Real Innovation in Education Is About the Internet

We are the first people to admit that when it comes to the digital age, we've been under a rock. We are not digital natives. We are so far behind most technological innovation that we scoff at the term late adopter; we are "after adopters." That said, we are constantly looking to our more tech savvy colleagues to understand how the world of education is changing.

As education leaders, we appreciate the recent article Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say, in the November 1 education section of The New York Times. It unveils research that Pew and Common Sense Media have done on teacher perception of technology's impact on student attention, and that many teachers believe it is now more difficult to teach children using traditional methods. The article relays that "there is mounting indirect evidence that constant use of technology can affect behavior, particularly in developing brains, because of heavy stimulation and rapid shifts in attention." That assertion is serious, and it concerns us as both educators and as mothers. But what is of even greater concern to us is that nowhere in the article is there much more than a passing nod to what the Internet and digital learning could do to deeply engage and inspire active learning in young people -- especially disenfranchised youth -- in unprecedented ways.

Education is part of a bigger movement, across all of society, towards "connected solutions" to our hard problems. After working on the enormously hard problem of improving the public education sector for most of our careers, we welcome and want to try any smart solution -- such as using networks -- to solve our intractable education challenges. We see how technology-supported networks create connective tissue that allow people to collaborate and learn together directly, so that organizations and individuals can work together in new ways. These networks are increasingly taking root in and transforming many of our ways of interacting, from fundraising, to health, to energy, to learning. We, as educators, parents, leaders, have the opportunity and the responsibility to now build strong, student-centered learning networks through technology.

The Internet and its related technologies arguably constitute the most democratizing innovation we have in our country, and certainly in our education sector. According to Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, "[The Internet is] a belief system, a philosophy about the effectiveness of decentralized, bottom-up innovation. And it's a philosophy that has begun to change how we think about creativity itself." (New York Times essay, In an Open-Source Society, Innovating By the Seat of Our Pants). We have great expectations for our students: we want them to be college- and career-ready, we want them to be adept at "21st century skills," we set increasingly higher academic standards for them (especially now with the roll-out of Common Core State Standards), and we want our youth to be able to constructively apply their learning to their lives and our communities. How, then, can we underestimate technology and the Internet in education when they are such accessible and customizable resources for learning, creativity, and innovation? The Internet is part of our reality, and we would do well by our children to accept and embrace it -- in classrooms and beyond.

We know we are not alone in our vision of using technology to improve education; many educators already use the Internet and digital tools to engage their students and guide them to personalized, connected, authentic learning. But we worry that many educators -- particularly those who, like us, did not grow up immersed in technology -- are unintentionally and subconsciously averse to weaving technology into the fabric of teaching and learning, simply because they do not see what doing so would look and feel like, and technology does not map onto to their mental models of classrooms.

The world as we know is has changed. It is not something in the far off future that might change, and it is not something that our children might have to face someday. The world is online. The world adapts to new technologies as fast as innovators can dream of them. Our children know it. They know how to navigate it; they know how to use it. And we owe them the respect they are due: to use technology as well as they do to help them succeed in their own education.