Chad Dorsey

Perspective: Prepare and Inspire, A Watershed Report

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently released Prepare and Inspire, a report on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. This report generated relatively little fanfare in the mainstream and online press, but it may someday be seen as a watershed in our nation’s educational history. At least we at the Concord Consortium hope so.

The report’s recommendations address many important factors in our educational system. Among them are standards, schools, teachers, and students. But two areas in particular resonate directly with the goals and vision we have upheld for many years. The recommendations regarding educational technology and national leadership in STEM education are clear, bold, and forward looking.

The report’s vision and recommendations

PCAST notes that the time for change is right. We are standing at an unprecedented juncture, where the growth of educational technology’s influence feels almost inevitable. Many factors —?including technical advances, momentum in the research field, a growing need to satisfy standards and provide data, the increasing availability of powerful technology, and increased fluency with technology by students and teachers?—?form a climate ripe for significant advances in educational technology. The report also underscores assumptions we think are important: technology shouldn’t replace good teachers, technology should be evaluated well, and technology can be expensive. Bringing all schools to a level of parity will demand significant costs.

The report identifies the missing elements that slow educational technology’s progress. A lack of coherent integration hinders the field. Where curricula exist, they are largely piecemeal, with practically no large-scale projects available for teachers to use effectively for whole units or courses. And islands of proprietary, closed-source software and diverse, unrelated platforms raise barriers to wide-scale innovation.

Prepare and Inspire describes a vision that is both profound and clear: technology needs to be a “central agent of change” in K-12 STEM education. This will require the development of several important features: 1) whole-course instructional materials, 2) modular components, 3) assessments and feedback that truly use technology’s capabilities, 4) technology-based systems that help teachers do their jobs, and 5) open platforms and technologies that promote innovation.

To achieve this vision, the Council outlines a bold recommendation. They state that only the federal government is in the place to establish this type of change. This is not so surprising, but it is essential. They go on to conclude that this type of change cannot be accomplished through existing programs operating under the “culture of grant review and supervision.” Instead, PCAST says, a new entity is needed that can manage such a wide-ranging undertaking and move toward a singular mission of improving and spreading innovative technology. They recommend modeling this new group upon the combination of mandates and flexibility that have characterized DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and situating it in a way that fosters collaborative work with the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

We agree with PCAST that improving STEM education is officially a Big Problem, and that educational technology has the potential to offer transformative solutions. Such transformative solutions often need to come from transformed places, and PCAST’s proposal for creating a DARPA-like agency for educational technology research could provide just such a transformation. Such an agency could be housed within the NSF, as PCAST suggests, while embodying the knowledge, culture, and freedom needed to take the helm of a significant, historic change in STEM education fostered by the powerful application of educational technology.

We’re inspired and are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work. But implementing the report’s suggestions won’t be easy. Doing this effectively will take both the right measure of political will and the right initial steps. While we can’t supply anyone in Washington with the will to make this happen, we have done a lot of work thinking about the way.

Implementing deeply digital whole-course materials

The report recommends the development of whole-course curriculum materials supported by technology. We’re pleased to see this, as it is high time for extended curriculum to receive a comprehensive digital treatment. We’ve known for a long time the possibilities technology holds for supplementing teaching in powerful ways, and have advocated for many years that these solutions will reach their true potential only when they exist throughout the nation’s schools and across the entire school year.

We’re also tickled to see our own recommendations?—?and terminology?—?catching on in the call for “deeply digital” materials.1 The overwhelming momentum and mindshare in educational technology tilt away from making the deepest use of technology’s potential. Instead, materials often use technology for glitz, but miss opportunities for more complete content connections, or bring a textbook’s words and diagrams into electronic format, but stop short of including elements that could engage students in deeper interaction or inquiry. This tendency is understandable?—?it’s often very difficult to determine the strongest uses of technology for learning. But it does not serve students well.

If a national effort is to spur large-scale innovation that is truly deeply digital, those leading the work will need to provide carefully selected examples and clear guidance, actively encouraging the best use of technology and staying focused on solid support of learning. Providing and publicizing a well-chosen library of deeply digital examples and design principles would be a start. And vigilance in holding development to these high standards will be necessary to sustain the integrity of this work.

As we undertake this huge effort, we shouldn’t forget how much past work has already been completed. Previous curriculum efforts supported by the NSF and others have sketched out marvelous and rigorous curricula for these STEM courses many times over. They have generally faded into the background not because of lack of quality, but because they have been unable to compete with glossier or better publicized efforts. Certainly, these curricula have generally not been designed with digital media in mind, but they are built with some of the country’s best pedagogical knowledge at their center and generally demonstrate excellent thinking about the coherent presentation of curricular ideas. Allowing this massive investment to go to waste is practically unconscionable. The materials are available. The nation owns the licenses. Starting a round of whole-course STEM materials without reviewing this body of work would be shortsighted. Of course, much would need to be changed to bring these ideas into deeply digital form. Adaptations of these materials should not simply be recreations of textbooks on a computer screen. But thoughtful adaptations could help these become a very effective core for digital curricula.

Of course, we would be remiss if we did not also drive home the importance of these materials for supporting science instruction through what we have long termed digital inquiry. Digital materials open up possibilities for great inquiry learning by enabling students to formulate and test ideas by manipulating computational models or investigating their surroundings with probeware. While we are certain this assumption was implicit in PCAST’s thinking, we encourage all involved to make it both clear and explicit in any future efforts.

The PCAST report is reinvigorating. But we know that the possibilities that lie ahead will demand work to become reality, so we encourage all our colleagues to stay focused on this goal. And even in cases where doing so will inevitably involve making some difficult political choices, we urge the administration to listen to and enact these wise recommendations.

1 See “The Deeply Digital Texts Initiative” in the Fall 2009 issue of @Concord.