Myriad challenges hamper efforts to scale classroom success.
First, vision. Envisioning what a transformed learning environment will look and feel like is difficult! As adults, we have about 15,000 hours of muscle memory from our own schooling experience and, especially for those of us who were relatively successful, we have a hard time imagining it differently.
Second, is lack of a clear and shared articulation of skills we seek to develop our students. Productive teamwork, problem solving and critical thinking, global competence, communication, information and media literacy are just a few skills that are critical for lifelong learning. And in order to develop these skills, students must engage in both relevant and complex problems that require an application of inquiry and research to solve.
Third is a lack of deeper and timely assessments that can support the learning process and continuous improvement. A focus on the wrong assessments or a limited assessment structure can be a barrier to learning and innovation.
Fourth, there’s the need to more fully build out infrastructure. We need abundant amounts of information that can help today’s students as they engage with development of essential skills. Luckily, that information is available on the Internet but that means that broadband is essential and so are “always available” digital devices in the hands of every student and teacher.
The potential benefits of technology-enhanced learning are tremendous. Students can use the same productivity tools that the pros use, whether it’s for writing, publishing, photography, composing music, making movies or creating animations. Additionally, students can work with problem sets and get instant feedback, play games that incorporate personal learning pathways, collaborate with geographically distant peers and engage in virtual exchanges and much more.
Another major benefit comes with accessibility technologies that allow people to access information, learn and communicate in a variety of ways that support their particular learning difference. We’ve recently seen this with students on the autism spectrum. Some students who were previously unable to communicate directly with others, can augment their ability with an interface that can communicate their thoughts for them. It’s pretty amazing.
Of course, a salient question is whether technology-enhanced learning can narrow the achievement gap. From my perspective, yes, technology can provide new and more equitable opportunities to learn. However, in order for this to happen, we have to close the Digital Learning Gap. This gap consists of three things. First is access. Everyone must have access to broadband and a personal access device. Second is participation. Schools, libraries and community support structures must ensure everyone knows both why and how to make use of technology and the Internet for learning. Third is powerful use of the technology. We must support the development of the ability to use technology to solve complex problems, think critically and collaborate, publish to a wide audience and access the people and resources to support personal learning needs.
Finally, we must make sure teachers are fully supported in order to make best use of technology for learning. Teachers need their own training and personal learning opportunities so they have the skills to impart digital responsibility and citizenship. If I could only make one single change to improve the classroom today, it would be providing access and a device for every student and teacher, so that they can take charge of their own learning journey. Thankfully, we don’t have to pick one thing! It is the complete system that counts and that system must ensure that every student has an equal chance of success.
This is job one right now.
Karen Cator is President and CEO of Digital Promise, a non-profit organization improving the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research. From 2009-2013, Cator was Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, where she led the development of the 2010 National Education Technology Plan and focused the Office’s efforts on teacher and leader support. Prior to joining the Department, she directed Apple’s leadership and advocacy efforts in education. Cator began her education career in Alaska as a teacher, ultimately leading technology planning and implementation. She holds a Master’s degree in school administration from the University of Oregon and received her Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Springfield College.