“It was really founded as a civil rights organization.” Katrina Stevens, U.S. Department of Education, Discusses Accessibility and Connectivity in Education

Katrina Stevens, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, has worked in nearly every aspect of the edtech community. She has taught, designed online curricula for Maryland Public Television, consulted on market research and professional development through Tuscany Group, LLC, and served as the director of the EdSurge Summit.

In this interview with Hannah Nyren of EdTech Times, Stevens’s focus on connectivity shines brightly. Recognizing a need to improve communication between edtech creators and users, she cofounded an edtech company, LessonCast Learning, which offers professional development to schools, teachers, and teacher training programs. Likewise, Stevens emphasizes the Office of Educational Technology’s role in bringing “everyone to the table” and “convening and bringing together different stakeholders.”

Stevens sees the Department of Education as a civil rights entity that can ensure all students have equal access to resources. “If technology isn’t really making it so that we have more opportunities for all students…then it’s just toys,” Stevens explains. “It’s not really actually changing or transforming the world. And so we really have a focus on making sure that all students have access.”

What role does edtech play in creating equity? Stevens sees students becoming more engaged in meaningful work because the internet provides a global audience for students’ messages. They are no longer directing their work solely to the teacher. Stevens celebrates that “technology allows us to be able do that, to have more really authentic experiences where kids can actually create things.”

The Office of Educational Technology creates national policy on the use of edtech to support learning. Among its primary goals are leading research in analytics to improve learning and creating internet access for all students, through the initiative launched by President Obama in 2013. The office also works with entrepreneurs and developers.

Q&A with Katrina Stevens, U.S. Department of Education

EdTech Times: Hello, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I am here with Katrina Stevens, who is from the Office of Educational Technology at the Department of Education. So Katrina, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be at the Department of Education.

Katrina Stevens: Sure! So I started out as an educator. I worked in primarily K-12 for about 20 years. So I was a teacher, an English teacher, and then I started a school, and I also worked in central office. That led me to really recognizing there are some problems that we didn’t have tools for, so I ended going into more of the company side. Created, was a cofounder of an edtech company. Really started figuring out how could different communities be able to talk to one another? Because I realized that the people who were creating the tools didn’t really know how to talk to the people who needed them and vice versa. And that work is really what has brought me to the department, to really be able to figure out how to do that at a federal level.

EdTech Times: You’ve really been in every single category of edtech, haven’t you?

Katrina Stevens: Been in a lot of them. So I was a teacher, administrator, ed tech founder. I worked as a journalist in the field. I helped create an edtech cluster, worked…was an edtech investor. And now I’m kinda working on the federal level. [unintelligible]

EdTech Times: That’s really exciting. How is working at the federal level different from the other areas you’ve been in?

Katrina Stevens: What’s really interesting is the pace of things. Some things take a long time before you get approval to move forward on something, but once that happens, things can really, really take off. So just shifting towards once you are able to get everyone on board with something that you are trying to make happen. For me, it’s really about impact. I feel like we’re able to really leverage all the different communities that are out there and help convene them and bring them together in a way that I couldn’t do in my previous work. So, we do have a role to really be able to get everyone to the table who wouldn’t necessarily talk to each other normally. Not that they wouldn’t, but they just don’t have opportunities to.

EdTech Times: Yeah, there’s no introduction. So tell me a little bit about what projects your office is working on right now.

Katrina Stevens: Sure! Lots of exciting things. So Future Ready, which is really about professional development for districts. We have over 2,200 superintendents who have signed the pledge, saying that they want to move their school, and their district, towards, basically, digital learning. Really, like, how to transform that experience for students. We’ve been working with the Alliance For Excellent Education, figure out how to really help all of those districts make this transition. And as more and more schools are coming online because of the e-rate monetization, so there’s funds now to get connectivity, we’re really helping them figure out how do you shift teaching and learning. And then on the other side, we’re trying to figure out how do we make sure they’re getting the right tools into the classrooms. So we’re doing some work, I’m doing a project called Rapid Cycle Evaluations; we’re creating an online wizardit’s almost a TurboTax for creating evaluationsthat walks a school leader through being able to set up a pilot or to look at existing data to see whether or not something is working. And we’re really focused on the context. People ask me all the time, “What’s the best math tool?” One, as the government, you’re not allowed to say that. But even so, it wouldn’t have the answer because it’s really about…tell me about who your kids are, tell me what you’re trying to do…

EdTech Times: Right, there’s something different for everyone.

