Karen Cator: A Mission Critical Infrastructure for a New Teaching Profession

When teachers ask Karen Cator "when is all this technological change going to happen" she gives a tongue-in-cheek answer: August 2012. From the urgency in the US Education Department technology director's speech at London's Learning Without Frontiers Conference, you can tell she'd like to see it happen a lot quicker.

She compares the hunger of the 150,000 innovators from all over the world who came to CES in Las Vegas to what is going on in educaton. Consumer electronics is a world of massive change: in 2010 there wasn't one tablet on the lips of those innovation-hungry folk, this year there were more than 50 being trialled and talked about. There were 150,000 professional learners getting themselves gen-ed up.

Education, meanwhile, seems to currently lack that scalable innovation that the world of touch electronics and wireless mobile has achieved. Is there a way for us to create more scalable, higher quality learning in schools? Is there a way to instil in every teacher the notion that they are a lifelong learner, with a portfolio of learning and repertoire of their contributions to the learning of the profession? Cator, to put no fine a point on it, wants every teacher in America -- and beyond -- to a) learn how to teach better, b) share that learning with the world, online, in public, and c) ratchet up the professionalism of teachers by removing the ties that keep their hands behind their back as they try to teach. By this, she means moving teachers to a digital learning environment where educators have every technology and tool they need at their disposal. Mobile phones, the super computers in every child's pocket, she says, must be switched on.

The School of One is one example upon which Cator pulls to show how technology can help us do more than simply tinker with curriculum or assessment:

School of One re-imagines the traditional classroom model.  Instead of one teacher and 25-30 students in a classroom, each student participates in multiple instructional modalities, including a combination of teacher-led instruction, one-on-one tutoring, independent learning, and work with virtual tutors.

To organize this type of learning, each student receives a unique daily schedule based on his or her academic strengths and needs. As a result, students within the same school or even the same classroom can receive profoundly different instruction as each student's schedule is tailored to the skills they need and the ways they best learn. Teachers acquire data about student achievement each day and then adapt their live instructional lessons accordingly.

By leveraging technology to play a more essential role in planning instruction, teachers have more time to focus on doing what they do best - delivering quality instruction and insuring that all students learn.

But in order for this model of learning to scale we need to find ways of harnessing technology -- multiplying the investment in people that made School of One possible is not going to work for the many. What needs constructed in order to make learning as engaging as a video game and as effective as a face-to-face tutor? How can feedback loops be improved?

Teachers need to be more widely connected to each other, and to expertise in the field. And they need access to resources just-in-time. We need to ratchet up the teaching profession.

Productivity is more or less guaranteed by activity pitched at the right level, at the right time for each individual student. We cannot expect this competency-based learning, at such an individual level, to succeed unless we have a Mission Critical infrastructure. And that includes the cell phones in every child's and teacher's pocket.

This story was originally posted at Ewan McIntosh's edu.blogs.com