Education Department schools developers on creating software for students



By Lauren Larson
Federal News Radio

Technology is an accelerator that provides new approaches to learning.

“If you take a class, videotape it and put it online, you can bore people in the exact same way you did face-to-face,” said Joseph South, deputy director of the Education Department's Office of Educational Technology (OET). “Technology only makes a difference when you take advantage of what it can do.”

OET is in charge of developing a national educational technology policy and establishing "the vision for how technology can be used to support learning" in schools across the country.

Ed Tech Developers Guide

South said his organization travelled the country to see what types of software were being sold to schools. There was a lot of enthusiasm out there, but the applications being produced weren’t very impactful. One of the reasons for this was a lot of developers didn’t have the best understanding of how schools operate. Many developers’ experiences were limited to their own time as students.

For that reason, South's office decided to create a guide to help developers understand the critical needs of schools. The guide begins with a section focused on areas of greatest impact. Throughout the guide, a developer can get more tips on effective design approaches, funding sources and how schools buy those products.

The guide is primarily aimed at developers, but South said schools can get a lot out of it too. As they travelled the country they found that schools need to be more savvy buyers.

“An educator could read this guide and learn about some of the aspects that they should be looking for when they’re buying.”

One of the most important things a developer can do is engage with teachers and students early on in the development process, said South.

“This is something that’s changing, but it’s something that there hasn’t been enough of in the past.” 

The challenge of the guide was making it short enough that it would actually get read, South said. OET plans to continue to solicit fresh input from developers and educators to keep it up to date. He said his office has received excellent feedback so far. Some companies have even added it to required reading lists for their education teams.

Future Ready Schools

Two years ago, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan launched the ConnectED Initiative to connect 99 percent of the country's classrooms to high-speed broadband Internet within five years. The deadline is June 2017.

"We’re ahead of the curve," said South. “With the new FCC funding that’s been made available, we anticipate that 70,000 more schools will have broadband to the classroom in the next two to three years, and that would be a sea change… in fact, it’s probably one of the quietest, most impactful changes that’s happening to our schools.”

Millions of superintendents have signed pledges to integrate digital learning in their districts. But if the technology is in place and people don’t know how to use it or take advantage of it, the nation won’t succeed, South said.

So the department followed up those commitments with 12 Future Ready Summits held across the country to help schools make plans and form peer-relationships with neighboring districts. “We feel strongly, and the superintendents told us, that they need to rely on each other for help.”

“Our idea was, if there is a school district within driving distance who’s doing this well then, we believe, that the best practices of digital learning will spread,” South said. “If you have to go farther than that, it will be much more of a reach for a district to get there. And the summits, we hope, are creating those kind of relationships in a local way.”

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