Making the Digital Connections to Improve Education in the 21st Century

A tremendous emphasis has been placed in this century on improving the quality of and outcomes from education. The most well-known efforts are: "No Child Left Behind" initiated by the Bush administration; "Race to the Top" initiated by the Obama administration; and "Common Core Standards" initiated by the National Governors Association with significant financial support from the Gates Foundation.

Although not as well-known or widely recognized, another primary initiative area has been that of connected learning/education using educational technology and digital information. One of the major initiatives in this area has been Connected Educator Month (CEM).

CEM focuses on using technology and online communities and networks to connect educators and educator stakeholder groups to enhance professional development and to enable sharing of practices and concepts that will facilitate collaboration and innovation in education.

CEM originally sponsored by the American Institutes for Research and others on behalf of the Office of Educational Technology of the United States Department of Education is in its fourth year of implementation. In its first three years of operation, millions of educators and education stakeholders participated in hundreds of professional development and other educational opportunities provided through CEM.

October is CEM this year. As CEM celebrates its anniversary this month, it is joined by a new player on the education "connectedness corner". That player is an entity called "Collective Shift" which has just been spun out of the MacArthur Foundation.

The initial endeavor for Shift will be LRNG. LRNG is a social enterprise that employs digital-based media and works collaboratively with schools, businesses, cities, community institutions, such as libraries and museums, to redesign learning for the 21st century so all youth have the opportunity to succeed.

LRNG's first initiative will be "Cities of LRNG" intended to expand MacArthur Foundation demonstration projects in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Washington.

The "connected learning" model developed based upon the results achieved through those demonstrations and other digital media and learning research sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation:

  • Starts with youth passions and connects them to learning opportunities depending upon their interests
  • Reaches kids anywhere connecting them to their communities, mentors and individual paths to success
  • Enables youth to get digital badges based upon the acquisition of knowledge, skills and achievement

The basic thrust for LRNG Cities is to "shift from closed school systems to open and vibrant learning ecosystems." This thrust entails bringing new players such as libraries and museums onto the learning playing field; using a new game-based individual feedback and assessment tool (originated by Glasslab Games); and, granting "open badges" to successful program participants.

LRNG has an ambitious agenda. Its target three years from now in 2018 is to be in 70 communities in the United States and to engage 1 million students.

While CEM and LRNG are relatively new players in the digital learning arena, TPS or Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) has been in place under this name since 2007.

This initiative sponsored by the Library of Congress (Library) provides professional development to enable teachers to incorporate the digitized resources of the Library into classroom teaching and lesson plans. It builds on the success of the Library's previous outreach initiatives, particularly the American Memory Fellows and An Adventure of the American Mind programs, which reached more than 10,000 teachers.

The Library implements TPS through two types of institutional partners: TPS Educational Consortium members and regional grantees. The Consortium is comprised of 28 university and educational members who assist in the design of the TPS program and offer TPS professional development on an ongoing basis. The professional development that the Consortium members deliver includes workshops, online courses, graduate courses, and mentoring.

The TPS Regional grantees receive grants to incorporate TPS methods and materials into existing programs for teachers. Grantees have used these funds to undertake projects such as including a TPS focus in curriculum, creating TPS-based teaching materials, or conducting a TPS workshop or course, etc. To date, school districts, libraries, educational associations and cultural institutions in 43 states and the District of Columbia have used the TPS Regional program to strengthen their professional development for teachers.

CEM, LRNG, TPS - these initiatives provide a small unscientific sampling of the numerous initiatives and the ongoing and accelerating trend directed at using technology and digital media and means to refine, revamp and reform the approach to education. These initiatives have already produced positive results and will undoubtedly produce more in the coming years.

Digital connections will be central to improving the quality of education in the 21st century. Of necessity, however, they will be a tool and a means rather than the end-all or be-all.

That will be true because - even in this new-fangled world, the old-fashioned connections that drive student success: school, community and family will remain paramount. (See our blog on this written during CEM last year.)

This will be so until there are machines that think. But, we believe that is a very long time away. Of course, we could be wrong.

If we are, put us in the camp of Freeman Dyson, physicist, Institute for Advanced Study, on this point - although we disagree with him on many others - who penned the following for the collection, What To Think About Machines That Think:

I Could Be Wrong

I do not believe that machines that think exist, or that they are likely to exist in the foreseeable future. If I am wrong, as I often am, any thoughts I might have about the question are irrelevant.

If I am right, then the whole question is irrelevant.

The relevant question today is not how do we make better machines? But, how do we thinking and feeling human beings leverage and network the digital connections to the primary connection points (students, school, community and family) to ensure the maximum benefit for students - most especially those who are economically and educationally disadvantaged?

That is a key connectedness challenge and the opportunity for the 21st century. It is being addressed and answers are being developed. Progress over the next decade will determine the adequacy of those solutions