Former Edtech Director for Obama Administration Sees Innovation Moving to the States

Former Edtech Director for Obama Administration Sees Innovation Moving to the States

Donald Trump is about to take office, and big change is likely for federal education policy.

To find out what that could mean, we checked in with Richard Culatta, who served as director of the education department’s Office of Educational Technology in the Obama Administration. It’s the first episode on our rebooted EdSurge on Air Podcast, which will feature insightful conversations about edtech and the future of learning (subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app).

Culatta’s outlook is upbeat. That’s partly because he expects innovation energy to shift to the states, and his current gig is as chief innovation officer for Rhode Island. “We're going to have to look for other people in other places to step up and provide that innovation that perhaps was being provided at the federal level before,” he says.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a more complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app.

EdSurge: You know what it’s like to be part of the Education Department, and you’ve obviously thought about how government can play a role in shaping the future of education. What’s at stake -- what’s possible in that seat?

Culatta: Certainly at the federal level there can be huge amounts of innovation in policy shaping but also in practice shaping. One of the things that we did on the team when I was there, was really thinking about how do we actually accelerate good practice beyond just creating policy? That's where we did things like data jams and hackathons and opening up data sets to bring in developers. We created these partnerships with the developer community. We had a whole series of challenges that we offered out to schools.There's this great ability for government to be very powerful beyond just making regs and policies.

That said, I think one of the things that is fairly obvious in this coming administration is that that drive to really be the center of innovation, certainly at the department of ed, is probably not going be the same as it was in the past. That's not making any sort of political statement, it's just that it's pretty obvious that the policy will largely be pass money through to the states. It will not be to be the innovation hub at the federal level, as I think it has been for the last eight years.

Some people see this in a kind of gloom and doom way. I actually think there's some excitement about it. It's gonna be a very new model. What it's gonna do is it's gonna push the innovation down to the states and other organizations that are interested and involved in taking up these issues. For states that are ready to do that, they will be in a great position to become these centers of innovation, these places where we can really build out and try out new approaches and tackle tough problems. Frankly, states can use some of the playbook that we helped create at the federal level, that we tested and tried. In that way, I think it's pretty exciting. It's a new approach, but it's a way to continue innovation. It will just happen at a different level, and I think it will engage people who, in some cases, may have been taking it a little bit easy for the last four to eight years, that now have to kick in and really bring their value to the table, because if it's not coming from them, who will it come from?

But you’re saying there's kind of a gap that's created, a void now, where there was all this activity at the federal level, and now that will probably go away.

Sure. It depends on who you ask. I would say it's a gap. People who perhaps voted for President Trump would say that was intentional. Again, I try to stay out of the what's right and what's wrong. I don't know that there's a moral high ground on this one. I just think the reality is, we're going to have to look for other people in other places to step up and provide that innovation that perhaps was being provided at the federal level before.

I'm curious, can you say an anecdotal lesson learned from your time at the education department? Obviously, this is the story of policy in general. Is there something that you can say, like here's something we learned maybe to pass on to future policy makers on the state or federal level?

There's that old saying, "No matter who you are, the smartest people work for someone else." Our ability to tap into really smart people to be involved in the process is probably the most important lesson that I took away. There's a whole bunch of ways to do that. One of the things that we did, we set up a series of fellowships where we actually brought in teachers, tech directors, a superintendent at one point, students, to come in and work on the team at the office of ed tech. They were actually part of the team, and they helped develop the national ed tech plan. All of the products that we created were of higher quality because we had real live breathing teachers and superintendents as part of our team. That's critical.

Some of the other ways that we did it were through these challenges and prizes where we'd set out, "Here's a thorny problem that we're trying to deal with, and it's a challenge. Come to us with your best ideas." We were able to crowdsource a lot of those ideas. Again, that idea of thinking about, how do you make sure we're really tapping into the wisdom of the crowds, the knowledge of the crowds? You get better ideas, no matter who you are, no matter where you are. I think that's critical for anybody sitting in my former role, sitting even at a school district or any organization, if we're trying to solve tough problems.

It does seem like one of those things that's said a lot, but it is hard. Everyone's busy. Everyone's distracted. How do you make sure that people involved are weighing in or not just being talked down to in some way?

I think the other thing is that you keep a right balance of the feedback that you're hearing. One of the things that I've done, I've continued to do this, but we started this when I was at the department of ed, was if we had an event, to do admission to the event by role type. We'd have five simultaneous events that were the same title at the same day and the same location, but they were five separate registrations, if that makes any sense. One would be for developers, teachers, policy makers, whoever else we had, university faculty, and in order to add one more to the developer side, we have to add one more to the teacher, faculty member, policy maker side. We very purposefully kept this diverse mix. We were very thoughtful, even with where we sit people when they come down.

And then there's another problem with that, too, which is we come together and we want to come up with this new plan that's gonna change life for every student everywhere and make everything better. I call it boiling the ocean. I work in Rhode Island, so we use the ocean metaphors. Then we go to do it, and we don't have the ability to make that change happen, and then we sort of give up and say, "See, nothing ever changes in education." I think we need to be much better in education about this idea of an MVP, a minimally viable product. What is the smallest thing that we can do that I actually have the ability to control and make change around, and use that as a step to then take on a bigger challenge?

It's a funny thing to say, but the piece of advice that I give everywhere is, don't think so big. You can think big, but when you go to take your action, what's the smallest step you can take, and actually do it, as opposed to ponder about how the world could be totally different with education, and then never be able to move forward. I think we are not good at taking bite-sized chunks in education. If we could get better at it, I think we would actually innovate much faster.

When you say minimally viable product. I often hear a negative reaction to business speak within the academy, and I just wonder what you would say to people who might say, "The minimum viable product, that's fine for a product, but don't talk about education that way because you've changed the rhetoric. You've moved it over to something where it shouldn't be."

