Steve Midgley, Deputy Dir, Office of Ed Tech, Dept of Education

Steve Midgley, Deputy Director, Office of Education Technology, United States Department of Education discussed the future of education technology with edReformer. His description of the way Dept of Ed wants to take education reminds us that it’s not all about strengthening the bureaucracy. In fact, the main purpose may be to strengthen the creativity and resourcefulness of teachers. Check it out.


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ed: Those who have not seen your presentation ( might be surprised to find a person from the DOE speaking about making things open and transparent, and iterative (in the software development sense), rather than widget-focused. At one point you referred to one iteration of the current education system as being “like an Amazon.” And I don’t think you were talking about the river.

Can you elaborate on how the education could leverage social media and online to evolve into something like this?

Steve Midgley: When I was talking about “Amazon” at the conference, I was talking about the deep personalization capabilities that companies like Amazon, Ebay, Google, Bing, Netflix and many others bring to the marketplace. From just a few purchases, Amazon is able to predict to an astonishing degree what I might also need to purchase, and the information that Amazon provides me about its products helps me determine which one is the best deal (and that’s not always the cheapest). I don’t think we’ve seen this type of customization on a very broad scale yet in education. A lot of the work we are doing at the Department is focused on identifying and fostering opportunities for more effective, practical and cost-effective customization for students and teachers. And I’m certainly not alone here at Education doing this type of work.

The specific question of how to use social media and online technologies to enable these new services in education is an interesting problem. While I was at the FCC working on the National Broadband Plan, we focused a lot on the problems of standards and interoperability. As we’ve looked into implementing those recommendations at US ED, there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem:

In order to create a valuable network of digital services providing useful solutions to students, you have to generate a consensus about how the network should operate (aka standards). But in order to generate that consensus, you need to have some value in the network to make it worth everyone’s time and energy to use (being the only person who has email is useless). The way out of this dilemma seems to be to “bootstrap” networks with some initial content and value. That’s what we’re proposing to do with the Learning Registry: provide valuable federal learning resources within a relatively simple web framework, and let others utilize our functionality to create interesting and valuable new solutions. If those solutions are effective, more educators will use them, and more innovators will develop new products for the network. The Apple iPhone and Google Android app stores both use this model.

ed: At the Interoperability Forum, several speakers, including you, were talking about the importance of not only sharing data, but in converging world views to make it easier to share this data. Is the problem facing America’s education system a people problem, or an information / technology problem?

Steve Midgley: The United States education system does have some significant shortcomings. And those shortcomings are inequitably distributed among racial, social, language and other lines. From that perspective, it’s pretty clear that as a country, we can and should do better. Technology does today and will in the future play a role in improving educational outcomes for students.

Technology has often played a significant role in helping to make social and economic activities more effectiveefficient and in some cases even transformative. How can technology continue to help education in more and more significant ways?

We at the Department do not think that technology’s role is in supplanting teachers. Technology however can assist in supporting a teacher to make her more effective,, allowing her to focus on connecting and working with students in a personal and personalized way. How? Some learning today has to be generalized to be effective (e.g. “direct instruction”). But the fact is that some students in any class will catch on quicker and be ready to move on and some students will need additional assistance. This is a dilemma that any classroom teacher has experienced. If the industry can provide highly customized learning solutions to catch up students who are behind and provide additional learning for students who are ready to move on, teachers can focus on individuals and small groups of students more often than they have time for today. Research shows that individualized support for students is effective in raising achievement, but the reality in many classrooms today is there is insufficient time to provide it, but in the future this may change, in part due to efficiencies enabled by technology.

Technology can help in other ways as well. It can provide more data to teachers about which students are struggling and why. Today’s assessment instruments are fairly general in their feedback to teachers. Technology-based assessments that occur while a student is learning rather than afterwards can potentially provide far more information and sooner, to ensure that the time students and teachers spend together is used to greater effect. And to speculate a little on this point, many teachers (and ex-teachers) I’ve talked with say that having more time to work with students in a focused way makes their jobs more satisfying. If technology can help more teachers find more satisfaction in their jobs, I know it will make a big impact.

ed: Do you think the country needs some kind of technological manifesto, or a set of principles by which superintendents, teachers, parents, and other members of the educational system may be able to judge best practice in digital, online or blended learning education?

Steve Midgley: Yes. While the National Education Technology Plan 2010 is currently in draft form, I think it is a remarkable piece of work (and since it was developed before my arrival at the Department, I think it’s fair for me to say that). I think it’s also important to point out that there is no single best practice in any area of technology, including technology in education. It’s about fitting a context and a solution together in a way that makes sense.

ed: So, we need principles…. What do you think are the hallmarks of “best practice” in delivering a basic, fundamentally “global” 21st Century education that leans in some ways on digital delivery or online components?

Steve Midgley: I’d be remiss if I redid work that we’ve already done, so I’ll quote from National Education Technology Plan 2010 cited above, with some key principles of effective technology use in education:

“We should create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students’ daily lives and… their futures.”

“21st century competencies and expertise such as critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration, and multimedia communication should be woven into all content areas.”

“The model of 21st century learning requires new and better ways to measure what matters, diagnose strengths and weaknesses in the course of learning when there is still time to improve student performance.”

“Teams of connected educators [can] replace solo practitioners and classrooms [can be] fully connected to provide educators with 24/7 access to data and analytic tools as well as to resources that help them act on the insights the data provide.”

“An essential component of the 21st century learning model is a comprehensive infrastructure for learning that provides every student, educator, and level of our education system with the resources they need when and where they are needed.”

“We must [also] leverage technology to plan, manage, monitor, and report spending to provide decision-makers with a reliable, accurate, and complete view of the financial performance of our education system at all levels.”

ed: How about a bonus question? What was the one thing you took away from your past before joining DOE that you think would benefit education practitioners in general if they incorporated it in the way the system operates?

Steve Midgley: I grew up (literally) in a Montessori school that my parents founded in 1973 and that continues to operate today. The hallmark for me of my experience in that school is that every student can learn and every adult is a teacher. But being a good student or a good teacher is hard work, and everyone needs a lot of support to become and remain effective.