, director of the department’s Office of Educational Technology, and John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach.

T&L: What inspired this summit, and what are challenges that are unique to rural education?

JW: We wanted to bring all the secretaries to the table with experts in education and industry so we could start a dialog and start looking for some solutions.

KC: I think that the challenge is making sure everybody in this whole country has access to high-quality education. Because of the low population density of rural areas, and also because of the distance between urban centers and rural places, gaining access may be more expensive in rural areas. The other rural issue is finding resources to teach a variety of courses.

We sometimes focus on the difficulties of rural communities, but rural communities have an unbelievable set of assets as well that we can leverage to provide access to quality education. There is a working knowledge about the students and their families that you don’t find other places.

JW: What a lot of innovative rural schools do is to make it contextual, to equate the local community to what the kids are learning in schools. For example, in Kansas there is a school that partners every classroom with a family farm. As they learn, they are also able to hear from the community how that learning applies to their lives and their work. In remote locations, another way to share this kind of information, and bring quality experiences to schools, is through technology.

T&L: How do you hope to help bring technology to rural areas, and how can it help these schools?

JW: A lot of the rural state superintendents are asking us to find ways to use technology in a greater way to help with AP, professional development, credit recovery, and so on. That’s the reason we started this conversation, to start leveraging the use of technology. Karen came out with the National Education Technology Plan shortly before the summit, so it was very timely.

KC: Technology can be a great multiplier. So, if you have a fantastic course online, for example, it has this kind of multiplier effect. It helps students, but it also amplifies the efforts of the in-classroom teacher. So if the teacher doesn’t have the content expertise, they can leverage the online expertise and manage a more personalized learning environment for their students. Online learning is definitely the main thing we think about when we think about rural areas, but there are other access solutions such as in Vail, AZ, where they put routers in their school buses so students who have very long bus rides can do their work. It’s about extending that school day.

The Technology Plan really is the platform that we’re standing on. The National Education Technology Plan articulates not only the vision, but also recommendations and actions for what we can do to support learning, to support a highly personalized learning environment, that meets the needs of all students, and amplifies the effect of great teachers. We do not think that technology is going to replace teachers, we think it’s going to make teachers much more powerful.

The assessment RFP that was just awarded to two consortia of states to create a new generation of assessments is a huge new project that holds great promise to help leverage technology to give us better information about how our students and schools are doing.

T&L: How do communities with limited resources get access to what they need?

JW: The Recovery Act was a big investment. Rural schools in particular also have a supplemental fund called REAP, Rural Education Achievement Program. They can use these funds for technology, and there are a lot of opensource products they can use.

KC: Funding is always a challenge across the education spectrum. And what we are really trying to figure out is how technology can be funded by integrating it into the core context of school programs. So whether you are trying to teach reading, or math, or social studies, or whatever, that technology is a slice. For example, some schools are using a technology-based Algebra program. They are giving each student a device that they can use for that and other work as well; they can do writing, translation, calculations—there are so many different applications they can access once they have the device in their hands and if they can use it 24/7, even better.

Also, when we talk about funding the broadband infrastructure required for online learning, the Recovery Act money, through the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, funded broadband in many parts of the country. That’s obviously a key piece of the scaffolding to make sure kids have equal access

T&L: Any advice to schools dealing with teachers who are reluctant to embrace technology?

KC: The biggest thing that teachers should remember is what they know. They know their content, their kids, and the pedagogy. If they don’t know the technology, I don’t see that as a really huge problem. Programs are getting easier and easier to use and we can think of supporting a direct-to-student model. If the student has the technology to do their own work, they will use it and learn the technology in the context of their assignments. The goal is to amplify what the teacher can do and make it easier for both teachers and students to access what they need for teaching and learning when and where they need it.

T&L: How are you trying to provide more content and resources to schools?

JW: The rural education summit was an example of how agencies can work together within the government. You had the secretary of the Smithsonian, you had the chairman of the FCC for broadband, and you had the secretary of agriculture there who is providing huge amounts of dollars to schools that many people may not know about, whether it’s construction or technology or food. They can even save schools on energy costs. Then you have the secretary of education, all coming together. We are also starting a “Learning Registry.” This Learning Registry will pull resources together so you don’t have to go hunting for them.

KC: The Learning Registry will provide an opportunity to find resources within some of the vertical repositories of content. Even if you do the search with Bing or Google, it may not reach down inside these repositories of content and provide the resources that you need. For example, across the government we have the National Archives, National Science Digital Library, and dozens of other places that have created education-based content. We’re working with the Department of Defense and others to figure out how to create this kind of a registry—a layered service that would allow these vertical repositories of content to be found and repurposed and combined in interesting and creative ways by users. We’re hoping to launch this Registry service in 12-18 months.

T&L: This question came from one of our Twitter followers: What level of integration between the National Education Technology Plan and ESEA 2.0 do you hope for?

KC: The way we’re thinking about re-authorization is pushing that envelope, by really figuring out how to ensure integration. So whether we’re trying to support the better assessments, support literacy development, STEM subjects, teacher effectiveness, etc. we want to make sure that technology is part and parcel with supporting the goals, not a sideshow.

T&L: Looking at the big picture, where do you hope to see education technology in, say, five years?

KC: I would love to see technology not as a huge part of the conversation, as in how are we going to fund technology or how are we going to get these things to work together. I really would like to see a scenario where every student and teacher, every learner in this education enterprise, has access: has the device they need, has the access at home, at school, and in between so learning can happen everywhere. I’d like to see everybody supporting themselves and each other. The technology becomes simply a vehicle that’s completely commonplace and somewhat transparent in the process of teaching and learning. I think there are a lot of things that need to be invented in order to get there, but I can see that happening in the next five years

Click HERE to see a video highlight of this interview.