BPR Interviews: Richard Culatta

Richard Culatta is the current Chief Innovation Officer of Rhode Island. A Rhode Island native, he was previously Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education under the Obama Administration. Previously, he was education policy advisor to US Senator Patty Murray and Chief Technology Officer at CIA University. This year, he will be leaving his role as Chief Innovation Officer to lead the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit based in DC.


How do you define innovation? What factors are conducive to bringing innovation into a community or a society? 


I think about innovation as an approach that significantly improves upon the status quo and can be taken to scale. There are a lot of really awesome ideas…that people can come up with, but they have no chance of actually being scaled upon. On the flip side, you have cases where there are things that get wide adoption but that don’t actually improve on whatever the current situation is.


Improving upon status quo, there’s a number of different ways. One of the ways is that you can take time, so you can say a process…that is giving you the same result but in half the time. That is bringing innovation to that process. You can also look at quality. So, if we have an approach that has a high level of errors, if we have something that’s not working very well, if we improve that, that’s innovation. And a third area that I would tend to look is population served. So you have an approach that’s already fast and already high quality but is only reaching a subset of people, and if you can expand that out broadly through new approaches, that would also count as innovation.


[Regarding] the culture of innovation in the state…It’s to bring about a culture shift where we have people in government…starting to think differently, [and] tackle problems in different ways. You have to very intentionally teach tools to help build innovators, often referred to as civic entrepreneurs or public sector entrepreneurs. You [need to] build those experiences, teach people, highlight, and reward those skills when you see them.


You had broader experience at the federal level, such as with the Office of Educational Technology, before you transitioned to state level. Are there tangible differences you’ve perceived working at different levels of government


I really think that Rhode Island has a unique advantage because of its size, because of its general nimbleness, because we can be flexible. We can test approaches here that would be much harder to do in other states…One of my mantras for my team here is: how do we make Rhode Island into a lab state? How do we make this the obvious, no-brainer sandbox where you’re going to go to try out new approaches for thinking about how to innovate both in government and outside of government because you can do it here faster…the R&D shop for the rest of the country? And, we’ve seen it. On the education side – we can get all our superintendents around the table in a room. On the healthcare side – we can get all our health providers around a table in a room. We have the abilities to move things forwards in ways that we have not before. The other piece that I think accelerates innovation is trusted relationships. Where I think a lot of innovations get slowed down because we have to find all these partners, we have to build them – there’s all this relationship building. So, that gives us a unique advantage here as well.


Why do you believe cross sector partnerships are so critical to accelerating innovation? 


One of the things that I learned with the work I did with the White House when I worked with the Obama Administration was that the types of problems that government is being expected to solve are too complex for government to do alone. Most solutions these days have some element of technology in the solution. Government is never going to be as nimble or as able to deliver a technology product as a private sector company could. Another area is the research space. We have lots of data in government, but generally governments are not staffed with deep benches of researchers. So, we have data, but knowing data doesn’t always necessarily mean that you understand what that tells you about the decisions you should be making or spot the trends that you need. And so, to think that we could be making those decisions without the input of the research community is a bit shortsighted. Now, of course, there always need to be protections in place when you’re sharing data with researchers; we need to make sure there’s no private information being shared when you have private sector folks with partnering capacities. But, if you can bring these partners to the table, the types of solutions we come up with tend to be much better.


Is there statistical evidence demonstrating the success or impact of integrating tech into a curriculum or learning environment on student performance? Are there programs in place to help leverage digital literacy, ways in which people can best utilize the tools that are given to them?


So, technology is an accelerator. It’s indifferent to what the end goal is. So, if you apply technology as an accelerator to a process that is not effective, it will accelerate an ineffective process. If you apply it to effective processes, it will accelerate those as well. So, in education, you have to be really careful because just bringing tech into the classroom does not necessarily improve practice. It does whatever you were doing – more, faster. I’ve watched cases, painfully, where they’ve done – what I sort of call, digitizing traditional practice. They come in and instead of using worksheets, they scan the worksheets, now it’s on the computer, now instead of doing worksheets, they’re doing them on a screen instead of a piece of paper. At the end of the day, they’re still worksheets – it hasn’t made a difference.


On the other hand, I’ve watched other cases where technology is brought in and has been used as a tool to empower students. That’s awesome. But so much of that is dependent on how it’s implemented…Here in Rhode Island, we just launched a personalized learning guide to tailor learning experiences to individual students. One of the crazy things we do in education is we pack thirty kids into a classroom – I used to be a teacher – and we teach them all generally the same thing. But, they don’t all need the same thing. They have different strengths, different weaknesses, different interests, but it’s very, very hard to tailor without some tools to help support that. That’s an area where I think technology can be very helpful.


Do you have any specific predictions for technologies or tools that could bring significant impact into the classroom?


One is [virtual reality]. I think VR is very, very powerful. I think about things like science labs or opportunities to engage with other places around the world that would be incredibly expensive for schools, and if some of that…can be virtualized, it democratizes access.


Another one is this idea of learning analytics – so how we use data to customize and tailor learning experiences to help guide students and their families. It’s sort of like a GPS but for learning, like a learning positioning system. Whereas I think right now, the data that we use in education largely – is what I call autopsy data. It comes after it’s too late – [for example], only after the course is over, I found out I didn’t get a good grade. But, if you have analytics, there’s technology to help proactively make suggestions and plot courses.


And then my third one is SMS, text messaging. There’s some interesting studies that have been done where parents and students have received texts, just alerting them to deadlines, assignments due…[which] shows significant impact on their ability to just complete assignments and get the feedback they need to build onto other activities. We get all enamored with apps but no matter what type of phone you have, if you have a phone, you can get a text.