For advocates of educational technology, the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s next president must seem like a breath of fresh air after eight years of an administration in which federal ed-tech spending declined nearly two-thirds … poorly designed research funded by the U.S. Department of Education called into question technology’s efficacy as a learning tool … and an utter lack of understanding of the need for federal leadership to keep America’s students competitive in the 21st-century pervaded.
Clearly, Obama gets it. In a campaign speech at Stebbins High School near Dayton, Ohio, in September, Obama noted that U.S. students are being outperformed by their peers in other countries on international benchmarks.
"Without a workforce trained in math, science, and technology, and the other skills of the 21st century, our companies will innovate less, our economy will grow less, and our nation will be less competitive. If we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, we must out-educate the world today," Obama said.
He added: "While technology has transformed just about every aspect of our lives–from the way we travel, to the way we communicate, to the way we look after our health–one of the places where we’ve failed to seize its full potential is in the classroom.
"Imagine a future where our children are more motivated because they aren’t just learning on blackboards, but on new whiteboards with digital touch screens; where every student in a classroom has a laptop at [his or her] desk; where [students] don’t just do book reports but design PowerPoint presentations; where they don’t just write papers, but they build web sites; where research isn’t done just by taking a book out of the library, but by eMailing experts in the field; and where teachers are less a source of knowledge than a coach for how best to use it and obtain knowledge. By fostering innovation, we can help make sure every school in America is a school of the future.
"And that’s what we’re going to do when I’m president. We will help schools integrate technology into their curriculum, so we can make sure public school students are fluent in the digital language of the 21st-century economy. We’ll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that’s how we’ll make sure they’re prepared for today’s workplace."
One month after his historic victory in the Nov. 4 election, Obama previewed an economic recovery plan that focuses on federal investments in modernizing school buildings, expanding broadband internet access, and making public buildings more energy-efficient, among other areas.
"My economic recovery plan will launch the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen," Obama said in outlining the plan. "We will repair broken schools, make them more energy-efficient, and put new computers in our classrooms. Because to help our children compete in a 21st-century economy, we need to send them to 21st-century schools."
Of course, Obama faces several key challenges as he looks to implement these plans. The country faces a $10 trillion national debt, the worst economy since the Great Depression, and several other priorities to tackle. His administration also must make sure it’s not looking to technology as a panacea for what ails education, but instead invests wisely on programs that have been proven to work–and tracks the results of this spending to ensure accountability.
The need for such accountability was underscored by a Dec. 22 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about an audit of Pennsylvania’s Classrooms of the Future program, which found inadequate public disclosure, inconsistent grant funding, and insufficient review of equipment purchases and program results. The last thing supporters of educational technology need is a public backlash against federal ed-tech spending that cannot be proven to have brought about positive change.
But again, in choosing Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as his secretary of education, Obama also appears to understand this.
Duncan has focused on boosting classroom technology and has presided over the launch of a high school that replaces textbooks with web-based course curriculum during his seven years as Chicago Public Schools CEO–but he’s also closed failing schools and implemented strict accountability measures. He appears to understand the need for balancing innovation with results: The city’s schools have recorded statistically significant gains in test scores of fourth- and eighth-grade students in mathematics, and of fourth graders in reading, since Duncan took control of the system in 2001.
As the nation following the hotly contested presidential race earlier in the year, technology played a key role in helping teach students about the election process. Thanks to the creativity of some ed-tech vendors, the development of Web 2.0 technologies, and the dedication of educators from coast to coast, students experienced the 2008 presidential election as never before–using interactive tools and strategies that taught important 21st-century skills, promoted civic engagement, and involved students in the democratic process.
Obama, too, used technology in creative ways that helped him win. Observers have credited Obama’s success in no small part to his campaign’s innovative use of technology–including blogging, text messaging, and online social networks–to connect with younger voters and get them excited about politics and the election. His campaign’s unprecedented use of technology holds many lessons for schools and colleges about how to inspire communities–and mobilize support.