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CoSN ’23: U.S. Making Progress in National Ed-Tech Plan

Assistant Secretary Roberto Rodriguez of the U.S. Department of Education has seen recent progress in narrowing the digital divide and thinks new technologies could help address several problems while creating others.

A sign that says "CoSN 2023 Austin, TX, March 20-23. Celebrating 30 years of EdTech Leadership!"
Despite much work to be done when it comes to closing the K-12 digital divide, the U.S. education system has come a long way from where it was when schools first made shifts to remote learning in early 2020, according to Roberto Rodriguez, assistant secretary of the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.

Speaking Wednesday at the 2023 Consortium for School Networking conference, Rodriguez led an event titled “Vision for the National Ed Tech Plan,” outlining aims of the department’s National Ed Tech Plan, as well as progress made so far in K-12 digital equity and ongoing modernization efforts to make schooling more tech-integrated. He said the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning put existing inequities at the forefront of the national discussion on how to improve K-12 education, and catalyzed existing plans by school systems to make more use of technology to support student learning and enhance instruction.

Rodriguez added that teachers “wasted no time” in stepping up to the radical shifts to digital instruction, and had to do so initially “without a playbook,” which was a major feat for the education system as it existed prior to the pandemic. He said this stressed the need to provide more professional development for teachers adapting to new instructional models.

Rodriguez (Image from CoSN website)
“It was about three years ago to the day that we experienced what I often refer to as the ‘great disruption’ in our education system,” he said. “This great disruption laid bare and compounded many of the inequities that already existed in our system. … Never have we had a moment where millions of our educators across America, regardless of where they were teaching in whatever setting, were all thrust into remote learning, many with little training and little support.”

Rodriguez noted that while the K-12 landscape has been able to narrow the digital divide significantly through COVID-19 relief funds and various other efforts on the local, state and federal levels over the past three years at a “fairly impressive rate,” many students are still impacted by the “digital design divide and digital use divide” as schools adopt ed-tech tools at unprecedented levels.

“We’ve worked for a long time at the federal level to try to remedy the digital divide,” he said. “We all witnessed the impact of that inequity when students didn’t have access to technology during the pandemic. We also know that that digital divide continues to impact certain communities, such as our students of color, our students from historically excluded communities, our students in rural areas, our students with disabilities, and we know even when students have access to that basic technology, they still often face concerns around adoption, including accessing technical support.”

According to Rodriguez, the average U.S. student today now utilizes 143 different tech tools over the course of their schooling, with teachers using a similar amount to support their instruction and lesson planning. He said this has the transformative potential to make education both more enriching and equitable.

While those trends are promising, he said, they underscore the importance of continued efforts to expand broadband and device access needed for remote and emergent hybrid learning models. He said they also show the importance of efforts across government levels to improve K-12 cybersecurity capacity — a key concern for K-12 administrators amid cyber attacks against schools that increased with the first major shifts to remote learning in 2020.

Overall, Rodriguez said, the new vision to modernize and integrate tech into education could potentially excite and prepare students for a tech-heavy job market while addressing issues like learning loss.

“We can better connect them with their interests. We can help them unlock their full potential and expand their horizons. We can move from what has been too often the norm in our education system and our classrooms, of a uniform one-size-fits-all approach around how we engage and connect with our students, and we can provide a more robust and flexible learning environment,” he said. “We can provide infrastructure that is capable of supporting new types of active engagement. … That vision doesn’t have to look like what our schools looked like in March of 2020 [when schools closed due to COVID-19], but that vision can look forward.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.