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State Leaders: Ed-Tech Priorities Include Equity, Cybersecurity

A nationwide survey of education and state leaders conducted by the State Educational Technology Directors Association revealed that cybersecurity and digital equity remain top issues for K-12 schools.

The SETDA logo.
A first-of-its-kind report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) last week, billed as a summary of how states and policymakers are adapting to the digital reality of post-pandemic education, found three top priorities when it comes to technology: equitable access to the Internet, technology for instruction, and cybersecurity.

The 2022 State EdTech Trends Report uses interviews with state leaders to supplement SETDA’s annual State EdTech Trends Survey of its members, state superintendents, ed-tech directors and other senior state officials, specifically highlighting investments and initiatives in Connecticut, Mississippi and North Carolina. But the survey found that nationwide, while 54 percent of respondents said their state has cybersecurity initiatives in place, 70 percent said their agency or at least one district in their state has been victimized by a cyber attack. Only 6 percent said their state provides ample funding for cybersecurity, while 57 percent said there is very little or a small amount of funding for it.

“Cybersecurity is the hot, hot topic, and states are trying to figure out how to support and combat it in some ways, and how do you put in preventative things,” SETDA Executive Director Julia Fallon told Government Technology. “But in terms of funding, (the cybersecurity budget is) pretty low. And I’m one of those people that is like, ‘Show me your budget, because that’ll show me your real priorities even though you might have these different pain points.’”

The report notes that the state’s priorities for education overall are educator recruitment and retention, mentioned by 74 percent of respondents, and addressing learning loss, with 72 percent; followed by equity (46 percent), social and emotional learning (33 percent) and mental health (30 percent). The report breaks equity into two categories, access to Internet and access to devices, with the former being the most commonly mentioned.

When it comes to state initiatives, broadband tops the list, with 59 percent saying their states have plans in place to address the issue.

Fallon said that, while states can play a role in helping smaller districts that have less funding, there are ways to maximize that. But she said the need for action goes beyond just states.

“I think that’s where the federal legislation around the (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) and everything else is coming into play, because there are certain parts of the country where a broadband benefit is not going to help you. You need a satellite,” she said. “But I would like to see us collect some home access through the Department of Ed, where if a school receives a device, it should be able to connect from wherever because it’s still connected to the classroom.”

The report noted four key findings about states: They could do more to connect educational priorities with technological ones, and support that connection with investment; how they ensure the effectiveness of ed-tech programs and products varies a lot; they don’t have consistent definitions or categorizations for ed tech; and many of them report a disparity between ed-tech priorities and their activities.

Notable in terms of ensuring product effectiveness was that 19 states do not collect any data regarding the use or effectiveness of ed-tech tools. A mere eight states have collected at least some data on both the use and effectiveness of ed-tech tools. Fallon added that it was surprising to SETDA that only 8 percent of survey respondents said more ed-tech tools were needed.

SETDA, which was also recently named to lead the Department of Education Office of Ed Tech’s update of the National Ed Tech Plan, said in its release that individuals from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity and the Northern Mariana Islands took part in the survey. In a way, the priorities of cybersecurity and digital equity were not surprising. What was, according to Fallon, was the level of participation.

“The biggest surprise is that we got a really great response rate. I know that that sounds silly, but when it comes to serving and everything else, I don’t want to say the bar is low, but it’s not known for a super high response rate,” Fallon said. “We’re excited because it’s really about trying to get a temperature check and the baseline of data, especially post-pandemic.”

Fallon said she believes the wealth of responses is related to the states’ hope that if they provide information, they will get something in return.

“Our job at the state is to advocate for what districts need and to promote our mentality that we are all in this together to help our students achieve,” Rob Dietrich, senior director of digital teaching and learning at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said in a public statement.

Big picture: the report hopes to set a wave of decisions that can help move education technology forward, through state education agencies as well as policymakers, helping them adapt away from an analog world to a more digital space. Right now, according to respondents, only 55 percent have a dedicated office for ed tech.

“We need to understand how we help support our agencies, initiatives and priorities, especially as leadership changes,” Fallon said. “We need to help states think to be more intentional about connecting their education priorities with their technology priorities.”
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.