Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released the 2016 National Education Technology Plan (NETP). Technology has improved dramatically since the last update of the plan in 2010. Mobile devices and relatively inexpensive high-speed Internet access have served as platforms for numerous advanced education technologies. Yet despite these gains, new education technologies have not revolutionized schools as some once thought was possible. The growing digital divide in the access to these advanced technologies is also an area of concern.
NETP policy goals
The NETP adeptly highlights issues that are worthy of attention of education policy stakeholders. The plan makes a number of recommendations. Among them are implementing education technology principles of Universal Design for Learning, training educators to be technologically literate, and supporting the development of open teaching tools. One policy mechanism that could help to achieve each of these objectives is the development of national education technology standards. The authors of the NETP do discuss the value of standards in a broad sense. But, the differing costs and benefits between technical standards over education standards like the Common Core are worthy of greater attention.
Political opposition to standards
National education technology standards that enjoy the support of the federal government would likely face strong political opposition because of the decline in support for the Common Core Standards. Any strategy that relies on standards will likely be tagged with Common Core’s political baggage. Despite this potential challenge, policymakers should consider pursuing national education technology standards because of the potential benefits for all education stakeholders.
The difference between technical and education standards
Technology standards differ substantively from education standards. Education standards include two components: a specific education competency and a grade level. They define what students should learn and when they should learn it. Teachers are then evaluated using those standards as a rubric. Many states and districts use standardized assessments developed by the consortia that also created the Common Core to evaluate teachers. Education standards curtail on the autonomy of teachers by introducing accountability pressures.
Rather than prescribing the behavior of their users, technology creates a platform for the development of new tools. Technology standards involve an agreement among private firms to produce a product according to a specific set of specifications. This simple innovation provides a platform for many modern technologies. For example, the DIN A4 standard or 8.5 by 11 inch printer paper makes production and use of these products much simpler. If every brand of printer required the use of paper with different dimensions and thickness then it would make the technology much less useful.
The value of technical standards
Technology standards provide benefits when it is useful to simplify unnecessarily complex features. In an education context this could mean developing specific text-to-speech tools that would function similarly across all education software. This makes teacher training simpler and improves the experience for students and teachers as well. Standards can also help to eliminate “penguin effects.” Adopters of technology often act like penguins fearing that a predator will eat the first one to enter the water and preferring others to go first. If products meet the minimum requirement rules for quality then a teacher can have confidence when adopting them.
The process for developing technical standards is not discussed in explicit detail in the 2016 NETP. One strategy that merits consideration is relying on the federal government’s experience in supporting the development of technical standards. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an agency in the Commerce Department that develops and support a wide variety of technical standards. NIST has the experience to bring together diverse sets of stakeholders and the expertise to develop complicated technologies.
A collaborative effort between NIST and the Education Department could do much to achieve many of the laudable goals set out in the 2016 NETP. The updated NETP includes many recommendations intended to raise the prominence of technology in support of classroom learning. An announcement of support from President Obama for national technical standards would most likely face bi-partisan political attack. However, a collaborative effort between NIST and the Department of Education could leverage existing standardization expertise in the federal government. It could also bring together a broad group of stakeholders whose support would be necessary for the successful implementation of technical education standards. In the long run this could prove an effective strategy to achieve the goals set for by the 2016 NETP.