Linda G. Roberts: The Incredible Power—and Untapped Potential—of Education Technology

Nearly 25 years ago, a report initiated by the United States Congress explored the future of educational technology, and reading it today, one is struck by how profoundly things have changed in a relatively short time. The big, slow boxes of the past have been replaced by sleek hand-held icons of speed and power, and the once-primitive architecture of the Internet now offers wireless connections to vibrant online classes and course materials, distant laboratories, and libraries around the world.

But that picture of progress may be misleading, says Linda G. Roberts, who directed the 1988 report by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Many school districts still haven’t fully committed to classroom technology. Other districts, staggered by the ongoing economic malaise, are scaling back their investments. And while research suggests that the technology drives improved learning, Roberts says, that’s often not reflected in overall test scores.

Roberts has had a distinguished career as an educator and a policymaker focused on education technology—she’s served as an adviser to Sesame Street, Apple, and the White House—and she joined AAAS earlier this year as a visiting scholar in the Education and Human Resources division. Today, she says U.S. schools—from kindergarten through undergraduate levels—are at an inflection point.


Roberts with President Bill Clinton in 1995, just before a meeting with technology company CEOs at the White House. [Credit: Official White House photo]
Roberts with President Bill Clinton in 1995, just before a meeting with technology company CEOs at the White House. | Credit: Official White House photo

“Every school district that I know is facing very, very serious financial pressures,” she said in a recent interview. “We’re spending money on technology and there’s a pressure… to spend that money wisely. So one of the biggest challenges is to make the investment, but make sure that that investment does what it ought to do.


“But the second big challenge in American education is what I would call the challenge of culture. People tend to say, ‘Teachers are so resistant to change.’ I don’t think that it’s fair to blame the teachers when it’s the whole system that works against change.”

Despite the economy and doubts that prevail on some local schools boards, this isn’t the time to cut school technology investments, Roberts says. Quite the contrary: It’s time to ramp up the investment, along with the research and assessment needed to fine-tune the emerging insights on what works and what doesn’t.

Researchers are beginning to understand better how technology works with the brain’s complex process of learning; that’s creating new insights into how technology can be used most effectively—from helping to visualize basic geometry proofs to powering sophisticated virtual laboratories and creating learning plans tailored to the strengths and challenges of each individual student.

In Roberts’ view, this is a moment in which change undertaken with careful planning can help transform the art and science of teaching in ways that will resonate throughout the 21st century. With so much of the nation’s economic growth and job creation expected in fields of science and technology, she adds, the transformation is essential.

From Sesame Street to the White House


Linda G. Roberts with the Sesame Street character Super Grover in May at the Sesame Workshop Gala in New York. [Photo © Sesame Workshop]
Linda G. Roberts with the Sesame Street character Super Grover in May at the Sesame Workshop Gala in New York. | Photo © Sesame Workshop

Since joining AAAS, Roberts has been working with colleagues in the Education and Human Resources (EHR) division to focus on learning resources and teachers’ professional development. It is a recurring theme in a career that has closely tracked the revolution in education technology.


“Technology has changed the way we live and work,” said EHR Director Shirley Malcom. “Somehow technology must also help us leverage systemic change in education. We in EHR have been re-thinking all of our work, trying to figure out how to take advantage of the power that technology brings—new opportunities in the continuing education of teachers, learning beyond the school day, transformation of undergraduate instruction and closing the performance gap. We were very fortunate that Linda was willing to join us in this exploration.”

Roberts started as an elementary school teacher in the early 1960s, in Massachusetts and upstate New York; that was the era of chalkboards and mimeograph machines. After receiving her master’s degree in education from Harvard in 1963, she taught elementary school in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, long a center of the U.S. nuclear research. Reading was her specialty, but she taught math and science, too.

“Science was the hardest thing for me to teach when I was teaching elementary school,” Roberts recalled in a recent interview. “It needed more than students reading about concepts. They needed to have hands-on experience, and they needed to be able to visualize the concepts we were teaching.” She did develop some approaches to help engage all of her students, but inevitably, most of the kids were observers rather than participants.

“Looking back 40 years,” she said, “if I’d had technology, I could have done such a better job.”

By 1968, she had joined the UT faculty. In an era in which black-and-white television was giving way swiftly to color, she was invited to New York to work on a children’s show that was to be both educational and entertaining—Sesame Street.

She received her doctorate in education from the University of Tennessee (UT) in 1973.

In 1979 she came to Washington, D.C., and she sees that now as a turning point: She took a fellowship that focused on education policy, and while working at the U.S. Department of Education, she was asked to write a report on how schools were using computers. Over the next decade, she emerged as one of the nation’s more knowledgeable experts on that subject.

