The Dual Mandate of Technology

By Matt Lee, Ph.D. and Paul Lindgren, Ph.D.

Note: This article first appeared in the November issue of the NETA Newsletter.

Stay with me here…

Ask any communications expert and they’ll most likely tell you that writing an article to the general population and referencing economics is a no-no. They are also likely to tell you that starting off an article with “stay with me” is a great way to quickly lose readers. This article blatantly ignores both pieces of advice.

In 1977 the United States Congress amended the Federal Reserve Act to require the Federal Reserve to promote actions to maximize employment (i.e., reduce unemployment) and to keep stable prices (i.e., combat inflation). This dual mandate sounds great and came at a critical time in our country’s history. Everyone gets a job! Prices are stable! A real win-win! Yet, as any Econ 101 student (or 5th grader) will tell you, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Try to get unemployment down and prices tend to rise (inflation). On the other hand, if we want to keep prices stable, the economy grows too slowly and businesses are less likely to hire. They may even begin to lay people off (increasing unemployment).

Those of you who heeded our plea and are still with us are probably asking, “Matt and Paul, did you just get me to read an entire paragraph on economics?” And, “What in the world does the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate have to do with NETA?” Yes, you did and if you want an answer to the second question, read on.

Teachers, technology directors, integrationists and administrators also have a challenging dual mandate. In place of inflation and unemployment, we have openness and our student safety responsibilities. Just like the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate, these two things push at each other in opposite directions.

So, what could happen if we leave everything wide open and encourage teachers and students to try every tool, site, and service they see?

From the teacher perspective, having a more open internet and more open use policies would offer a wider range of choices. Teachers could select the tools that work best for them in their classrooms. However, it would also make them responsible to read through thousands of lines of privacy policies, user agreements, federal legislation, and terms of service for every website and app they use.  Would they? Do teachers realize that their actions could actually be responsible for losing their district’s federal funding? For those that enthusiastically embrace any and all options, it can be difficult to ever become an expert with a particular tool; let alone coming to an understanding of its legal implications. And the next big thing is always right around the corner.

For students, having access to all of the tools and resources of the internet can be very empowering. If we want to personalize learning for our students, such access can let them learn in ways most appropriate for them. They can also demonstrate what they know in ways that work best for them.  However, students are often not in a position (legally or in terms of maturity) to evaluate the tradeoffs inherent in utilizing online tools and resources. What personal data are they giving up? What dangers are they exposing themselves to?

On the other hand, what could happen if we lock everything down?

From the teacher perspective this better protects them from legal liability, but it also severely limits the tools and resources they can use in their classroom. We’ve all experienced frustration when we try and go to a website or use a tool and it’s been blocked by IT. At some point, many teachers simply give up and stop trying to innovate in their classrooms.

From the student perspective, locking everything down focuses them into a few tools they can learn very well. However, students then never get to develop digital citizenship skills, or learn how to select tools that work best for them. Having access only to a walled garden, students will graduate with a limited understanding of how to responsibly work and learn in the digital age.

What can be done?

With regards to the Dual Mandate, the Federal Reserve often uses an analogy of a car on the interstate. If the car represents our economy, then we need to set a minimum and maximum speed limit. Is the car going too slow? Then we need to set a minimum speed limit to ensure it speeds up. Is the car speeding and headed for a crash? Set a speed limit to slow it down.

We believe technology policies should follow this same general idea. There is a need to establish what is the maximum amount of openness we can allow to comply with community norms and state/federal laws. We also need to put in place a baseline expectation that teachers need to try new things. Teachers need to be provided the supports and encouragement to try out these new ideas and evaluate their effectiveness. We are in a world now where teachers are learning about resources faster than an IT department can. If IT isn’t responsive to teacher needs and doesn’t communicate WHY decisions are made, we enter a world where teachers may avoid district resources and instead use tools with their own personal devices and accounts.

We propose that teachers be put in a position where they can make informed and intelligent decisions about what tools are best for their classroom. By establishing and clearly communicating our districts’ technology boundaries, teachers can safely innovate within them and transform teaching and learning.

Lastly, just as the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee meets regularly to discuss the current economic situation, we need to continually review our tech boundaries. The world of educational technology is ever changing. New laws are passed, new tools are introduced and existing tools change their terms of service. As with the woolly mammoth referenced in my previous article, only those that continually adapt to their environment are safe from “extinction”.

This is a difficult subject that can send tech-loving educators into the fetal position under their desks (Matt has found Paul mumbling “FERPA, COPPA, CIPA, FERPA, COPPA, CIPA..” on several occasions).  We hope this article has helped you start to think about where you stand in the tech openness/safety “dual mandate” spectrum and that it provides some fuel for discussion in your respective districts.


As a former AP Economics teacher, Matt encourages you to take a look at the history and goals of the Federal Reserve system. With such an important role in our economy, don’t you want to know more? Check out the links below:

Making Sense of the Federal Reserve in Plain English – The St. Louis Fed:

Education Resources to teach Economics in your classroom. This comes from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, of which Nebraska is a part of.