Ed Tech confronts Obama’s mandate for change

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Jun 16, 2010

President Obama’s FY2011 budget proposal zeroes out funding for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program, thereby eliminating the primary line item for federal Ed Tech funding. Of course, many in the Ed Tech community are at daggers. But surprisingly, certain forward looking education advocates concede that the Obama Administration is right on track.

This group, including many associated with Innosight Institute, believes that when it comes to computers in classrooms, more is not always merrier. Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn, authors of Disrupting Class, point out that in 1981, the ratio of computers to students in school was one to 125; by 1991 it was one to 18; and by 2000 it was one to five. Yet this proliferation of computers in classrooms has scarcely changed the system. The classroom experience during this time period has remained comparatively identical—a teacher at the front of the class delivering instruction in a relatively monolithic way to a batch of students, sometimes with a splash of laptops, overheads and other enhancers. When computers are crammed into classrooms, they sustain and perhaps marginally improve instruction, but they certainly do not transform the learning experience.

As they currently stand, EETT funds can be used to facilitate this cramming dynamic. The EETT legislation states that one of its purposes is “to provide teachers, principals and administrators with the capacity to integrate technology effectively into curricula and instruction.” Through teacher training, computer acquisition, network expansion and more, state programs are prone to filter EETT funds through the existing system, and the funds serve to perpetuate it.

The challenge is that organizations cannot naturally disrupt themselves. Cramming computers into an existing organization serves to sustain, but not transform, the organization.  The current EETT program may exacerbate this problem by providing a reliable stream of funding to continue perpetuating the model.

In contrast, for computers to become the monumental godsend for education that many in the Ed Tech community hope, they must be deployed disruptively. Christensen and Horn explain that the key to disruption is for decision makers and entrepreneurs to deploy computers in situations where the alternative is nothing—in places and for courses where there are no teachers to teach, such as in rural settings, for drop-out recovery, for exotic foreign language courses, etc. From this setting, the technology begins to disrupt the instructional job teachers do, which eventually migrates to a disruption of the entire classroom paradigm. We have seen this pattern countless times in other industries, including with personal computers, automobiles, photography, airlines, and health care.

If Obama wants to disrupt schools radically for the better, the EETT program is not idealized to serve as his catalyst. To change it to become more groundbreaking, his administration would need to laser focus the money exclusively on areas of nonconsumption. This would mean eliminating most of EETT’s stated purpose, except the purpose identified in Section 2402, subsection A(6):

To support the development and utilization of electronic networks and other innovative methods, such as distance learning, of delivering specialized or rigorous academic courses and curricula for students in areas that would not otherwise have access to such courses and curricula, particularly in geographically isolated regions.

Using the funds to continue to provide connectivity to rural and economically disadvantaged communities could also help, although this mission is addressed more specifically with eRate.

Alternatively, Obama’s team could move forward with dismantling EETT and provide more lump-sum, uncategorized funding, subject to recipients hitting targets for student achievement. This would allow local decision makers to use funds in the ways that work best in their specific contexts, including, when effective, on transformative technologies.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.