21st Century Learning
The HEART of (it):
The Digital Age is here, yet students in the United States
are at risk of being left behind by the slow pace of
technology adoption in schools.
21st Century Learning seeks to harness the potential of
technology to better prepare students for the real world.
Contributed By Alfredo Mathew
The movement to promote digital learning innovations in K-16 education is focused on increasing engagement, collaboration, and personalization for an interdependent world.
The most powerful socializing experience in the United States are our schools. The school experience is deeply tied into what it means to be an American, and the quality of this experience for our most vulnerable citizens will determine our prospects for the future. Today, more than at any time in its roughly 200-year history, the way we learn, from whom, and toward what end is being transformed. This is because the disrupting innovations of digital learning are coinciding with a reorganizing of the post-WWII world, forcing the U.S. to reconsider its relationship to learning and schooling in a rapidly changing world.
21st Century Learning is the new paradigm that is reshaping higher education, and in small pockets innovating K-12 education around the country. Loosely defined, it is a movement to promote increased collaboration, real-world problem solving and personalization through the application of web-based technology platforms. From the personal computer to the mobile phone, the information revolution of the past three decades has reshaped the way we communicate with one another. Yet, our education system has been slow to respond to these changes. The movement to promote 21st Century Learning is an attempt to harness the potential of new digital learning technologies to engage and better prepare our youth to navigate a more competitive, interdependent, and information rich world.
I am not a technologist. I am an urban educator who has taught in the public schools of New York and California for the past 12 years. I consider myself a progressive educator with roots in the Small School movement in the Bronx, who currently teaches at a charter school in Oakland. I know reading and direct experience are the most powerful learning experiences for young people. I also know consistent relationships with a diverse network of caring adults are the key to any child's healthy development over a lifetime. I am embracing digital learning, because I recognize that the challenges we face at closing the achievement gap between racial groups and addressing entrenched poverty and cultural isolation are not possible through the current system of schooling. Despite the common critique of low-quality teachers as the cause of low achievement in our schools, I believe the structure of segregated mass schooling perpetuates inequity. Our best hope is to shed the skeleton of schools for the more personalized approach offered by digital technologies and new ways of organizing our limited time and resources to support young people.
The SCOPE of (it):
The United States is the world leader in educational investment, yet ranks only 23rd in science, 17th in reading and 31st in math among 65 different countries. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) is a national organization that seeks to harness the power of technology to help solve this gap.
Our schools are being asked to educate all young people to the same high standards for the first time in our nation's history. The 2001 No Child Left Behind mandate laid down the challenge to close the achievement gap and prepare today's increasingly diverse youth to replace the retiring baby boom generation. By most measures, the current system is not meeting those increased demands.
The United States is the world leader in educational investment, but nations that spend far less are outperforming our students.1 On the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized international exam of 15 year olds in 65 countries,
1) the U.S. ranks 23rd in Science,
2) 17th in Reading, and
3) 31st in Math2
Within the U.S. the achievement gap between racial groups is a stumbling block to economic development in an increasingly diverse nation. Currently only 12 percent of African-American fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, and only 12 percent of African-American eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 38 and 44 percent respectively for their European-American counterparts.3 For Latino students, the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S., students earned 11% of associate degrees and 7% of bachelor's degrees from degree-granting institutions in 2005-2006.4 The Obama administration has set a target of closing the achievement gap and increasing the number of Americans with at least 2 years of college from 41% to 60% by 2020.5
It is clear that the federal government is setting high standards, and benchmarks for success. What is unclear is how institutions designed for a different era are going to produce radically better results. Unless we close the achievement gap between racial groups in the U.S. we will not maintain the educated workforce necessary for an information economy in a global marketplace. Furthermore, education and social mobility are a civil rights issue. Brown V. Board of Education catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement in 1954, because access to education is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy. In 2011 we are still unable to more fully integrate all our citizens into the American Dream. We cannot continue to defer the Dream for so many of our youth who will make up an increasing percentage of our population.
STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS
The transformation of what schooling looks and feels like has no center, but the federal government is increasingly calling for reform. Public education is constitutionally the prerogative of local government, but the patchwork local approach has lead to concern over the lack of a coherent vision for the nation at a time of increasing globalization and international competition. The vision for how to achieve these bold goals is set forth in the National Education Technology Plan (NETP, November, 2010), which calls for the leveraging of technology to reshape learning environments. The focus is shifting from school-based reforms to learner-centered reforms, which take advantage of 24/7/365 learning made possible by digital technology. The vision of top policy-makers, business leaders, and technologists calls for revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering of the nation's K-16 education system.
"The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students' daily lives and the reality of their futures. In contrast to traditional classroom instruction, this requires that we put students at the center and empower them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions."6
The NETP calls for increasing online and blended learning environments, continuous improvement through data driven feedback loops, and rethinking basic assumptions about learning such as 'seat time' and student motivation.
The digital divide that exists between the young today, and those of us who grew up in a different era, is vast. Digital technology engages young people in a way text and lectures cannot compete with. From a teacher's vantage point, it fundamentally alters who, how, where, when, and why people learn, and our roles in the learning process. We do not know yet know how to harness this new platform to promote learning across the K-16 spectrum, but technology will reshape the learning environment whether institutions are willing or not.
PRINCIPLES REQUIRED FOR SUCCESS
The transformation will not be uniform, but it will share these basic principles:
> Learning Anytime, Anywhere - Mobile technology gives us all access to information and people 24/7/365. Innovations that allow learners to pursue their passions in their own way and at their own pace are key.