Katrina Stevens: It’s about matching. It’s about finding the right tool that really works with your teachers, your students, the pedagogy that you’re trying to work with. So that’s been really exciting, to work on that project. We’re also working with open educational resources, so we launched something called #GoOpen. We have over 60 districts who have agreed to launch and replace at least one textbook with OER [Open Educational Resources] for the next year. And then we’re supporting and following them, capturing the process, so the industry will have a guide to how to do this. We also have, we’re about to have 15 states that have also agreed to go open. So essentially meaning they’re creating repositories at the state level for teachers to be able to find and put into open education resources.

EdTech Times: That’s really exciting. That’s incredible that they’re doing it on such a wide scale.

Katrina Stevens: Really gonna change how we think about what does curriculum look like. One of the things that we’re really clear about is it’s not really money-saving [unintelligible]. It’s about being able to put more power in the hands of teachers who know what their kids need to be able to have a way for them to be able to personalize the resources that exist and to be able to pull in paid content along with open education resources. But to be able do it in one workflow, so you’re not having to go lots of different places to find the things you need in order to personalize education resources for your kids.

EdTech Times: Wow, that’s really interesting. So the Office of Ed Tech really hasn’t been around that long. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience and how it’s changed since you’ve been there?

Katrina Stevens: So I’m still relatively new, so mine is mostly knowing about the history of it. There was at one point where…so one, when it first started with Linda Roberts, and she was really able to get people to pay attention and to realize that this was a new, nascent field that we need to have an office for. So she slowly built up the office. And then there’s been a kind of ebb and flow depending on funding. So there was a point where it got quite large and had some real money to be able to go out and do a number of work in the field. And then as funding became scarce, then the office got smaller. And then we’re actually in a phase where we’re kind of growing again. And now it’s really…in the early days, it was trying to figure out, getting people to understand that ed tech was important, why they should pay attention to it. And now it’s really having other offices in the field coming and saying, okay, as we’re doing this grant, how do we infuse ed tech into it. So people now recognize that that is how education is shifting and changing, so we see ourselves often as a way to help other people be able to figure out what that looks like in their work. We talk about ourselves sometimes as an incubator. We often will spin up things that other people in the department can then take over, or we find external partners to do some of that work. We work with Digital Promise and our education innovation cluster, for instance.

EdTech Times: Sounds very different from the rest of the government.

Katrina Stevens: I think we function differently. We have to function within the parameters of what everyone else does, but we have more flexibility. We have no grant funds, which means that other offices who have that can use that funding to incentivise people. Basically you’re handing money and then people can work on that project. Because we don’t have that funding, we also aren’t caught up in all of the compliance pieces. We’re able to shift the field just by convening and bringing together different stakeholders. By communication. We travel much more than other offices because that’s how we kind of get the message out. And we find external partners to support the work.

EdTech Times: So tell me a little bit about the NETP, what it stands for and how you all came about creating it.

Katrina Stevens: So the National EdTech Plan actually came out of Congress requiring to have a document similar to it. Historically, it’s been launched about every four to five years, there’ll be a new update. The last one was 2010, so we just launched in December the NETP 2016. We are shifting now to do more slight revision of that every one to two years, so it’s gonna change from how it’s done historically.

