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New National Ed-Tech Plan Calls for Improved Teacher Prep, Assessment

By guest blogger Leo Doran

Federal officials are calling for teacher colleges to revamp their training of educators to use technology, the expansion of open educational resources, and improved classroom-based assessments, in new guidelines that lay out a vision for the future of digital learning.

The 2016 National Education Technology Plan released this week is the latest version of a blueprint released every five years, one the agency describes as the "flagship educational technology policy for the United States."

The department's office of educational technology calls for incorporating ed tech into a wider variety of arenas in the education sector than they had called for in previous plans, and putting a focus on improving digital equity across schools—a major source of concern in some districts.

The document also calls for new attention on closing what the authors call the "digital use divide" in addition to the more familiar "digital divide," and on unlocking the full potential of digital assessments, all while continuing to promote open educational resources resources.

The plan "places a strong focus on equity because every student deserves an equal chance to engage in educational experiences powered by technology that can support and accelerate learning," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.

The tech blueprint places a heavy focus on efforts to improve teacher's preparation to use technology to improve student learning, through steps such as micro-credentialing, and through the expansion of collaborative tech-powered teacher learning platforms.

Specifically, the plan recommends better technology training for educators through the adoption of "common expectations and credentialing regarding educators' abilities to design and implement technology enabled learning environments."

Those expectations would be set in collaboration with teacher-accrediting organizations, state policymakers, and others.

The report also sets out to make a distinction between what it  calls the "digital use divide" and the more traditionally used "digital divide."

While the "digital divide" typically refers to gaps in access to devices and Internet connectivity, the "digital use divide" refers to the differences between schools and districts that use technology for "active use" versus those that only utilize digital tools and systems for "passive use."

According to the report, active use means activities like coding, creative media production, design, collaboration, or interaction with experts, while "passive use" is the simple transfer of traditional education activities to a digital platform, such as the completion of a worksheet or recording of a lecture.

Better Assessments Needed

While Ed Week has covered the uneven progress made in the nation's effort to improve broadband access—including  the educational woes caused by lack of reliable Web access in rural communities—correcting the "digital use divide" is trickier, the authors acknowledge.

That's because use of ed-tech resources can vary widely classroom to classroom, and the problem exists independent of access to technology. As the department puts it in the report, "the digital use divide could continue to grow even as access to technology in schools increases."

A good example of the differences between districts that use ed tech effectively and those that do not is revealed in varying approaches to digital assessments, the report says. 

The office recommends digital assessment platforms that are embedded into lessons, universally accessible, adaptable, give feedback in real time, and that can support "enhanced question types" such as "graphic responses," "hot text," and "equation response" to go beyond traditional true-or-false or multiple-choice formats. 

One of the report's recommendations is symbiotic with a provision in the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act that calls for states to expand their arsenal of school evaluation metrics to include noncognitive factors. The technology plan for using digital systems to enhance schools' ability to measure those noncognitive skills.

Finally, the plan continues the department of education's major push for all of the above initiatives to operate according to "open" educational standards. These standards would ensure that all resources be widely and freely available inside and outside of the classroom, with educators able to adapt and share them.

Many schools and districts have shown a burgeoning interest in open educational resources, and the department's blueprint calls for that exploration to continue. That's probably not surprising, given that those materials have received increased focus from the technology office, led by outgoing director Richard Culatta, in recent years.

The release of the plan coincides with the one-year anniversery of the Future Ready Initiative, a national collaborative of district superintendents commited to improving digital learning.


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