SETDA’s executive director shares her perspective on energizing edtech.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
As one of the nation’s most prominent K-12 education leaders in academics and digital learning, Tracy Weeks (pictured) is on a mission to provide safe access to high quality education, content, teachers, and leaders for children across the globe. Her focused work with policy makers on providing students with opportunities in personalized learning draws from her extensive experience as an instructional technologist and a leader in online education. She has a passion for new learning models, emerging technologies, and how they can best be used in the classroom. “I love educational research and examining how research can inform practice,” says Tracy, “Many refer to me as a data geek.” Tracy keeps state-level edtech leaders connected and working together, helping external stakeholders and policymakers understand how online learning can provide students with greater choice and provide personalized learning experiences. She is the Executive Director for the State Education Technology Director’s Association (SETDA), and comes from a career indicative of leadership and service at the intersection of education and technology.
We are at an exciting point in education where what we know about good teaching and learning combined with what technology can now do is at a sweet spot to match those two fields up and do good things for kids.
Prior to joining the team at SETDA, she served as the Chief Academic and Digital Learning Officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the first senior state leadership position of its kind in the nation. In that role, she oversaw the areas of: K-12 Curriculum and Instruction, Career and Technical Education, Exceptional Children, and the North Carolina Virtual Public School.
She also served as the state agency lead on the development of the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan. From 2008-2014, Tracy led the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the second largest state-led virtual school in the nation, as the Chief Academic Officer and subsequently the Executive Director.
She holds a bachelors degree in Secondary Math Education from UNC-Chapel Hill, a Masters of Education in Instructional Technology with a Statistics minor and a Doctor of Philosophy in Curriculum and Instruction from North Carolina State University. She is an NC Teaching Fellow, NC Education Policy Fellow, and a member of Phi Kappa Phi.
You preside over a large, important network of the country’s edtech directors – is this akin to herding cats? What analogy might you use, and how often do you get live face time with them? Any anecdotes representative of the personal camaraderie you enjoy with any of them?
Tracy: SETDA has two annual in person meetings with our members: The Emerging Technologies Leadership Forum is in the summer, and the Leadership Summit is in the Fall. Our members really look forward to these events to connect with one another. Before becoming the Executive Director of SETDA, I was a member of SETDA as the Chief Academic and Digital Learning Officer in North Carolina.
When you get to leadership positions at the state level, it can be a somewhat lonely place as you are really the only person in your state who does what you do. So, having the opportunity to connect with leaders from other states who have similar joys and concerns is energizing.
When you get to leadership positions at the state level, it can be a somewhat lonely place as you are really the only person in your state who does what you do. So, having the opportunity to connect with leaders from other states who have similar joys and concerns is energizing. And given that there are only 50 states, the group is naturally smaller than other edtech groups, so the members really get to know one another well – so these in person events are more like a reunion.
How do you collect the sentiments, needs, wants, and understandings of the directors into a cohesive whole? And what are they, generally?
Tracy: There are a number of ways: SETDA has several committees of members who focus on broad topics like state engagement, professional learning, state action, and strategic partnerships. These committees help to elevates the needs and wants and then helps to the work on those topics. They also help plan the in person events so that members are spending time on meaningful issues. SETDA has an online community for the members called SETDA Connects – there they can post questions and responses to one another on any issue. We also survey our members for interests.
SETDA is now more than 15 years young – congratulations on that recent anniversary – could you compare the issues at its inception with the issues you are currently addressing?
Tracy: In the beginning, SETDA was formed to support the state leaders who worked with the Title IId or EETT funds in each state. So the job roles and issues were very similar from state to state. Since the EETT funds ended in 2012, many state agencies have reorganized – who is an “educational technology” director now can look different from state to state. In some places that means an IT Director who is interested in devices, data, and infrastructure. In other places is means a role more connected to teaching and learning and in others the role is more closely aligned with professional learning. And in some states, they have a team of all these roles. You can imagine how the issues would vary based on role(s).
What is the state of education today? Why do you think so?
Tracy: I think we are at an exciting point in education where what we know about good teaching and learning combined with what technology can now do is at a sweet spot to match those two fields up and do good things for kids. There are so many choices out there for parents and students now so it is important for us in the education field to continue to learn, grow, and transform to provide the best options for each learner.
What do you believe technology’s role in education should be?
Tracy: I believe strongly that the learning needs and vision needs to be laid out first and then the technology (devices, content, apps, infrastructure) needs to be designed to help the state/district/school achieve those instructional and learning goals.
Our instructional leaders need to be well informed on what technologies exist and how they could transform the teaching and learning process so that these leaders know how to dream and plan big.
That being said, our instructional leaders need to be well informed on what technologies exist and how they could transform the teaching and learning process so that these leaders know how to dream and plan big. I believe that technology can help an educator meet the needs of each individual learner. Teachers can do this without technology, but it is much more work intensive – the technology acts as a force multiplier.
SETDA priorities currently are Equity of Access, Digital Content, Interoperability, and Digital Learning. Are these catch-all categories, or is there a fifth major category that could be included, one that is not quite on the front burner for whatever reasons?
Tracy: I think hidden in all of these is the role of leadership. These priorities are important to many edtech organizations, but SETDA is interested in supporting the role of the state leader in each of these areas.
One major value of SETDA is that of a Professional Learning organization. As an organization in the education field that specifically addresses technology, how do you set a good example of what great professional learning should look like? What methods and practices do you employ?
Tracy: We try to offer Professional Learning (PL) on a variety of topics to meet the varied interests of our members. We offer them in real time via in-person meetings and webinars, but we also record them so that they can be accessed when the member has the time to focus.
In October you have the big Leadership Summit “Leveraging Technology to Personalize Student Learning” – what goes in to choosing a theme, especially this year’s theme?
Tracy: The themes for our events are born from a combination of hot topics in the field and the needs of our members as expressed through our committees. We will focus on policy issues around personalized learning, what this looks like in rural areas of the country, what states currently have in motion, and most of all – what is the role of the state leader.
What major issues or challenges are you dealing with in regards to SETDA work and activities and how are you addressing them?
Tracy: There are a growing number of organizations that serve the edtech field and that serve state leaders. SETDA wants to make sure we stay true to both and serve our members in the most effective way possible.
What are a few of the real controversial issues in edtech, the very sticky issues, and what is your take on them?
Tracy: Data privacy would rise to the top here. The challenge is we (educators) can make better, more informed instructional decisions for students if we have good data. However, we (parents – as I fall into both categories) want to keep our children safe. The good news is this is not an either-or situation – it can be a both-and, meaning it is absolutely possible to have good data and keep kids safe. The challenge is trying not to over-regulate on either end of the issue.
The future of edtech is coming fast – what do you see on the near, mid and further-out horizon in regards to the edtech issues that will have your attention?
Tracy: I see interoperability, while not a new issue, but rather one that is growing and maturing as an important issue for educators. Typically, interoperability has had the attention of those on the IT end of the spectrum, but it is important that our instructional leaders have a decent knowledge of what it is, how it can help applications interact in more meaningful ways for educators, students, and parents, and how this understanding can help the field move the needle on how to meet the needs of each learner.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest and oversees the annual EdTech Awards recognition program featuring Cool Tools, Leaders, and Trendsetters in education technology. Write to: [email protected]