EdTech Times: Wow, that’s interesting! But of course, it’s so important and changing so quickly

Katrina Stevens: The field is just changing too fast. We want to be able to…and it won’t be the same level of completely rehauling it and doing a brand new one. It’s more of doing the tweaks to reflect where practice is, where schools are, adding some new examples of things that we think are really great that are happening in the field. But it takes about a year to write. Zach Chase came in, and he was our fellow who really worked on that the last year and a half. One of the things we did was we added a leadership section that wasn’t in there before because we realized that to really have this transformation happen, you had to be sure that your leadership knew what was happening. Some of the key messages from that were really around equity. We start off with a quote from Arne Duncan around equity. Because if technology isn’t really making it so that we have more opportunities for all students, then it really isn’tthen it’s just toys. It’s not really actually changing or transforming the world. And so we really have a focus on making sure that all students have access. And we’ve also been digging inbecause people used to talk about the digital divide. Some kids have access, and some kids don’t. We’re starting to close that.

EdTech Times: That’s great!

Katrina Stevens: Right! It’s actually pretty amazing. How many more schools have come on board. When I first started ConnectED, there were about 20 million, and now we’re at about 55, about 55% of the schools are there. We’re expecting another 20 million students to come on board in the next two years, so we’re getting close to be able to get all students to have access. And we’re working on doing that at home. One of the things that we started to see is that how tools are being used, technology is being used in the classroom, is not actually equally across the country. There are a lot of places that are well resourced where kids are getting to use technology to do some really creative work, to get their ideas out, to be able to connect with the world, really showcasing how they’re learning. And then we have other places where we see technology just being used where kids sitting on computer and doing multiple choice, kinda rote, kinda practice skills stuff. So we want to make sure that as technology is being rolled out to schools, it’s being done thoughtfully and and it’s being done in a way that makes sure that all kids are being able to use technology actively. We talk about that active use vs. passive use. We want kids not just watching videos but actually creating videos, and having that shift in how technology is being used.

EdTech Times: That is so much more fun!

Katrina Stevens: It is! It is.

EdTech Times: So what kind of videos would kids be creating?

Katrina Stevens: We’ve seen cool projects where students can choose a cause that they care deeply about, and then they have to go and do research on that. Sometimes that’s interviewing an expert, [unintelligible] sometimes it’s even doing their own basic research, like asking questions or…and then they pull that together using technology to be able to amplify their message to the world.

EdTech Times: That’s interesting. I had a biology teacher in high school who always told us that the best way to learn is to teach, and I think that really is true.

Katrina Stevens: It absolutely is.

EdTech Times: They have a chance to put that together themselves; it can be very helpful for remembering the lesson for an extended period of time.

Katrina Stevens: Recently, I heard someone say that if you really want to change the outcome, the way to do it is actually to change the audience. So if kids have an authentic audience that they’re presenting to…like right now, traditionally they just present to a teacher. But if you’re really thinking like the world might actually listen or understand what I’m trying to do, then it shifts how engaged they are, it shifts the quality. And technology allows us to be able do that, to have more really authentic experiences where kids can actually create things. We have kids who are creating apps on their own, we have kids creating businesses. We have kids having a real impact on things.

EdTech Times: That’s incredible! Things have changed so much in the past 15 years, I guess.

Katrina Stevens: Absolutely.

EdTech Times: So what’s the process of putting together these plans?

Katrina Stevens: For the National EdTech Plan? Sure. Usually what we do is we get a contract with someone to help us kind of help manage the process of putting it all together. We then put together a technical working group; we call it a twig. And that involves people who are kind of experts in the field. And that includes practitioners, so we made sure there was a teacher on this last group, as well as some of the researchers, as well as…actually the guy who created the internet was on the group. So really getting this diverse group together to think about what it is that’s important.

EdTech Times: You must have access to the greatest minds in the world.

Katrina Stevens: Well, we at least feel like we can go ask them!

