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Colleges Lag in Technology and Teaching Quality, a Top Education Official Says

Las Vegas – “Getting technology tools into the hands of every student and family should be standard practice. It isn’t now,” said the U.S. under secretary of education, Martha J. Kanter, addressing a mix of technologists and educators at the HigherEd Tech Summit here, part of the giant salute to gadgetry known as the Consumer Electronics Show. Nor are best practices for professors to use technology to improve learning standard, Ms. Kanter said: “We are losing ground. We have a lot of work to do to make faculty comfortable with technology and ways to use it.”

But the under secretary was less specific about how the Obama Administration was going to help this happen. Ms. Kanter, who pushed technology programs when she held leadership positions at California community colleges, did mention the Education Department had $350-million for a grants program in best-practices innovation, but did not offer details about how and when such grants would be offered. Some technology executives in the audience noted that private industry was doing a better job of identifying and distributing best-practice modules than the government.

Ms. Kanter, however, was adamant that the administration was focused on quality in online courses and new ways to assess them. “We’ve burdened people with onerous reporting requirements that have little to do with quality,” she said. “Let’s put out a call to our professors. They can tell us what is working and what is not.” George  R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said that his group was helping to prepare a report on quality endpoints.

Telling people what is working is precisely the problem, said Matt Leavy, chief executive officer of Pearson eCollege, the online learning system companyafter Ms. Kanter’s talk. “You can have brilliant professors working in isolation on a great online course system, but they stay in isolation,” he said after Ms. Kanter’s talk. “You can’t get best practices out there by yourself.”

Reports and white papers go only so far, he noted; commercialization moves further and faster. The online course “Mastering Physics,” he said, was developed by an MIT professor and became popular through that university’s Open Courseware program. The tutorial features and the ability to watch and evaluate students as they work through problems improved outcomes. Now, Mr. Leavy said, it is published by Pearson and available as an online module through many colleges. Not only do students learn physics, he said, but they get college credit for it. Pearson, of course, gets money.

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