Obama’s Education Dept Issues Last Hurrah: A National Edtech Plan for Higher Education

Obama’s Education Dept Issues Last Hurrah: A National Edtech Plan for Higher Education

Just days before a new administration moves in, the Obama Administration’s Education Department today released a supplement to its National Education Technology Plan that focuses on higher education. At times it reads like a student’s final paper, straining to demonstrate understanding of every concept learned over a long course. In other sections it has the hint of a manifesto, with an urgent call to action that boils down to this: Colleges need to adapt to meet the changing demographics and needs of students, rather than expect them to conform to a tradition-loving system.

“Unless we become more nimble in our approach and more scalable in our solutions, we will miss out on an opportunity to embrace and serve the majority of students who will need higher education and postsecondary learning,” says the report. Later it underscores that “higher education has never mattered so much to those who seek it. It drives social mobility, energizes our economy, and underpins our democracy.”

The report weighs in at about 60 pages, and provides more than a dozen short case studies of schools and tools on the cutting edge of innovation. (The report does note that these mentions are not an endorsement of the companies or even their methods). That’s where the document feels like a student’s report, diligently including examples but stopping short of incorporating all of them into a single argument or coherent call for action.

One official familiar with the report, who asked not to be named, noted that such a “kitchen sink” approach is not necessarily a bad thing, and is probably necessary given the many stakeholders and audiences that the department is trying to serve.

In an e-mail interview this week, Russ Poulin, director of policy and analysis for WCET, a nonprofit promoting e-learning programs, who was consulted by officials who created the report, called it “less of a plan than an aspirational set of best practices underscored by a rich set of case studies.”

Poulin said it was a “long overdue addendum” to the National Education Technology Plan, which focused on K-12 institutions, that was released in Dec. 2015.

Education Department officials explained in an interview on Wednesday that their goal is to encourage colleges to take a more holistic look at their innovations around technology.

“We want to see college leaders change in the way they organize themselves,” said Joseph South, the department’s director of educational technology. “Right now the Chief Information Officer is very much still in a technology services role, separated from the Chief Academic Officer. What we hope to see is those roles structurally working in tandem so that technology can work to support learning, to break silos between the tech and academic sides.”

In an interview for the EdSurge On Air podcast, the office’s former edtech director, Richard Culatta, said he expects innovation leadership to shift to the states during the Trump Administration. Asked whether he agreed with that assessment, Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary for Education, said it’s not an either/or issue. “These federal issues are also going to be state issues,” he said. “At the core, we believe changes will happen most profoundly at the institution level.”

A Focus on Outcomes

The report makes clear that the landscape in higher education is expanding, with more “fluidity with which students move between formal and informal learning environments.” And some worry that such an environment could breed bad actors such as Corinthian University, which was found to have defrauded students with misleading advertising practices.

“There is always a concern about bad actors and the best way to ensure that bad actors don’t get a share of the market is to measure actual outcomes for students and learners,” said Mitchell. “That’s why our EQUIP program is so focused on outcomes,” he added, referring to the department’s experimental group of projects that have been allowed to act outside of the usual student financial aid regulations. “We think that moving towards meaningful outcomes is the best way to ensure long-term student success.”

Among the many best practices mentioned in the report:

Make educational materials more accessible to those with disabilities. Any learning materials that are “born digital” should also be “born accessible,” the report says.

Create clear policies for handling educational data. “This is true not only for formal contracts, but also for consumer-oriented “Click-Wrap” software that is acquired simply by clicking “accept” to the provider’s “Terms of Service,” the report argues.

Technology can help “elevate” the importance of teaching at colleges. One idea included in the report is creating “career ladders” for faculty members who master technology in teaching.

Poulin, of WICHE, praised its focus on student-support services, not just what happens in classrooms. “Students need support services to succeed,” he says.

Michael Horn, principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, said that he was pleasantly surprised by the range of institution types represented in the report’s examples.

Still, he and others wondered about the timing.

“It’s a strange time to be putting a supplement to the national edtech plan whose policy and priority is about to shift,” he said.

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