Katrina Stevens: But it is, it’s really wonderful being able to work with some really talented…it’s one of the things I love about my job; I get to work with amazing people and see amazing schools and kids across the country. There’s a lot of things to be hopeful for out there in the field. So we end up getting that technical working group, really provides guidance in terms of the things that they think we need to shift from the older version. And then figuring out what examples we need to be adding to illustratebecause that was one of the things we got feedback from the 2010. Everyone loved it, but everyone also really wanted to see more examples of what was practically in action. So we did a lot more work going out and just finding stories of people who were doing this stuff in schools. And being able to kind of capture and put those in. So we’re going to continue to add to those stories because that’s what schools want to know. They don’t want to know the theory, they want to know, “Hey, this is what it could look like at my school. That’s how people went about making that happen.”

EdTech Times: And how long does this whole process take?

Katrina Stevens: It can take…this one took about a year and a half because we did a pretty significant…

EdTech Times: Wow, if you’re going to be doing this every two years now, is that going to be your entire job?

Katrina Stevens: We will not do anywhere near the broad changes that we made on this one. The next version will probably be…adding some new messaging if there are new things that people are talking about and it’ll be changing out some of the examples that start to get dated and putting newer examples in. But we’re not going to do the large-scale things that we’ve done in the past. Again, that’s all we’d be doing. That’s absolutely true.

EdTech Times: And how do the projects that you’re working on, like the NETP, how do they connect with other plans put out from the Department of Education, like the ESSA, Every Student Succeeds Act? And, you know, all the other ones that have come out over the years. How do they play a role in the…

Katrina Stevens: Sure. Well, in terms of other kinds of policy plans, we make sure…so anytime anyone in ed publishes something, it has to go through a clearance process internally, which means other offices who are in any way connected to the content also review it. And we actually get some really great feedback because someone will say, “Oh, we’re using this language when we’re talking about special ed assistive technology.”

And similarly… it also makes that sure everyone else is reading the documents before they’re published too. So there’s a lot more, a lot of collaboration and conversation around how we put those together. Something like ESSA, which came out of Congress, so they essentially are establishing that right now we are going through a process of, a mixture of, putting together light guidance on things that are not going through regulation and then there’s negotiated regulations happening around some of the other topics that have been announced. But essentially, similarly, we all kind of work [unintelligible]. We’ve started to do some listening sessions, where we find out what people would find helpful in terms of guidance as we put together next steps for them.

EdTech Times: That’s interesting. So do you have regularly scheduled meetings with the other departments?

Katrina Stevens: We do! Yeah, we do. They usually tend to be topic-based. For instance, a lot of work around evidence. A lot of people who are working on evidence and their work. And then sometimes it’s around a particular project. We’re all trying to put together a paper, so everyone who’s involved in that will kind of meet and talk through that.

EdTech Times: Yeah, that’s interesting. So there’s been a lot of debate, since the beginning of the U.S. Constitution, about whether or not the government should be involved in education. And this is an ongoing debate, and people are still fighting it. But why do you think it’s important that the government be involved in education?

Katrina Stevens: So if you go back to the roots of how the Department of Education was founded, it was really founded as a civil rights organization. And for me, that still is the role that I think the federal government can play. It’s really about making sure that all students have opportunities, and sometimes that’s with funding, sometimes that’s with regulation. But it’s really making sure that we are keeping our eye on that all kids have access and figuring out how to do that. So I do, I think the federal government still needs to play that role. And I think that there areas the world becomes incredibly more mobile, there’s also a lot more coordination that needs to happen then used to happen historically. A hundred years ago, people didn’t even leave their town, let alone leave their state. Whereas it’s really not uncommon for people to move across states. So needing to have the ability to convene and get people to have conversations who wouldn’t normally necessarily do that, I think that’s an important role the government can play.

EdTech Times: Could you in a short, in a sentence or so, kind of summarize what you were just saying?

Katrina Stevens: The federal government one?

EdTech Times: Just the last sentence or two.

Katrina Stevens: So I think as the society has become increasingly more mobile, and people who didn’t historically leave their town or leave their state are now actually crossing state lines fairly often, it’s important to have the ability to look at the whole picture and to help convene and help bring people together to figure what it looks like cohesively across…states still have the key role. I don’t want to say that the federal government needs to step into those places, but there’s still a role to play as that larger entity.

