An Opening for Digital Learning

Digital learning is here, if not in every child's classroom, then in their lives.

But will these tools to help students go further, faster and be available to kids who have the farthest to go?

There aren't that many opportunities to hit the reset button on history, but we in our field -- expanded learning time leaders and after-school networks -- have a chance to prevent that the same kids who always get short-changed are harmed again. As bridge-builders between communities, parents and schools, we can prevent the least advantaged students from getting sidelined while others speed down the 21st Century learning track.

But to do it -- to ensure that digital learning rolls out equitably, responsibly and responsively for all kids -- we've got to be in the game, helping schools deliver what Milton Chen calls "modern learning using modern tools."

In November, the U.S. Department of Education published a national education technology plan to "dramatically improve teaching and learning, personalize instruction and ensure that the educational environments we offer to all students keep pace with the 21st century," in the words of Secretary Arne Duncan. (Edutopia published this week a helpful primer to the 124-page plan.)

Expanded school days offer the time, place and conditions to personalize learning, next-generation style. Best practices are in early stages of development, but it's clear that instruction will be delivered collaboratively. Schools that partner with community organizations to expand the learning day count, among others, on diverse teams of teachers, college students and sports and arts specialists to educate. These schools should train all team members -- including parents -- in using web-enabled instruction to inspire kids' best efforts and help them acquire the multimedia literacy skills of this century.

Many online learning entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders simply don't know much about the networks that help kids learn not just more, but differently beyond traditional school hours. They're not familiar with the flexible, multi-talented labor force of community educators who partner with schools in the toughest neighborhoods to give all kids the growth opportunities they deserve.

Let's help investors and inventors get to know after-school intermediaries as connectors between private and public change-makers. I might start by suggesting that anyone seeking a path to innovation-minded school leaders can look to the 17 New York City public schools in TASC's Expanded Learning Time network.

And while we all become better-educated about using technology to expand learning beyond time and geographical boundaries, let's also go to work on the basics. It's not as well-understood, as it should be, that while some kids have access to every web device and mobile application on the market, many of the kids who attend schools that lack art, music or a gym also can't get to the Internet from their classrooms. We encounter these problems all too often during after-school activities. Schools have unreliable connections or firewalls that not only prevent students from accessing YouTube or Facebook, but also from connecting to major universities that offer open-source courses.

I'm challenging myself and my colleagues to become more active and organized in helping to shape the next generation of learning. It's not often we have an opening like this to get educational equity right.