Katrina Stevens: Classroom tech must serve students and teachers and work across school districts

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To what extent can successful learning programs in one location be implemented in other locations — say, Philadelphia? Katrina Stevens, former deputy director of the Office of Education Technology at the Department of Education during the Obama Administration, will take up that topic on Tuesday at Drexel University’s Learning Innovation Conversation Series. Stevens joined “NewsWork Tonight” host Dave Heller with a preview.

The following Q&A is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

DH: The topic is, in a sense, moving beyond ed-tech jargon to help students “learn how to learn.” So let’s start with that. What is “ed tech”?

KS: Education technology, or ed tech, basically, are any tools, platforms, or apps that we’re using to help students or teachers learn.

DH: You are, let’s also note, a former teacher, administrator, now consultant, and a lot of your work was done in Baltimore. Talk about what you inherited there and what was developed.

KS: I worked in Baltimore County Public Schools, and part of my job there was to really bring out the common core. We had over 100,000 students. Some of the work I was involved in was really creating common language across all of the disciplines and across all of the schools, because the students were quite different in different parts of the district.

When I was there, it was a time that we hit a fairly significant budget crisis and we had to get rid of about 80 mentor positions. We worked together on actually creating some education technology to solve some of those problems and allow teachers to get the support they needed at a scale within the budget that we had.

That made me realize that tools should be created by thinking through what the actual problems in schools were. I think the best part of the conversation that we need to have is around getting educators and that voice to be more part of the conversation about how tools are created and how they’re modified and adjusted so that they work better to meet the needs of the students and teachers.

DH: You’ve worked in government as a district administrator and a teacher. You are no stranger to bureaucracy and hierarchy. So, with that, do you have cause for optimism? Of course there’s no quick fix, but can these changes be implemented in five years? Ten? Decades? What’s the timeline?

KS: I would go more towards five years. I think we’re at a moment where a lot of factors are coming together. We’re now at a point where a significant number — over 80 percent — of our schools have broadband access, for instance, and we now have the connectivity we need to run this kind of technology. There’s a number of experiments we’ve been running.

As part of one, Ed Tech RCE created something called a Rapid Cycle Evaluation Coach. It’s totally free. And it’s not just free; it’s openly licensed, which means anybody can ask for the code. But it’s a tool that allows teachers to run their own pilots, capture information, and share that without needing really expensive infrastructure.

I think, given the current administration and the government, a lot of this work is shifting to the states. So I think that’s a place to put a lot of energy. The states can really start doing some of this work. And then, the nonprofits and other agencies and organizations, I think, are going to play a key role. I don’t think we can look as much to the federal government for the support for this kind of work.

Drexel University is an underwriter of WHYY.

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