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President Barack Obama set a goal of making the United States first in the world in post-secondary academic degrees by 2020, and Jim Shelton says technology is what will get us there.
Named assistant deputy secretary for technology at the Education Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement in April 2009, Shelton is in charge of grant-making and educational technology strategy at the department. He also coordinates Education's technology efforts with other federal and state agencies.
Previously, he was education program director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he spurred investments in next-generation models of learning. He has a bachelor's degree in computer science from Morehouse College and a master's degree in education and master's degree in business administration from Stanford University. He began his career in computer system development and became a senior consultant at McKinsey and Co. He also co-founded an educational company, worked on education reform issues for New York City and launched a private nonprofit venture capital fund for education.
At the recent Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, Shelton talked about how customized software for instruction is being used to try to reduce the teacher/student ratio to as close to 1-to-1 as possible. With that ratio down to 15-to-1 now — from 27-to-1 in 1970 — he said the United States is unlikely to see more improvements in the classroom without technology.
He also noted that collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data is taking the guesswork out of understanding how students learn and what teaching methods work best. Using adaptive algorithms, we have the ability to personalize education. And the availability of low-cost devices, broadband access and near-universal connectivity are further driving improvements in education.
Shelton recently spoke with reporter Alice Lipowicz about technology, education and the challenges inherent in his position. The interview has been edited for style, clarity and length.
FCW: What’s the role of the Office of Innovation and Improvement?
Shelton: We do a lot of work with demonstration grants for teacher preparedness, charter schools and the investment innovation fund. We want to stimulate the identification of solutions, drive best practices, and support the ecosystem of research and development.
We define innovation as a solution that is significantly better than the status quo. Technology is going to be a driver for educational innovations as we more forward.
FCW: Building on what you said at the Gov 2.0 Summit, what more can you tell us about how technology is being used to improve education?
Shelton: Technology is being used to help students read and learn better, to connect teachers to resources, and as a platform for research.
No. 1, there is an opportunity to use technology as a support for student assessments. We are using that technology to make informed decisions. Kids can take tests or use learning software online that determines where they are in learning. The districts can buy that software.
Second, we want to use technology to make it easier for teachers to connect to peers and experts. You see how easy it is for students to connect. It should be easy for teachers to go online to meet their needs.
Right now, there is no good technology to help teachers and students personalize instruction. Some of the platforms will be free; others will be provided by states and school districts.
The Gov 2.0 Summit was a great opportunity to hear about the interesting work going on at government agencies and see the available solutions and tools. Some of the Web 2.0 developers have not thought about applying their tools to education yet.
FCW: What can you tell us about the department’s National Education Technology Plan?
Shelton: It’s a federal strategy not only for the department but for the country. It is a blueprint. As for implementing it, part of the responsibility is under my office. We coordinate the IT aspects.
A lot of our work is about coordination and understanding the vision. We work with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Federal Communications Commission, and also with the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department. Technology is deeply embedded in what we do.
We work with the FCC on the E-Rate program, [which funds school and library broadband access through the Universal Service fee charged to companies that provide telecommunications services]. We work on education technology related to the communities, on [science, technology, engineering and math] education programs and professional development.
The question is: How quickly will states and districts move to IT solutions for their problems? What are the top-priority solutions?
Some of this is already happening. California has a network of teachers sharing information. Through technology, students will continue at home and organizations can keep track of performance.
A number of communities have embraced the one-to-one computing idea — one laptop per student — including communities in Maine, Vermont and Virginia. Some folks are pushing the envelope with work on devices and phones. Houghton Mifflin is trying out a large pilot project for teaching with iPads.
FCW: What are the greatest challenges of your position?
Shelton: The hardest part is getting people to take a risk from the current way to the future. They can see the benefits, but they get nervous about making a change. I wind up talking to a lot of folks, both on the demand side with states and school districts and with vendors on the supply side.
We are in an environment where we have to do more and be more efficient. Money is tight and will get tighter.
Technology has turned out to be a way to help with the problem. We can do it in education.
The risks are that if you try something very difficult, it might not work. People are becoming risk-averse.… There needs to be a form of accountability so that people are not penalized for taking risks.