I actually vehemently disagree with not looking at ideas that work in other industries and applying them back. I do have a problem if we're only looking at business or Silicon Valley, but I think there's actually huge value in looking at concepts that have worked well in other industries. I think there's a ton that education can learn from looking at how healthcare is using data, good and bad.

One of the things that Silicon Valley is good at, for better or worse, is quickly iterating and coming up with new innovations. If they are stagnant, the natural market forces in that industry, you just are wiped out. It's a luxury that higher education can afford that the Silicon Valley community can't. Because of that, they've really learned some great ways to innovate quickly. We'd just be crazy not to learn from that.

It doesn't mean we have to take everything. It doesn't mean we have to only run higher ed institutions just like businesses, but I do think there's value in seeing some fairly quick result from what we're doing, testing and trying, and not getting stuck in endless strategic planning that may last for five, six, seven years before anybody actually sees the value out of those plans. That's not good either.

I think the necessity for higher ed to innovate faster is increasing. There was no competition from nontraditional players forever. That's changing very quickly. You're gonna have institutions that either figure out how to innovate faster, or you go away. I don't mean that to just be dramatic, but it really is the case. Because there are now very good options other than traditional institutions. What I'm very excited about is the traditional institutions that I know, and some that I've been working with, that are moving very quickly to learn how to innovate faster and address some longstanding systemic changes that are really problematic for students. Those that do are going to be in a great place and do some really awesome things, moving forward.

I understand that one of your titles (this was in a past job) was “Chief Impatience Officer.” Tell me about that. Was that actually on your business card? What company was that?

It was literally on my business card. It was a company called Third Rail Games. We created educational games. It actually says a lot about me, if you know me. I'm not very tolerant of the speed at which we move in education on a lot of things, because so much is at stake. We don't have the luxury to just take our time, when hundreds of thousands of students are being left out of opportunities that are critical for their future. We don't have the luxury of moving slowly when we have huge societal needs that can only be solved through better learning opportunities.

I talk about thoughtful impatience. It doesn't mean just randomly run down the street, but there are approaches that you can use to be thoughtfully impatience. Yes, we could take six weeks in order to do this, but could we do the same thing in two? Literally asking that question sometimes is enough to get us moving.

That is definitely at odds with the academic culture that I've been covering for awhile.

Of course it is. It's interesting. There are times even when I worked in higher ed, we'd say, "Great, this is a good idea. Let's meet again. How about we meet again next month?" I would be the one in the room saying, "Why don't we meet on Friday?"

Where does this come from? How did you get into ed tech, in a nutshell?

I was a high school Spanish teacher, and I remember there was a time where I was trying to teach a concept about the Dirty Wars in Argentina. It was a really bad part of the history where the government was oppressing the population. Anyway, I was teaching it in this very dry way, out of this textbook, and looking at a class of 9th graders who could care less what I was saying. I had this moment, I remember thinking, "This deserves more than what I'm giving it. This deserves more than reading a couple paragraphs out of a boring text."

I went and searched on the Internet there and found that they just released pictures of all of the people who had been captured in these concentration camps that they created. I took them and I set them to music against a song by Sting, which was written about this period in time. I went and showed it to my class, with these pictures, the music, and some facts that I'd pulled from our text and moved it in there, and just played this video for them. It started one of the most powerful discussions we'd ever had that year. I look back and saw the football player in the back row who usually didn't even pick his head up with tears coming down his eyes. I realized right there that there was some magic in that.

Going back to your current role for the state of Rhode Island, you're chief innovation officer. You mentioned that you expect more innovation to shift to the states in coming years. What kind of things are you looking to do in Rhode Island?

One of the things we looked at in our higher ed community there, where students were just really struggling with the cost of textbooks. Textbook costs have increased over 1,000 percent over the last 30 years. I would love somebody to come and make the claim that the value of textbooks have gone up by over 1,000 percent in that same time. I don't think they have. Regardless of that, the cost is just unbearable for a lot of students, especially students who are sometimes really struggling and working part time jobs, or sometimes full time jobs, in order to go to school.

It looks like, some surveys show, some students just don't buy them anymore.

And some are very frustrated. At Rhode Island College, for example, we talked to students who are paying $200 or $300 for textbooks and sometimes they barely even get opened. Professors just don't even assign it that much. Often the faculty members don't even know how much the textbook costs. I'll own that. When I was teaching, I never knew the cost of the textbook.

One of the things that we are doing in Rhode Island, is we created a challenge. We challenged all of our higher ed institutions to transition from commercially-license textbooks to open-license textbooks. We did a pilot of this with one class at Rhode Island College, Bio 108, and that one class making that one transition, we saved $100,000 for students this year. That's a lot of money.

So the governor has made a challenge to save $5 million for students in the Rhode Island higher ed institutions by transitioning from commercial to open license textbooks. We have very one of our higher ed institutions that's signed onto that pledge, that challenge, which is a big deal. I don't think any other state has done that.

Other things that we're looking at are how are we thinking about using scholarships? Scholarships are interesting. We give scholarships out at the least useful time if we're talking about using them for a motivator for success. We give scholarships out when students have already been accepted to the institution. Yes, it's very helpful that they get the scholarship, but they've already been accepted, so it's not a motivator for you to get into school. What if instead we started giving scholarships out incrementally, starting when students were freshmen in high school? As they demonstrated progress, for every A you get on a math test, you get $100 deposited into your account, and then by the end of your school, when you graduate from high school, you can choose these colleges you would go to based on how much money you've accrued. We're not giving any more money. We're just saying, distribute it out over time.


It certainly seems like your impatience is showing by doing a lot of things. Thank you so much for sitting down with us. We'll be watching what goes on there.

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