As the Director of Digital Learning at the Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education office, Ken Klau is focused on the strategy for rethinking the structure and delivery of learning, building a more student-centered system of public education, and creating the next generation of K–12 learning environments. Through his years of experience and working closely with EducationSuperHighway on the Digital Connections Initiative, his passion for technology has enabled him to impact public schools in Massachusetts by being proactive in getting high speed internet in all schools across the state. In this interview, Ken provides insight into how digital learning impacts schools and ways to prepare our students for future success.
What led you to become passionate about expanding broadband access, and what motivates you most about your role as Director of Instructional Policy and State E-rate Coordinator at DESE?
All students deserve equitable access to a high quality public education. And since a primary goal of education is preparing kids for meaningful and productive participation in civic, economic, and social life in the world awaiting them after high school, the effective use of technology ought to be an indispensable aspect of that preparation. If only a subset of students get to experience technology-enabled learning and teaching in school, we risk creating (or worse, perpetuating) inequality at the starting gate of adult life.
What were the biggest challenges when you began working on the Digital Connections Initiative? And what do you see as the greatest challenges in connecting the remaining schools in Massachusetts that lack high-speed connectivity?
The most pronounced challenge was quantifying the gap between schools with high-speed connectivity and those that didn’t have it. It took over a year of collecting, analyzing, and reconciling multiple data sets to understand the whole picture. Fortunately, we benefited from what I think was the most important legacy of the Digital Connections Initiative – unprecedented state and local partnership. Multiple state agencies and our 404 public school districts all pitched in to provide the information necessary to move forward.
Remaining challenges include helping districts navigate situations that are highly context-specific. For example, some districts haven’t taken advantage of the E-rate program for technology discounts because they pay for connectivity through their municipality, and didn’t realize they could cost-out charges for those services. In other cases, districts have the infrastructure required to support digital learning at present, but must ensure those networks are scalable to meet future needs.
Another set of challenges for districts is developing a plan to maintain the infrastructure they built through Digital Connections. Considerations include whether to account for technology as a capital or an operating expense, weighing the benefits of leasing or purchasing student devices, and assessing the cost-benefit of moving to a managed services model.
How has the partnership between EducationSuperHighway and DESE been impactful?
EducationSuperHighway brought much-needed capacity and expertise to this initiative. They helped us identify the metrics we needed to ask the right questions of schools. They partnered with us in developing a communication plan so that any district with a demonstrated need was offered support. They provided free technical assistance to education administrators in navigating the E-rate program. And Compare and Connect K-12 shone a light on what districts paid for broadband, giving them leverage to negotiate better rates.
Working at DESE, you have the opportunity to see how technology is changing education and the workforce on a daily basis. How do you see technology improving education challenges in the future for Massachusetts?
Since the nation’s first public school opened in Boston in 1635, Massachusetts has been recognized as a national leader in public education. Continuing that success into the future means providing students with learning experiences that closely match what they will experience in work and life.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, right now there are 17 IT/Computer Science job openings for every recent graduate with a related bachelor’s degree – and that’s just within the technology sector. According to the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, half of all job openings going forward will require knowledge of computers in industries outside of technology, including healthcare, manufacturing, and finance.
The demographics of the people taking those jobs ought to match the profile of students enrolled in Massachusetts schools. However, gaps remain, and they are highly stratified along the lines of ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. The more level the playing field in terms of technology access and facility, the more likely students grow up to become informed, engaged, and productive citizens in all aspects of life.
Do you have any advice for state leaders and policymakers that are looking to advocate students and teachers in their own states?
Any initiative seeking to expand access to technology in schools should be composed of at least three elements:
- First is broad consensus among educators and other stakeholders, including families, nonprofits, businesses, higher education, and government organizations on the outcomes you want for kids – not outcomes related to technology or computers, but rather on what students should know and be able to do by the time they reach key gateways in their learning (for instance, by the end of elementary, middle, or high school).
- Second is a clear articulation of the learning experiences you intend to provide students (and teachers, if necessary) that will enable them to achieve those goals. Too often, the learning needs of adults are left out of the equation. It’s critical educators are well-supported and involved from the beginning.
- The last element involves answering the question, “Can technology improve those learning experiences?” Answers will vary depending on the learning experience, students’ ages, and many other factors. In many instances the answer will be “No, it can’t.” People need to be OK with that. Technology is not a panacea. Sometimes the best learning occurs while reading a book under a tree.
With a clear understanding of the connection between technology, learning, and desired outcomes, state leaders and policymakers can then begin identifying gaps in their infrastructure and devising strategies for closing them.
We’ve seen tremendous progress in Massachusetts with 98% of schools now meeting minimum connectivity goals. How have you seen increased connectivity impact digital learning in classrooms across the state? What have you seen recently in digital learning that has inspired you?
I think one of the biggest myths we have to overcome is the notion that digital learning means being tied to a computer all day and working in isolation. Implemented effectively, technology can improve student-to-student and student-to-teacher engagement. In schools I’ve visited, I see technology helping students learn at their own pace, but I’ve also seen students use technology to collaborate with their peers on joint projects. In these schools, teachers report having more uninterrupted time to conference with individual students or groups of students – time that didn’t exist before because they were too busy “teaching to the middle.”
In addition to learning critical skills, technology gives students a voice to advocate for themselves or for issues that matter to them – the shy student can discreetly ask for help on a science assignment, the vocal student can respectfully argue for a position in civics class – and everything in between.
Effective instruction means giving every student what they need, when they need it. And while technology will never be able to replace good teachers, it has the potential to amplify the effects of good teaching immensely.
Stay tuned for the next installment in our Broadband Leaders series, and feel free to connect with us on social media to celebrate K-12 connectivity leaders in your state.