What Will Betsy DeVos Do with Ed Tech?

The nominee for education secretary has expressed interest in technology, but it's unclear how significant its role will be if her appointment is confirmed.

by Tanya Roscorla / December 5, 2016 0
President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos shake hands at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) AP

U.S. Department of Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos appears most prominently in the public record as a proponent of giving parents a variety of educational options to choose for their children. When it comes to the Michigan native's views on education technology, however, little information has surfaced publicly. 

In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Roundtable, DeVos said when it comes to education reform strategies, she is most focused on educational choice. "But, thinking more broadly, what we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their family’s home. We advocate instead for as much freedom as possible," she said. "One long-term trend that’s working in our favor is technology. It seems to me that, in the Internet age, the tendency to equate 'education' with 'specific school buildings' is going to be greatly diminished. Within the right framework of legislation, that freedom will ultimately be healthy for the education of our kids." 

What's best for kids seems to be at the center of DeVos'' philanthropic, public speaking and political efforts, both in Michigan and in other states. And she may be open to ways that technology could help kids. 

John Bailey worked with DeVos as the vice president of policy at the nonprofit ExcelinEd until he left that job in May. He said in an email that "she was a great board member at ExcelinEd. She is passionate about kids and will always put kids needs first. She expressed deep interest in digital learning and how it could expand opportunities for kids." 

If the Senate confirms DeVos as the new education secretary, she would be in a position to hire the next director of the Office of Educational Technology along with other key department leaders. In fact, Bailey previously headed that office under President George W. Bush as the second person to hold that position. 

The education secretary and staff members are responsible for creating programs and grants that will distribute federal education money to schools. Under the Obama administration, a number of significant programs and grants emphasized technology, including the Investing in Innovation Fund, the Race to the Top Fund, the #GoOpen campaign and Future Ready Schools. 

"All of those were heavy, heavy, heavy on ed tech — all of them," said Kecia Ray, executive director of the Center for Digital Education and chair of the ISTE board.  

The #GoOpen Campaign encouraged school districts to start using openly licensed educational resources, which frequently include digital resources. And Future Ready Schools helps school district leaders create personalized digital learning strategies based on research that they can use to help students succeed.  

These initiatives could continue under a new education secretary or be replaced by other initiatives. And it's unclear how much of a role technology would play if DeVos is confirmed as the education secretary.

For Future Ready Schools, the Education Department worked with the national policy and advocacy organization the Alliance for Excellent Education. Sara Hall, executive director of that program at the Alliance, said in an email: “The promise of technology is critical to unleashing the potential within America’s education system. This is why the Alliance for Excellent Education developed Future Ready Schools — a program that helps education leaders plan for the effective use of technology. Future Ready Schools has over 3,000 school districts (public, private and charter) nationwide engaged in this comprehensive strategy to strengthen teaching and learning. We look forward to learning more about Mrs. DeVos’ plans to harness the potential of digital learning for America’s students, particularly those in underserved communities.”  

Her lack of public remarks on the role of education technology troubles some in the field. Elliot Soloway, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor asked, "Why isn't she taking a really public vocal stand on probably the most important technology of our lives?"

Similarly, Ray said it's a problem that not much can be found in the public record about DeVos' views of education technology. She is one of a number of people on a congressionally appointed committee that will help the new Education Department team get up to speed as they transition.