Rapid innovation is reshaping American education in myriad ways, particularly in the delivery of the overall learning experience and the development of new instructional tools and products.
Richard Culatta is the man behind many of those efforts. As acting director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education, Culatta leads the office responsible for Education Datapaloozas and Innovation Clusters. Starting as a high school Spanish teacher, he has worked in K–12, higher education, and corporate and government training environments. Culatta also is a founder of Ed Startup 101, an open online course that introduces entrepreneurship to educators as a means of furthering educational product and idea development.
Culatta took time out between speaking engagements during the recent South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, to speak with EdTech: Focus on Higher Education Managing Editor Tara E. Buck about the inseparability of education and technology and the areas in which higher education can expect to see the next great innovations to occur.
EDTECH: How is your team working to help colleges and universities accelerate innovation on campus?
CULATTA: We need to think about how we are encouraging innovation in our approach to delivering learning experiences to higher ed students. But we also need to involve higher ed faculty and researchers in innovation around the creation and development of research-based learning products for students at all levels.
On the learning experience side, we're really excited about the shifts that are improving access to education. There's a lot happening with MOOCs — massive, open, online courses. They increase availability, and students are no longer disadvantaged based on their ZIP code when they can participate in courses with some of the best teachers in the world, wherever they are. In addition, we are interested in accelerating innovation through competency-based learning at traditional learning institutions. The department recently issued an invitation to submit plans for programs not based on "seat time" requirements. Both of these shifts raise questions about how learning should be assessed in the future. If a student can participate in a MOOC and receive a badge or participate in a competency-based program at a university in half the time it would have taken them before, how do we measure their abilities in a meaningful way? The Office of Educational Technology is working in partnership with our higher ed team to define a future for learning assessments that feel more like a flight simulator than a bubble sheet.
We don't have all of the answers yet, but we are working with innovators and educational leaders from across the country to reimagine the learning experience through the power of technology.
On the development side, we're focused on how we can do a better job of involving the incredibly smart researchers at universities in making better educational tools and products. With education innovation clusters, we're trying to foster more effective scaling of research by pairing faculty with developers and "edupreneurs" who know how to build a product that can scale. Researchers also need to be involved in the design process because they know what works.
EDTECH: Is that the idea behind EdStartup 101?
CULATTA: Yes. EdStartup 101 is a MOOC that was launched after interacting with a lot of really creative entrepreneurs. They were all very excited about building new tools for learning, but often didn't understand the complexities of the education space. The market is different from other sectors. For example, there are some basic infrastructure and open-data tools that you could take advantage of that you wouldn't necessarily know about if you don't understand the education space, and navigating procurement processes in education can be challenging.
People often come in to disrupt education based on their experience from 10 years ago or whenever it was that they were in school. Unfortunately, the tools that are developed often reflect that. We really want to have a good healthy ecosystem of ed tech developers and ed tech companies, not just some small little startups on one end and some very established, very large companies on the other. We want a whole ecosystem where, in the middle, there are a bunch of good, strong companies that are building the next generation of tools that we need. That's on us: We have to be able to support them and make sure they have the information that they need. OET is also working on a developer "starter kit" to make it easier for entrepreneurs and developers to focus on meaningful solutions.
"We really need to make sure that we have open, interoperable data and students need to be the owners of their data."
EDTECH: What are we lacking in terms of functional tools to really move education forward?
CULATTA: We are in desperate need of good learning positioning systems. The GPS in my car shows me where I am, where I'm going, and shows a path so I can get there in the best way, which is almost never straight. It also shows me how to get back on track if I get off. We need to have that in the higher ed space — a learning positioning system that provides a path that's relevant to a student and his learning, shows where he's going, what he's completed along the way and where he still needs help when he gets off track. In order for that to happen, we really need to make sure that we have open, interoperable data, and students need to be the owners of their data. It's their data, and they need to be empowered by it. They need to have access to their learning data and be able to take it with them in open, interoperable formats. They need to be able to use it to make better decisions about their learning choices.
EDTECH: Do you encounter any push-back from higher ed administrators about whether students should have such access to their data?
CULATTA: I don't think there's anything to debate about that. I'm not a lawyer, but I think it's pretty clear that it is the students' data.
The challenge is that we don't often treat it that way, or we make it very hard for the students to access. That needs to change. Right now, students don't feel that it is their data, and they don't feel empowered by it — they don't feel empowered to use it. That's a shift we need to make.