After directing the Office of Technology Assessment’s landmark 1988 report, Power On! New Tools for Teaching and Learning, followed by two other studies, Roberts was appointed the first director of the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, and served in that position during the administration of President Bill Clinton from its inception in September 1993 to January 2001. She led the education technology initiative for both the president and the department, serving as a special adviser on technology to the secretary and on the White House educational technology working group.

Roberts developed the first National Technology Plan and initiated an array of new education technology programs; she was closely involved in development of E-RATE, which worked to bring the Internet and advanced technologies to schools and libraries. Under her leadership, the Department of Education’s technology budget increased from $30 million to over $900 million a year by the last year of the Clinton administration.

Under President Barack Obama, she has served as a member of the STEM education working group for the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology that developed the report “Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for American’s Future.” She also served as senior adviser on the National Education Technology Plan released last year by the Department of Education.

“This Is a New World for Kids”

During the span of her career, technology has transformed daily life—and the classroom. It’s not just that mimeo machines have been replaced by laser printers, or that floppy disks have given way to chips that can store thousands of volumes of information. Rather, the march of progress has changed our relationship to knowledge—how we acquire it, how we learn.

Consider the school library. The library of the 1960s and ‘70s “was great,” Roberts says, “but it was severely limited—it was limited to what was there. When I was teaching, I would send kids to library media center. Every kid wanted the same book and of course there were not enough to go around. Today, the library is virtually world wide…. This is a new world for kids.”

When Stanford University announced recently that computer science professors would offer free, online, not-for-credit courses in machine-learning, artificial intelligence, and databases, the response went viral. According to an essay published 5 December in the New York Times, 300,000 people enrolled in the first four weeks, its videos have been viewed millions of times, and students have submitted hundreds of thousands of assignments.

“That’s wild,” Roberts said. “It’s very exciting…. Now there are some universities that are saying: ‘Maybe we can have our students watch these lectures, and then we should use the classroom time we have in a different way’.”

That sort of innovative thinking is all but required of educators now. For students raised on computer games, Facebook, and smart phones, there must be new strategies for engagement. And this is especially true in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“I really believe that there are far more students who could be really engaged in the study of the sciences if these kinds of tools were more readily available to them, and used,” she said. “If all you have is the chemistry textbook and, if you’re lucky, a laboratory experience once a week that may be pretty outdated, then you’re probably going to think chemistry is pretty awful. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

In fact, though, engaging students through technology is only one of the current challenges. The warp-speed technological transformation of the American classroom may represent the biggest change in pedagogy since the 19th century, and change of such magnitude, in such a short span of time, inevitably runs into roadblocks and resistance.

Budget Pressures, Bad Decisions

To be sure, Roberts says, there has been broad progress over the past 20 years, with many benefits for students. But the results thus far have been inconsistent, and, as with any dramatic advance, there have been unintended consequences.

For example, safety and security present serious concerns. From online bullying to the prevalence of misleading information, students need guidance in dealing with “the dark side” of the Internet, she said. At the same time, technology can undermine the learning climate—think of students texting during class or using smart phones to cheat on tests.

Still, Roberts sees those as manageable. While some districts have banned use of cell phones, that “is a shame,” she said, because they’re such powerful educational tools. “Figuring out how to get best use of technology while minimizing the distraction is very important. We have to think about that—that’s part of the challenge.”

But when assessing the impact of education technology after a quarter-century, Roberts emphasizes that student achievement may be held back by an ineffective use of technology or, in some districts, the lack of technology, and by school systems that are resistant to change.

“In classrooms where we have broad-based technology—real access, with the Internet coming into every classroom, and there are enough laptops and computers—there really has been an improvement,” she said. “But the distribution of the technology is still largely dependent upon decision-making in each and every school district in the country. There is still tremendous variability in the infrastructure.”

Some schools provide significant support for teachers’ use of technology; other schools do not. Some hire technology officers who provide not just technical support, but leadership and focus; again, though, other districts don’t.

Now financial pressures are forcing many schools to scale back their commitment to technology. A June report by the Center on Education Policy found that 79% of school districts reduced spending on instructional materials or technology and equipment in 2010-2011, and 64% expect funding cuts in the next year.

That’s unfortunate, she said, because there is now a wealth of excellent online learning resources—available for free—from NASA, the National Science Foundation, AAAS’s Science NetLinks, and other sources.

“When we have cost-cutting pressures,” Roberts said, “technology is often the first thing to go, which is a really poor decision.”

Many school districts, facing budgetary stress, worry that the big investment in technology doesn’t translate into big improvements in test scores. Roberts acknowledged that conundrum—but suggested that such results may reflect other problems in a school system: the lack of an overarching vision on how to use technology; the uneven distribution of technology resources; resistance to change and innovation in a school’s culture and organization; or a lack of sensitivity in conventional tests.

