Department of Education Hosts National Rural Education Technology Summit

They came by plane, train, and automobile, but were making more innovative connections for students in rural schools.

More than 150 rural education and technology experts responded to an invitation from the Obama Administration to participate in a National Rural Education Technology Summit on Wednesday, July 21 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to learn from one another and provide feedback to federal officials.

A student from a remote rural school in Florida described how virtual learning helped her overcome learning challenges and provided additional opportunities to complement her traditional school. Senior Obama Administration officials engaged the audience in conversations about using the latest technology innovations to provide educational opportunities at any time, any location, and in different ways.

Discussions included the National Education Technology Plan, reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act., STEM, and the “future of learning” – a panel with Julie Young, President & CEO of Florida Virtual School; Rob Lippincott, Senior Vice President of Education at PBS; and Ramona Pierson, Founder & Chief Science Officer for SynapticMash, a Seattle-based education technology start-up. These industry experts described opportunities to use technology to engage students with targeted and appropriate interventions based on better use of data and digital content, including simulations, video, interactive environments, and embedded assessments.

The day-long Summit opened with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announcing a new Online Learning Registry to make it easier to access the vast educational resources currently dispersed across various federal agencies. He told attendees that that we can use the best technologies to overcome the unique challenges that rural schools face in order to overcome distance and provide new opportunities for students and teachers. We have the means to provide a world-class education for all students regardless of zipcode.

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough told the audience that his parents grew up on a farm and were educated in a one-room school in a rural Georgia town that no longer exists. He believes he received as good an education as could be provided at a school in a nearby town, but he learned later in life that he had not seen many cultural opportunities that were available in a regional city. Secretary Clough said described a new possibility emerging to make the Smithsonian’s resources more interactive and available to schools and students in small towns and rural communities, so children will have these opportunities regardless of their place of birth.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski told attendees that no area has greater potential to transform the lives of children than education, and no technological innovation in our lifetime has greater potential to transform education than broadband Internet.  However, only 50 percent of rural Americans currently have broadband in their homes. In March, the FCC delivered to Congress a National Broadband Plan setting an ambitious agenda for connecting all corners of the nation while transforming the economy and society with the communications network of the future – robust, affordable Internet. Chairman Genachowski also said the Universal Service Fund can be used to focus on rural America where there is less population density and more distance. He said that government needs to strike public-private partnerships with local providers to build out the networks and speeds that are needed.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan described USDA’s work to support agriculture and the infrastructure for a new parallel economy in rural places. USDA is working with the FCC to implement the national broadband plan. She described the life-changing impact of Internet connectivity and the use of computers by teachers to provide more engaging, interesting, and personalized learning experiences when teaching students on the Navajo Nation. Merrigan said broadband has the potential to make rural communities more competitive than they have been for a generation.

Before the Summit ended, attendees challenged us to figure out how to get the latest technology innovations into the hands of teachers and to ensure teachers have the support and training needed to fully integrate new information, video, and other content into their lessons. Technology experts urged the Administration to consider the untapped potential of emerging technologies that include educational gaming, and they emphasized the need to be inclusive of students with disabilities.

The White House’s Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra concluded the Summit by citing the progress in delivering platforms for educational innovations every 90 days – including the H1N1 Ready Zone, the Investing in Innovation grant competition site, the Open Innovation Portal matching great ideas with potential funders – and applauded the Department of Education’s goal of moving from a culture of compliance to one of innovation. He also said that while much work remains to be done, the Administration is committed to using technology to establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration throughout the process. 

John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach U.S. Department of Education

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