Toggle open
Learning Library Blog Deborah Taylor Tate has multiple roles in ICT, ed tech
Expand breadcrumbs

Deborah Taylor Tate has multiple roles in ICT, ed tech

By Julie Phillips Randles
January 1, 2015
Img id 261 Version Id Iv5r l6 G Yt Ushh G Ee Y Yo I VTZF05fj SO

Deborah Taylor Tate, commissioner of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 2005-09, has deep roots in education reform, information technology and ed tech.

Twice appointed by President George W. Bush to the FCC, today she serves as the first special envoy to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for Child Online Protection and remains a respected policy adviser, strategist and commentator in the information and communications technology arena. She's also a member of the Aspen Institute's National Task Force on Learning and the Internet, a group of 20 innovative experts in technology, public policy, education, business, privacy and safety. 

Tate continues to be involved in Washington, D.C., where she serves as vice chair of the Minority and Media Telecom Council, advocating for women and minorities. Additionally, she is an adjunct senior scholar for the Free State Foundation, an economic think tank on telecommunications issues.

Her foray into education issues began early in her career. In 1983, then-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, now a U.S. senator, tasked Tate with identifying ways to reduce drop-out rates and finding employment opportunities for low-income youth in Memphis. The program she helped craft ultimately became part of the national initiative Jobs for America's Graduates.

Tate has championed youth causes throughout her career, earning the moniker " "The Children's Commissioner" " in Washington where she spearheaded the first National Task Force on Child Obesity and championed positive educational programming for children.

Tate was awarded the Public Policy Public Service Award for her support of Cable in the Classroom and positive programming for children by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. She was also chair of the $7 billion Universal Service Fund, which funds and oversees the E-Rate program.

In 2011, Tate co-chaired the National Healthy Media Commission with Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis to promote positive images of women and girls in the media.

Tate was recently nominated for the 2014 GEM-TECH Awards, which recognize outstanding performers and role models in gender equality, STEM fields and mainstreaming information and communications technology.

Tate lives in Nashville, but travels extensively as part of her work as an envoy and adviser. In 2014, she participated with then-Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla in hosting the first BYND 2015 Global Youth Summit in Costa Rica with more than 1,000 youth participants from more than 100 nations.

In what she calls a circle-of-life moment, Tate recounts that she joined President Chinchilla's launch of a " "techno bus," " taking computers to the mountainous parts of Costa Rica. The bus was almost an exact replica of the " "Classroom On Wheels" " her mother directed — and drove — in the 1960s to help prepare low-income preschoolers for first grade.

If you could have a different career, what would it be?\

I would be a novelist.

Growing up, who were your heroes? 

My father, who was from one of the poorest counties in our state, graduated from high school at 14, went to college and ultimately became a U.S. brigadier general. He taught me the value of education — actually lifelong learning — and determination. And every night when he put me to bed, he told me that I could be anything I wanted to be.

I think that President Kennedy also had a profound impact on me, even as a very young child. He inspired me — as he did an entire generation — to always know I wanted to be in public service, run for office and move to Washington, D.C.

In our small Southern town, we had one female attorney. She was smart, gracious and always had time to talk with young women about her career. In high school, when a group of girls " "borrowed" " our sorority crest and colors, she taught me the value of mediation, even though that was not even a legal term at that time. I think she would be proud that I was in the very first class of Supreme Court accredited mediators in Tennessee.

In the course of your career, was there someone who mentored you through challenging times? Where did you turn for counsel?

My first job was working for Gov. Lamar Alexander (now a senator). I had just lost both my parents and he and his wife, Honey, were incredible role models in terms not only of being extremely dedicated public servants and providing our state much-needed leadership, but also with four young children.

When my son, Taylor, contracted spinal meningitis, there was no question that I needed to take time off — even during a heated legislative session — to care for him, and that my job would still be there. They became constant supporters all along my career path, including being introduced to the Senate Commerce Committee by Sen. Alexander during my confirmation hearing. Whether a recommendation for a new job or working through an issue or launching a new nonprofit for families, Lamar would always say, " "Reach for the stars, you might just get there!" "

What advice would you give emerging female leaders?

Be prepared, whatever your subject matter. Surround yourself with the most knowledgeable advisers and staff. When a window opens, go through it. Don't be afraid to take a risk or go beyond your comfort zone.

Be at the table — you cannot be part of decisions or direction if you aren't at the table to begin with.

Follow your dreams. Believe in yourself, which also means don't sabotage yourself. Unfortunately, women often do this by pointing out our inadequacies instead of focusing on our positives.

And find your passion!

As an industry leader, volunteer and activist for women's and children's issues, how do you create work-life balance?

