Ever the optimist, Richard Culatta considers government to be a powerful tool to do good. And over the last two years, he's shown the nation what happens when government, education institutions, non-profit organizations and technology developers come together to tackle big problems through technology. 

He plans to take that optimism with him as he steps down as director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) in December and makes his way into state government in 2016. His four-year stint at the department — first as a deputy director and then as director — hasn't hampered his enthusiasm for accelerating innovation within government. 

"I believe fundamentally that when government is operating effectively, it can be a really powerful lever for making change happen," Culatta said.

He will continue to make change happen as he takes on a new role in January in his home state of Rhode Island. While his specific position will be announced later this month, he's looking forward to working on big picture issues including accelerating innovation in education, adapting government to the needs of students and connecting with the community in non-traditional ways through technology projects. 

Though he will be working for the state of Rhode Island, he will still live in northern Virginia, which will allow him to stay in touch with innovation networks in the area, ultimately helping the innovation hotbed of Rhode Island become more connected to the national education technology conversation.

In the meantime, current deputy director Joseph South will serve as acting director of the DOE's Office of Educational Technology, and will continue the work that he and Culatta have collaborated on closely. The department hasn't said who will become the next director, but it is worth noting that Culatta moved from deputy to director when Karen Cator left in 2013. At any rate, the pair tag teamed on initiatives and meetings, so South knows what's going on and will be able to do innovative work, said Lan Neugent, interim executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

"I don't think we're going to miss a beat because Richard has set the stage really well," Neugent said.

Notable Ed Tech Efforts

Neugent described Culatta, pictured at left, as a creative, enthusastic leader who is passionate about using education technology to help students learn better. During his time at the department, Culatta has worked with his staff on a variety of initiatives designed to encourage equal technology access for students, beef up investments in education technology and bring together key groups of people to tackle major challenges.

For the past six years, Culatta has spent much of his time fighting for education technology provisions in many revisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). First as an education fellow for Sen. Patty Murray's office on Capitol Hill and then in the Office of Educational Technology, he worked to get this legislation done. The House of Representatives passed the Every Student Succeeds Act to reauthorize and revamp ESEA on Wednesday, Dec. 2, and the Senate is expected to pass it on Tuesday, Dec. 8. President Barack Obama has also said he would sign the bill by the end of the month.

The bill lists technology investments as a priority and authorizes these investments as part of a larger block of grants, but does not appropriate any dollars to fund state and local work to support education leaders as they help students learn with technology. That said, the White House's proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $200 million for educational technology state grants. 

"He's been a real advocate for getting that legislation out there along with the money and making sure along the way that it includes technology," Neugent said.

Culatta's office also worked with the State Education Technology Directors Association to help set broadband connectivity standards with the Federal Communications Commission. By tying together E-rate federal subsidies for connectivity and education technology, students have a better chance of having enough bandwidth at home and at school.

But this digital equity issue still has a long way to go, Culatta said. It's not enough to allow students to bring their own devices to school. Schools must do more to help them connect to high-speed Internet at home and have devices available for students who can't afford them. 

Two other issues also have moved forward with Culatta in charge, but need to go even further. Adult and higher education have received more attention under his tenure, with recent projects including the World Innovation Grant program, the Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships initiative and open educational resource campaigns. And while his office has devoted a landing page to stories of great innovations, that work needs to expand.

One of Culatta's major priorities during his tenure has been to tackle thorny problems by combining forces with non-profit organizations, technology developers and education leaders. The ConnectED, Future Ready Schools and #GoOpen campaign represent a few examples of disparate groups working together. Nearly 2,000 districts signed a Future Ready District Pledge to prepare their districts for the future, particularly by increasing the level of importance they play on technology and broadband access. 

"If you get 10 districts doing anything together, it's amazing," Culatta said, "so to have almost 2,000 is huge."

The pledge is part of the Future Ready Schools initiative, which is designed to help school districts prepare students for college, careers and citizenship. The initiative included regional summits that allowed school districts to plan and measure their digital learning process. Many members of the State Educational Technology Directors Association wanted their states to be included in the summits, but most of the summits weren't close enough to them, which was unfortunate, Neugent said. 

Along with the Future Ready Schools Initiative, ConnectED promotes the use of technology, fast Internet and support for educators to make schools innovative incubator spaces. Both of these efforts reflect a growing consensus that education technology is incredibly important to help students learn.

"Using technology as far as we're concerned has gone from a luxury to something really necessary for kids in the digital generation to have that kind of access," Neugent said.

To provide that access on the learning side, the #GoOpen campaign launched in late October to encourage school districts, states and educators to use openly licensed educational resources and modify them. By using these resources, school districts could take the money they spend on traditional textbooks, copiers, toner and paper, and put it toward mobile devices. And the September hiring of Andrew Marcinek as the office's first open education adviser will help push this initiative further.

"I'm hoping," Culatta said, "that we are able to get to a place where at the school level, teachers are able to adapt and control and modify and improve the quality of open educational resources themselves without breaking copyright laws."