[The following is a piece I wrote for the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age blog to help promote the upcoming Breakthrough Learning event to be held in Mountain View, CA at the Google headquarters later this month. This conference is sponsored by Google, Common Sence Media, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and The MacArthur Foundation. You can follow along with what’s happening at this event through the Breakthrough Learning Twitter feed.]

A new high school is being built near my office. The old high school had served its function well over time, but in recent years the level of maintenance necessary to keep the school functioning translated into diminishing returns. School committees, planning committees, state and city officials, community members, and advisory groups came together to define a new future for the students of this city. Their passionate debates about the new school’s physical construction mirror discussions that are taking place on a national scale about how best to teach our students inside these structures. Our educational practices are showing their wear, with its own version of peeling paint, cracked walls and leaky ceilings.

Being a former teacher and having spent the last 20 years running a digital learning company that specializes in media creation, I see the potential for a revolution in education through the use of technology. Learning games, social media, mobile technologies, virtual worlds; all of these advances in computing offer greater opportunities for student engagement and improved literacy learning. What is clear to me and my colleagues is that there are many vested interests in the education world that don’t see this moment quite as clearly as we do, or if they do see it, don’t know how to advance its cause.

Let’s take a look at the kids we’re trying to reach today. They are the first generation that will have never known a time without the Internet, Google, or mobile phones. They are connected to the world through a variety of different digital, gaming, and communications tools. They are comfortable with many aspects of media creation. Every day they are presented with an unlimited menu of informal learning opportunities by simply following their passions online and choosing tools that suit their learning styles. How can schools compete with a similar level of engagement and interest through digital media inside the classroom?

Teachers and teacher training are certainly a critical part of using technology to support improved outcomes, but what elements outside the classroom influence the successes we wish to create inside the classroom?

Administrators and superintendents play a key role in purchasing decisions that impact schools. How do these leaders learn what technologies are best to bring into their classrooms? Should their ed tech purchasing decisions be driven entirely by the requirements established by policies such as No Child Left Behind? How can their purchases instead address a variety of different learning styles? How can they anticipate which digital media will appeal to the interests of their students?

Pulling back the curtain to shed light on the business of education we discover two areas that impact the quality of ed tech for schools, the first being new product creation. Publishers who create instructional materials for schools are, by and large, traditional media businesses that rely heavily on print. Most publishers are eager to play a part in the digital age, but historically their development efforts are driven by an editorial process that understands linear communication through the medium of print better than two-way communication and interactive engagement through digital media. How can these professionals better address the needs of a transmedia framework?

Secondly, the process of how new learning products are approved for school usealso has great influence over the quality of ed tech products that are marketed at the state level. Publishers often find their biggest opportunities selling instructional materials to states through what is referred to as an “adoption.” During the adoption process state advisors review educational materials to see if they meet state learning requirements before these materials are blessed for purchase by schools. Could it be that the adoption process itself, or the interest of publishers, places greater emphasis on print media than digital media because it is a business they understand? These adoption processes are very competitive, and not easy for smaller and more digitally advanced companies to compete with. The large publishers who vie for a state’s adoption often include sweeteners to convince adoption boards to select their materials over another, often times giving away the technology component as a free incentive. If a technology product is given away, it usually means it is not supported financially within these organizations during development thus reducing incentives to create real breakthroughs in digital learning. How can publishers shift their business practices to treat ed tech as its own successful, revenue generating profit centers? How can states adoption boards be encouraged to place greater emphasis on learning that is facilitated through innovative technologies?

And finally, what sort of commitment should we expect on the side of government? States rely on federal dollars to help with teacher training and the purchase of technology products. One specific area within the No Child Left Behind mandate offered to accelerate the use of technology in schools is a section of the law called Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT, Title II, Part D). Since its introduction in 2002 funds earmarked to support this commitment have declined. What is the true commitment of the federal government through this arm of NCLB?

Other federally-funded opportunities, such as Department of Education and National Science Foundation grants, have a hard time keeping up with the rapid pace of technology change. The process of reviewing a grant request, awarding and completing a grant, can take years. How can the entire grant process, from review to completion of a marketable product, be accelerated to keep up with the rapid advancements in technology? Can some amount of these grants also be directed towards smaller, more nimble, for profit ventures that are better able to chase a moving target?

Aside from the efforts described above, a long-standing opportunity to advance digital learning may be found in the promise of the CAMRA Act, also known as the Children and Media Research Advancement Act. The thinking behind CAMRA is that the federal government would fund research related to the use of electronic media to better understand its benefits to children. This bill was introduced in 2005, passed unanimously in the Senate in 2006, and has been stalled in the House ever since. Wouldn’t it be great if all organizations interested in using digital media for the advancement of children’ learning had a solid body of research to best guide not only new product development decisions, but also purchasing, implementation, and best practices of ed tech in the classroom? Wouldn’t the passing of CAMRA also put a spotlight on the need to bring together many disparate federal agencies interested in the research CAMRA would facilitate, and promote a more coordinated research agenda for the benefit of all? Combined with a sizable appropriation for the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies, the passage of CAMRA would help realize the long awaited formation of a central oversight group for the advancement of digital media and learning research.

If we could in some small way address these questions in each of these areas of education outside the classroom, we would begin to see a new version, an enhanced version of education that would drive classroom success. Much like that new high school being built next to the older one, the visual difference between the two structures is striking. Maybe it’s easier for all parties involved to demonstrate a greater commitment when a clear vision of the new is offered alongside the old. The choice would be immediately clear to most. The time and effort required to make such changes may be greater than what many are willing to invest and there is comfort in keeping the status quo, but to ignore defining something new comes at our own peril. Key sectors must work together in earnest to provide us all with untold opportunities for the learners of tomorrow. Let’s start building that new structure, the future of education, and let’s place that Education 2.0 cornerstone down right now.

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