When I am speaking at women's conferences, I often borrow the phrase, " "You can have it all, just not all at the same time." " However, that really is not very accurate. And, in today's always-on, high-tech, multitasking, 24/7 world, it's even more difficult.

I do think that one practice is to be in the moment, whether in the midst of a work crisis or with a child or taking a jog. Sometimes in D.C., I would just say we were going to have a " "walking meeting;" " get outside, exercise, decrease stress and hopefully also open the thought process.

Also, whether you decide to have children earlier or later, realize that those years are so precious and there is no " "rewind." " However, sometimes, your example — being both a parent and a professional — also speaks volumes to your children about their future. And, don't beat yourself up; sometimes you just have to buy the cookies instead of making them!

What was the most challenging aspect of your role at the FCC? What was most challenging as it relates to education?

The challenge was just the sheer size and breadth of the subject matter the FCC oversees — which encompasses about one-sixth of the U.S. economy — from requests by a tiny, rural radio station to approval of satellite locations to media, communications, cable, as well as increasingly complex policy and international issues.

Relating to education, the challenge was trying to ensure that every single school and every child had access to all the incredible opportunities that today's high-tech world has to offer, no matter whether they live in the most remote areas of Alaska; a tiny, rural town in Tennessee; or a low-income, urban neighborhood.

What's the next big thing in the field of information and communications technology, and how will it impact education?

According to a recent study, over 50 percent of all adults in the U.S. have actually experienced some type of data breach. So it isn't so much the next big thing — although there are incredible innovations like wearable devices and health technologies that can revolutionize preventive health care — but even more important is how we will deal with security, safety and trust of our data and information.

By that I mean we are all facing threats and concerns related to our data security. Much of our most sensitive data, as it relates to our children, resides with their schools and will need to be increasingly protected. Safety relates both to who and how our data may be used or misused. It also relates to specifically to our children's safety in cyberspace. We do not yet even know many of the impacts — some negative — on their physical, mental and emotional health.

I speak a lot about issues from cyberbullying to sexting — now a crime in many states. Even texting while driving is taking more of our children's lives. So education will increasingly have to be not only teaching keyboarding or coding or tech skills, but also the socio-psycho skills to empower our children to navigate this digital world. I often say we need empowerment software to reside in their brains, not on the device.

To keep pace in our hyper-connected world, what suggestions would you offer to educators who are struggling to gain access to broadband services?

Keep the faith! Technology, devices, services and software are going to continue to change and at a pace never before seen. For centuries, there were books and pencils. Look at the explosion of technology from year to year. Some of these " "generational problems" " will disappear as younger teachers graduate and become part of the education ecosystem.

Young teachers — who actually grew up on the internet — are able to connect both in terms of using high tech, as well as their attitude of " "no fear." " However, technology will never, ever replace the teacher — the guide, the mentor, the navigator — the inspiring teacher who instills a love of learning into his or her students no matter the subject or the technology.

On one hand, access to modern communications tools can really advance learning for students, but on the other hand, there is growing concern about protecting student data. How should education leaders navigate these choppy waters?

I recently wrote an op-ed piece [for The Tennessean newspaper] in which I strongly urge parents to become more involved in these issues and for schools to provide more opportunities for community involvement in data security issues.

How has your work impacted a child's access to a technology-rich learning environment?

Whether through my work at the FCC on connecting every school — and now upgrading it to faster speeds — or as the special envoy to the ITU, I hope that my work has helped children in the U.S. and around the world to be more aware of the incredible opportunities and also to be empowered to handle any challenge they may face online.

I was so proud that Tennessee was the first state to connect all our schools and libraries, and that we continue to be on the cutting edge with our " "limitless libraries" " and other ed tech that will enable our students to compete in the 21st century digital marketplace, whether for a job or as a creator.

At the ITU, we have created guidelines in five languages, for industry, educators, parents and children, from changing laws to include crimes committed in cyberspace to " "train the trainer" " modalities to how to talk to your children about online topics. 

As a board member for Common Sense Media, I speak around the country about our work that includes not only a family-friendly website, but also digital citizenship and gender literate curriculum for over 60,000 schools. We even have apps for mobile devices and continue to provide ratings not only for movies, TV and books, but also for many all-digital programs. We are also extremely involved in establishing policy and law that will protect the privacy of our youngest citizens and their data.

Finally, I am honored to be on the Aspen Task Force on Learning and the Internet, which recently produced a terrific blueprint for the future success of ed tech across our nation that includes real-world templates that could be scalable nationwide, encourages philanthropy and corporate partnerships, and calls upon our national leaders to support ed tech for our continued global competitiveness and economic viability.