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Six questions for the U.S. Department of Education’s ed tech chief

Joseph South spoke on a panel at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School Tuesday.
Joseph South spoke on a panel at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School Tuesday.
Alex Zimmerman

As the director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, Joseph South spends lots of time traversing the country to see how schools use tech. And he isn’t always satisfied with what he notices: Schools, he said, often invest in flashy devices and software without carefully thinking about how it can serve their curriculum or enable new teaching methods.

But on Tuesday, South, along with White House officials, toured Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School’s new middle school campus and was pleasantly surprised. “We were really pleased we got here and it wasn’t just a cool tech system, but they had a really robust model to go along with it,” he said.

The school developed its own technology that helps teachers tailor the math curriculum to each student based on frequent digital assessments, for instance. It also uses tools like Google Classroom, which enables collaborative note-taking.

Chalkbeat caught up with South to talk about how he thinks schools should approach educational technology, and the barriers to using it effectively.

What do you think Brooklyn LAB is doing particularly well — what stuck out to you on the tour?

So I think what’s really encouraging about the way Brooklyn LAB approaches ed tech is they put the pedagogy at the center. A lot of schools make the mistake of buying a bunch of devices, which either end up in a closet or used in a way that doesn’t fundamentally change the model of teaching or the approach. So Brooklyn LAB starts with the idea that learning should be personalized, and then they bring the tech to that.

What are a couple examples of that?

They have a data strategy, which allows them to get instant ongoing real-time feedback from students, and then they take that and feed that into a system that lets them know where students are [in their learning]. Once they know where their students are, they can diagnose whether they need more time on a computer, or more time with a tutor, or small group instruction. And that puts them in the right place for that child to learn the best.

A lot of those times, the right place for that child to learn is not in front of a computer, but the system is helping them know what they need and when they need it.

What are the biggest barriers schools face in implementing technology effectively?

There are many barriers. I would say helping teachers have the background and experience that they need to need to use it effectively is a big barrier. Almost half the teachers in the country say that they would use technology more if they had better instruction on how to use it.

Another barrier is reliable technology infrastructure. If a teacher can’t rely on the technology, she’s not going to use it as a mission-critical part of her work. It will be supplemental; it will be on the side so if it breaks it doesn’t ruin her lesson plan. And when we can make that reliable, then she can use it as part of her core strategy.

That’s been a problem in New York, yet the mayor has launched a Computer Science for All initiative. How can big ambitious programs like that happen before we’ve even got reliable wi-fi access in all city schools?

I’m not going to comment on the mayor’s plan, but this is a big issue throughout the country. That’s why the president launched the ConnectED initiative. And the FCC has stepped up to modernize the E-Rate program, which has made billions of dollars available for connectivity not only to schools but through schools. And as a result, there’s 20 million more students today than there were three years ago who have broadband in the classroom.

We need that connectivity, and it’s a big lift. But, I mean, the president is pushing it, the FCC has stepped up, states have stepped up, and local communities have even stepped up to help. So I think we can get there, but it requires concerted focus and effort.

If you could change one thing overnight in terms of the way schools use technology across the country what would it be?

If I could change one thing, I would have schools help students use technology in active ways. I want them to think of students as digital creators, not digital consumers.

One of the biggest concerns is not that schools won’t use technology, but that they’ll only use technology to perpetuate what they’ve already been doing and they won’t actually use it to transform what they’re doing.

How does ed tech fit into struggling schools?

We talk about technology as a tool for innovation which it is, but it’s a powerful tool for equity — connecting students to expertise that they don’t have [and] connecting them to online resources that are just as good as what they get in other kids’ schools. I mean your textbook is 10 years out of date, but online it’s not.

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