> Peer-to-Peer Communication - Influenced by file-sharing technologies like Napster that use the networking capabilities of the internet, P2P communication focuses on collaborative models that connect peers with other learners for projects, and publicly creating knowledge. The old days of writing papers for teachers' eyes only, or in-class presentations that end inside the four walls of the classroom, are being reshaped for the limitless, borderless and instantaneous possibilities of web-based learning. This is a shift from one-to-many, to many-to-many learning opportunities.
> Data-Driven Feedback - In a time of dwindling financial resources for public education and market-driven reforms in the social sector, the use of data to drive instruction and promote accountability will be increasingly important. Currently, we do not have a consensus over how to evaluate teaching and learning. The trend is to increase the transparency of the data we do collect, and to develop new forms of assessment that can drive instruction and the allocation of scarce resources in a meaningful way.
> Personalized Learning Communities - To prepare a workforce for careers in a shifting economy, where many industries are in flux due to the disruptions of technological innovations, the focus of learning needs to shift from mastering a body of knowledge to life-long learning. Learning how to learn and developing a social network of people and resources to achieve self-directed educational goals are the keys to success. This is a shift from a one-size-fits-all approach to a learner-centered design.
> Interdisciplinary Content - The core curriculum of K-12 education needs to expand to include the real-world application of skills such as Global awareness, financial/economic literacy, civic engagement, and health and wellness. The trend is to not study these as isolated disciplines, but as complex problems learners need to solve. Instead of knowledge compartmentalized into distinct silos learning needs to reflect the complexity of the real world.
> Blended Learning - The model of the personal computer and individualized learning is going to need to share space with the social aspects of learning. Online learning will not replace the human touch, but work in concert with face-to-face interactions. Technology is the platform for the exchange of information, but relationships and direct contact with the world are still the most powerful human experiences.
ADDRESSING THE GAPS:
How do we get from here to there?
As we move forward with 21st Century Learning initiatives, it is important we address the gaps that have produced the inequities in the current education system and keep in mind the following:
Social/Emotional well-being is at the heart of learning. Technology can only enhance the human capacities young people already possess. If youth do not have adequate nutrition, caring parents, and their basic needs for safety and community met, they are not going to be ready to learn.
The Digital Divide is a more than just access to the Internet, it has to do with the intensity and purpose of the use. A recent Pew Research Center report says families with incomes over $75,000 are shown to own more technology gear and are more active participants in a range of online activities than lower income families.7 As access to technology and digital literacy become more immersive experiences, essential to our professional lives and maintaining connections with our social networks, this divide has the potential to entrench winners and losers, slowing social mobility.
At its heart, 21st Century Learning is about Personalization. Freeing the classroom from textbook and lecture-driven instruction will allow learning to be customized and tap into different learning styles. Personalization needs to be more than shifting to online learning with computer software, but embrace the multiple intelligences and rich experiences learners need to thrive. This will require developing new 21st Century assessments that reflect the real-world skills and competencies learners need to master.
Developing Human Capital is the key to education, regardless of the century. The real power of technology is as a tool to connect people. Digital learning should not replace the human touch, but enhance it. We need to find ways to connect young people to more people, resources, and experiences, not further isolate or disconnect youth from their communities.
Shifting paradigms is never easy, and when it comes to education reform there is no clear example of how digital learning will work for the students currently failing in the traditional system. The current trend of promoting online learning and credit reclamation is inexpensive, but it is not improving the quality of education or the social capital gap at the heart of inequality. Many in the business world see this as an opportunity to privatize education and reduce the power of labor unions and the cost of public entitlement programs at a time of diminishing resources in state budgets. For technologists, it is a simple evolution of artificial intelligence and developing a computer smart enough to be a personal tutor. For these reasons, traditional educators and humanists fear the future of learning. However, I do not see youtube, social networks, and video games replacing the role of parents and educators. Neither the industrial age school nor the Internet can encompass the full extent of our imaginations.
In an age of anxiety over the future, it is easier to look for quick, technological solutions than to embrace the hard conversations over the distribution of resources and social mobility at the heart of the education debate. It is important that the conversation around 21st Century Learning move from the edge of innovation, to the center of the national dialogue around how to promote healthy communities and prepare young people for an increasingly connected world.
The digital learning revolution is happening, and those institutions and individuals that position themselves to take advantage of the new learning opportunities are going to have an advantage over those who resist these changes. Until now there has been no tool that can be universally applied to personalize learning and extend the reach of individual learners at low cost to the global community. The challenge is not to overly romanticize the impact digital learning will have on our most pressing social problems. We cannot foresee how mobile digital media will remake our most powerful social institutions, but we need to critically embrace the opportunity to use the digital platform to make learning more engaging and relevant. Young people intuitively embrace the new medium. We need to take the leap and do the same.
1 U.S. Department of Education, 10 Facts About K-12 Education Funding, Washington, D.C., 2005.
2 Sam Dillon, "Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators", New York Times, December 7th, 2010
3 Trip Gabriel, "Proficiency of Black Students is Found to be Far Lower than Expected", New York Times, November 9th, 2010
4 Digest of Education Statistics, 2007, NCES, 2008, Table 274, 272
5 National Education Technology Plan, Executive Summary, November, 2010
6 National Education Technology Plan, Executive Summary, November, 2010
7 Jim Jansen, "The Better-Off Online", Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project, November 24th, 2010