What Kind of Promise Does the Future Hold for Teachers?

Karen Cator on teachers, technology, and what’s ahead.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Karen Cator is President and CEO of Digital Promise, advancing the opportunity to learn through technology and research. Previously, Karen directed the Office of Education Technology at USED and education leadership efforts at Apple Inc. She began her career as a public school educator.

Digital Promise is a bipartisan independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation authorized by Congress “to support a comprehensive research and development program to harness the increasing capacity of advanced information and digital technologies to improve all levels of learning and education, formal and informal, in order to provide Americans with the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the global economy.”

A well-known leader and familiar face in education, Karen has been with Digital Promise going on 7 years.

While at USED, she served as Director of the Office of Education Technology and chief policy advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education.

In this sit-down, Karen addresses professional learning, micro-credentialing, what she sees working and not working for teacher learning, the role of Digital Promise—and the future of learning.

How can policies around micro-credentials transform professional learning for teachers?

Karen: Micro-credentials provide a way to personalize professional learning for educators by providing competency-based recognition for the skills they learn throughout their careers. Educators can set specific goals and direct their professional learning on their own schedules. Micro-credentials earned in pre-service can demonstrate what skills new teachers already have as they enter the teaching profession.

‘It’s not about whether or not to include technology in education; it’s about how to do so in the most engaging and inspiring ways to support the desired learning outcomes.’

New policies around micro-credentials could transform the way teachers are evaluated and compensated. Some school districts have already begun to do this, allocating extra time, pay, and leadership incentives for educators who earn micro-credentials.

Why is the current professional development for teachers not working?


Karen: Some professional development engagements certainly do serve teachers, but professional development sessions that are one-size-fits-all and offered on in-service days may not be designed to meet the immediate and specific needs of teachers. And research has shown that this type of professional development does not always translate into practice. Additionally, professional development courses that are offered at colleges, universities, or regional centers may be inaccessible because of distance or home responsibilities. So, improving access and relevance is critical.

How has Digital Promise ensured that all micro-credentials on its platform are backed by research?

Karen: Grounding micro-credentials in research is central to establishing credibility and trust. Digital Promise puts research at the center of the micro-credential development, evidence submission, and assessment processes. We screen prospective issuers to understand the research that grounds their work and then help them shape the concept for their micro-credentials, including identifying the research basis. Issuers draft their micro-credentials using the Digital Promise template that has been applied more than 400 times. This template scaffolds the developer to think about the language they use and the research they cite.

What is Digital Promise doing to close the ‘digital learning gap’?


Karen: Digital Promise works at the intersection of education leaders, researchers, and entrepreneurs and developers to improve the opportunity to learn for people of all ages. The Digital Learning Gap is composed of three interlocking parts, including technology access, digital literacy, and the ability to apply technology in powerful ways.

We work to improve access to technology and the internet in and out of school, develop skills of digital literacy including how to be a responsible citizen, and expand opportunities for powerful use of technology. To use technology in powerful ways means using it for such things as collaboration, problem solving, and developing agency.

Specifically, we support the League of Innovative Schools—a network of district leaders who solve problems together and share innovations from their districts. We engage more than 150 middle schools in our Verizon Innovative Learning schools network by providing full technology access, professional and leadership development, and technical support. We conduct research and seek to share findings in ways that are accessible and actionable.

We develop powerful use curriculum in collaboration with teachers incorporating such topics as computational thinking, science, and mathematics.

What would you say are among the biggest challenges facing educators today?

Karen: The biggest challenge with education in America is not a lack of excellence. It is a lack of equity. There are huge gaps that exist between opportunities, learning outcomes, graduation rates, and college readiness of students that can be traced to factors such as race, class, and geography. We know that talent is widely distributed, yet opportunities are not. Challenges abound with regard to poverty, inadequate school funding and facilities, changes in leadership and direction, and more. Overcoming these challenges is critical for economic development, national security, and social justice.

That said, what is technology’s role in education?

Karen: Technology offers a tremendous opportunity to support learning in new and different ways. Technology can support students in developing critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration skills, as well as a sense of agency as they find information, data, and expertise on a wide array of topics.

Educators can use technology to teach, motivate, and personalize, as well as engage students in powerful learning experiences.

Additionally, embedded features allowing for access regardless of hearing, vision, mobility, and learning differences support many students who might otherwise be marginalized.

Our view of technology for learning is informed by close observation of how professionals use technology in their work, particularly the use of productivity, communication, and creativity tools, the vast array of resources on the Internet, including important datasets. It is also informed by our deep and abiding commitment to equity.

In what ways does the use of innovation and technology improve traditional education practices?

Karen: Technology is part of the fabric of our lives. If we think about education, its purpose is to, in some ways, mirror society and prepare students for the world. Technology is a big part of that. It’s not about whether or not to include technology in education; it’s about how to do so in the most engaging and inspiring ways to support the desired learning outcomes. If technology can improve equity by increasing access to courses, expertise, and opportunity regardless of geography and can engage students in learning to solve challenges relevant to their lives, this serves to improve opportunity and traditional practice.

What kinds of innovations in education have you excited at the moment?


Karen: We are excited about advancements in cognitive, neuro, and learning sciences that are deepening our understanding about how people learn. These advancements help us design more powerful learning experiences that support the variability of each learner and uncover strategies to meet learners where they are despite varied needs and contexts. Additionally, research and practice that supports continuous improvement inspires rapid iteration and innovation. And then there are media tools such as for augmented and virtual reality, machine learning, and artificial intelligence for improving insights that support students.

What does the future of education look like in an ideal world?

Karen: While we can’t predict the future, we are focused on understanding the skills that all learners need in order to thrive. For years, we’ve known that skills like teamwork, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking are necessary for a productive future. Now, with the rapid changes in the workforce driven by the ever-increasing integration of technology and artificial intelligence, the ability to take charge of one’s own learning and adapt throughout life is imperative. We need each student to have every opportunity to reach their aspirations and achieve at high levels. And we must ensure that every person is well-equipped for a future that requires continuous and lifelong learning.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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