EdTech Times: I see what you mean. When I was growing up, I remember going to high school with people who had just moved from California or from somewhere else, and they were on completely different tracks.  I think the students who moved from California were a year behind us in math or something like that because they didn’t have the fast track. I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning was, but I can see how that would play a huge role in keeping students at the same level. Especially when they take the SATs at the same time, you want to make sure that they all have the preparation that they need. Interesting.

Katrina Stevens: And the federal government doesn’t have any role in dictating how things are taught, even what gets taught. That’s really the state role. But for us, it’s really about making sure students have access to the same kinds of opportunities. And sometimes that means adding resources, sometimes that means making sure communities have more support to do that work, or kind of drawing attention to situations that might need to have some intervention.

EdTech Times: Interesting. So what are a few examples of situations that need intervention that are being worked on right now?

Katrina Stevens: Sure. I can’t comment on specific cases, obviously.

EdTech Times: Yeah! Not specific, but kind of specific?

Katrina Stevens: Yeah, so the kinds of things that can happen would be where you’ve got a district where it seems like you have a higher number of students of color who are in remedial classes. Or in places where you might have, the parts of the district where you’ve kind of lower socioeconomic and/or students of color who don’t have the same access to the resources as other more wealthy parts of the district do. That would be a place where you could kind of go in and say, “That’s actually not equitable access. You’ve gotta make sure that all students have access to the same kind of opportunities.” So we have a civil rights office that does a lot of that kind of work.

EdTech Times: Oh, that’s cool. How many offices are there? There’s so much going on!

Katrina Stevens: The Department of Education is one of the smaller agencies; we’ve got 4,000 people total.

EdTech Times: Okay, sounds about right. So what are you excited to see in the next couple of years?

Katrina Stevens: I think we’re at a time that’s pretty transformational. I think we’re going to have a shift towards having, moving back to more student-centered learning. Where students who can live in a rural community and…have a student who loves computer science and be able to take a computer science class because of what technology has allowed them access to. They would never have been able to have that opportunity. So I think there are some real amazing ways that technology can bring those experiences to people. And ways for people to connect. We’ve got kids connecting across the world with each other, and that deepens our understanding of other people’s culture and just how the world works. In terms of the field, I think we’re seeing some really, on the verge of looking at new kinds of assessments, in terms of really being able to really look at different skills in a very different way. Seeing some stuff with stealth assessment, where we’re getting information on what students are learning and how as just part of the process of learning. They don’t feel like, “Oh, I’m stopping now and I’m taking a quiz,” but it’s just built into whatever they’re working on. The teacher gets the information they need to be able to help the student figure out where they should be going next. So I think there’s some really exciting stuff. Virtual reality and augmented reality are not as far away as people think that they are.

EdTech Times: Really?

Katrina Stevens: Yeah… There’s a company where I got to see a demo, where there’s a heart. Literally, it’s like a holographic image, and you can move and pull it apart and follow the stream. And I just watched kids…their understanding of how the heart functions is at such a different level.

EdTech Times: And the three-dimensionality of it makes it so realistic!

Katrina Stevens: And again, you can bring things to students who would never have been able to have access to that kind of learning.

EdTech Times: That’s incredible. Wow. Well, I can’t wait to see what you guys come up with next. Can’t wait to see where edtech goes in general, but just everything’s changing so fast, I love keeping updated on all of this that’s going on in the government. Thank you for speaking with us, Katrina.

Katrina Stevens: Sure, thank you!

Adelia Humme

Adelia Humme

Previously an academic adviser at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, Adelia has contributed her editorial skills to The Eckleburg Project, Redivider, and Texas A&M University Press. She recently moved from Texas to Boston to pursue a master's degree in publishing & writing at Emerson College. She devotes her free time to reading fantasy novels and spoiling cats.