The 'Technology Plan' Conundrum

Last year, the U.S. set ambitious goals in the National Education Technology Plan 2010 for our education system. In a recent weekly address, Obama reiterated his desire to push limits in technology and innovation: we must "out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build the rest of the world."

On one hand, bold assertions and long-term plans to integrate technology into our national awareness is a step forward. The national plan discusses learning, assessment, teaching, infrastructure, productivity, and research and development, and pinpoints fairly specific ways of achieving the outlined goals. Having our sights on bettering any or all of these aspects of education gives us a measurable way to plan backward to achieve these goals.

While detailing plans may be beneficial overall, what strikes me is how convoluted and politicized the planning process is. Instead of absorbing innovation from the education technology market organically in a bottoms-up adoption model, we see the exact opposite. At every step of the way, the process is top-down, facing a slew of educational constituents -- school boards, districts, superintendents, unions, teachers, parents, policy makers, etc. -- along the way.

As long as we "plan" technological implementation, we are forcing it, and therein not utilizing it as an organic learning tool.

We need a plan, not only because they are helpful in accomplishing objectives, but also because education is so bureaucratic. Not to be naïve -- education is deliberately bureaucratic because we need checks and balances in place to safeguard our most valuable asset -- our youth. We want funding from a national level to sustain a democratic education solution, but we tout local control to ensure that children get the best possible service from their communities.

If you've ever read a strategic plan or a proposal implementation outline, you might have noticed how redundant and rhetorical they end up being. We want accountability -- detailed tracking of what we are doing in schools so that we can analyze key factors that determine success (or failure). On the other hand, sifting through politicized details, dealing with top-down federal governance leads to no innovation in a space that direly needs it.

If these plans were in fact "strategic," we might have some breakthroughs on our hands. I'm nervous, however, that these large-scale efforts will resound with the same incoherence as my experience working with a Quality Improvement Team at my school. Measures taken to implement anything new were a mess. Some facilitator would come in, get overwhelmed by the terrible ideas being suggested by apathetic staff members, write them in a visual organizer, and maybe follow up a month later. At the follow-up meeting, we would review the seemingly forgotten previous meeting and get nowhere. In a very isolated situation, with few conflicting agents involved, this "strategy" work quickly devolved when we planned any new projects. Take this at the very basic level, scale it, and I cannot imagine it getting more streamlined and efficient.

Instead of embracing naturally emerging tools in classrooms, high-level administrators ban social networks, censor engaging web tools, and question the validity of new technologies. I know it's a generalization, but it seems like three years later, someone at the district level "discovers" the perks of these innovations and decides to pilot something -- again from the top down. By then, students and teachers are already (trying) to use new and better resources, but in a similar cycle, their efforts are often stifled.

A federal education system may have been founded with the best of intent, but maintaining a strict top-down approach, underwritten by "strategic plans," does not seem viable in an increasingly globalized, digitized, consumer-driven environment. Even when education solutions are imminent, we pilot them for 3 years, pay outrageous sums for legacy software, write out Requests for Proposals that could be written in one paragraph and posted online, ask advice from "education consultants" who know nothing about technology, and hear public criticism from every stakeholder. Plans are great, but I think we'll see real innovation coming from off the cuff.