In a culture that places a premium on test scores, the lack of bold improvements can create skepticism about technology. “There’s very good research that says you can improve learning in science and math and learning and writing,” she said. “But… we haven’t seen the kinds of test score change that people think we ought to see.”

The problem may be that current testing is “rudimentary,” she said. “I don’t think we’re measuring fully what students are learning when they’re using technology.

“There’s a growing consensus that we need better tools—not only to measure, but to understand the learning paths that students are on. Once you understand the learning path and you begin to see where it might be going astray, where they are, perhaps developing inconsistencies or misconceptions of content, you would have a much better way of intervening and directing instruction differently.”

And that is Roberts’ central point: Technology is changing education, but to make the revolution more consistent, more powerful—and ultimately more effective—schools and educators must work to understand the effect of technology on learning, and then to harness its power for maximum impact.

The Challenge: Keep Pace or Fall Behind

When considering the uses of educational technology, there’s a tendency to think about the technology itself—laptops versus smart phones, the advantages of 3D and HD, cloud computing. As imagined sometimes by popular culture, education technology translates to students sitting before banks of computers and learning through repetitive drills, or even learning from robots. Not surprisingly, that vision can evolve toward reality: South Korea has dramatic plans for teaching English with humanoid classroom robots, and perhaps exporting them to other countries.

But Roberts and most other experts in education technology suggest a more subtle use of technology, one in which teachers retain a profoundly important role and education can be tailored to meet the strengths and needs of individual students.

Since the 19th century, classroom education at the K-12 level has followed the same pattern: A teacher stands before a classroom of students dispensing knowledge in various subject areas, with tests, reading and other work assigned to reinforce and supplement those lessons. The teacher, in Roberts’ words, is the “sage on the stage.”

But the new technology creates an opportunity to thoroughly update the model in a way that can nurture a generation of 21st century problem-solvers and innovators. In Roberts’ view, it could allow students to tap into resources outside the classroom, far beyond the walls of the school, and that could allow them both to take more responsibility for their own education and to pursue their passions with more ambition.

This shifting dynamic could be especially important for students in science, engineering, and related fields.

“We have far too many students who are really interested in science—we see it in middle school, but it starts even earlier—and we turn them off too soon,” she said. “Kids talk about how boring science is, and how it’s the same stuff over and over again.

“I think we could open up opportunities for them. There are MIT courses, lectures, modules. Students could be… taking on these modules and broadening their knowledge. This could have tremendous payoff—it’s one way to widen the pipeline into science, math, engineering, and computer science.”

In high school, or even earlier, the students also could use the Internet, social media, and videoconferencing to access university-level laboratories and working researchers and to join global networks of like-minded students. In that way, they would be exposed to ideas and practices not available in their schools.

To do this, they need access to technology. The 2010 National Education Technology Plan that Roberts helped develop urges that every student and educator have one internet-access device and educational software. But Roberts makes a critical point: The real focus of the technology plan isn’t technology—it’s teaching.

“I think teachers are not less important in this digital world,” she said. “I think they’re more important.”

Inevitably, of course, their role evolves. They become less the “sage on the stage” and more a coach, a mentor, a “guide on the side,” she explains. The teacher has to recognize students’ interests and skills, and also their needs and misconceptions, and then help them find appropriate resources and strong mentors. And where conventional science education in higher grades and undergraduate levels have worked to weed out students perceived as weak, the teachers bring a new orientation, using their skills to build student interest and nurture their talents.

Roberts acknowledges that this cultural revolution would require that local districts and schools give teachers significant new support: not just technology and professional development resources, but also time and patience.

“It requires an environment that encourages risk-taking,” she said. “Most districts, I’m not sure they really understand this. In so many of our districts, the emphasis is not on risk-taking at all. It’s on, ‘Did the scores go up?’ That’s such a narrow, narrow view of what education is about, and we have a long way to go in that area.”

But if the U.S. is to maintain its status as a world power of innovation, students must be prepared for a world where jobs increasingly require skills in science, math, and technology. Today’s students are already immersed in digital culture, and to successfully engage them and prepare them, schools will have to speak their language. Which means that, where today’s classrooms have been relatively static for a century or more, change will become the new normal.

Certainly technology will continue to change, and the pace will accelerate. Smart phones and tablets will give way to something even more powerful and portable. The challenge for education will be to take steps necessary to keep up—or to risk falling further and further behind.

Technology is “going to be more and more embedded” in classrooms, and “instruction will be more personalized,” Roberts believes. “I’m optimistic that the next generation of digital tools and content will play a major role in transforming and improving education for everybody.”



Listen to a podcast with AAAS visiting scholar Linda G. Roberts.

Read a related story from AAAS News & Notes [Science 30 September 2011].

Learn more about Education and Human Resources programs at AAAS.