America's schools have gotten wired. Virtually every school and library in the U.S. is now online, thanks in part to the federal E-Rate program, which has been providing subsidies for Internet connections since 1997.
The Internet has become a vital part of the education process, from elementary school through college and beyond. Students are using the Internet to do research, to get assignments and to submit homework. Millions of students will soon be taking standardized tests online to measure their academic progress. Teachers enjoy access to online libraries of educational resources that they can use in their classrooms. There is growing adoption of interactive e-textbooks that can be continuously updated in ways that traditional printed texts cannot. And in almost every library in the country, patrons can be found in front of terminals looking for work, taking online courses or pursuing personal interests.
The advent of connected learning
But these uses, important as they are, are just the beginning of a larger, more far-reaching revolution in education that is being enabled by broadband technology. A new concept, called "connected learning," has emerged that has the potential to fundamentally change the way students learn. To appreciate the significance of this transformation, we need look at how our current educational system evolved.
Back in the 19th century, as the U.S. shifted from an agricultural to an industrial society, there was a growing need for workers who were literate and able to function well in structured environments like factories and offices. To meet the need, we developed a system in which groups of students moved through school grade by grade in more or less lockstep fashion to learn the three Rs and how to function in a highly regimented environment -- a sort of factory model of education that persisted through the 20th century.
When digital technology was first introduced into schools, it was mainly seen as a way of enhancing traditional instruction. But just as technology has disrupted many other sectors of society, it is now poised to disrupt education. It is becoming clear that technology has the potential not just to improve education but also to transform the way students learn, both in the classroom and beyond.
Connected learning leverages digital network technology to empower students to pursue their own interests and assemble their own curriculums, making it possible for them to learn anytime, in any place and at any pace. Online resources that support this kind of individualized learning include search engines, digital libraries, blogs, wikis, podcasts, videos, social media, open education resources and specialized communities of practice. Broadband networks -- both wired and wireless -- along with personal digital devices ranging from laptops and tablets to smartphones are the "on-ramps" that provide access to these resources.
Interestingly, the early development of connected learning has been led not by educators but by highly motivated young people whom Milton Chen, senior fellow at the George Lucas Educational Foundation, has described as "extreme learners" -- students who are determined to use technology to forge their own education pathways. Initially, access to connected learning has been provided mainly by extracurricular programs in places like libraries, museums and afterschool centers that offer training in how to use digital tools creatively (examples include YouMedia labs in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Miami, and HIVE Learning Networks in New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh).
At the postsecondary level, massively open online courses (MOOCs) have enabled thousands of individual learners to pursue a college-level education on their own. Recent announcements that Starbucks is partnering with Arizona State University to offer for-credit online courses to its employees and that AT&T is working with MOOC provider Udacity to sponsor "NanoDegree" technical training programs could be important milestones in expanding opportunities for independent learners.
Making connected learning happen
A new report from the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet describes the dramatic potential of connected learning and offers recommendations to overcome the barriers to its realization. Recognizing that the Internet can pose risks to young people at the same time that it offers them rich educational opportunities, the report, titled Learner at the Center of a Networked World, calls for the creation of "trusted environments" that keep young people safe when they are learning online. Much work remains to be done to define and construct such environments, but they will involve a combination of technological safeguards and human resources to protect students' privacy and security.
Any effective solution will have to balance young people's need for protection with their need for the freedom to explore and experiment in pursuing knowledge. For example, filtering programs that are legally required on school-based computers to shield students from "inappropriate content" should not be so restrictive as to block access to potentially valuable content.
Ensuring access for all students
Connected learning holds the potential to accelerate learning for all students, reducing disparities in student achievement. Given the enormous potential of the technology, it is critical that all students have access to it.
One immediate challenge is to ensure that schools have sufficient bandwidth to meet the needs of connected learners. Originally, federal policy focused on providing broadband connections to schools that typically had a computer lab and perhaps a few computers in each classroom. But bandwidth requirements are much greater when every student can be online at any time they are in school and may well be interacting with rich multimedia content. One of the findings of the Aspen Task Force is that "current metrics [that] indicate whether institutions (e.g., schools and libraries) are connected to broadband Internet need to be redefined to indicate whether [all] individuals within the institutions have adequate connectivity" -- that is, whether a school has enough bandwidth to support every student being online simultaneously throughout the day. And since students are increasingly likely to be using mobile personal devices rather than desktop computers as learning tools, schools need to provide wireless access in every classroom. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has recognized this need and has proposed modifying the E-Rate program to permit funding Wi-Fi in schools as well as basic connections to schools.
Extending access beyond the classroom
Since learning may take place anywhere and anytime, connected learners also need broadband access outside of school. Although 70% of U.S. households now have broadband, millions of households still do not. Private-sector initiatives are helping to expand access. For example, Comcast's Internet Essentials program offers low-income families broadband service for $9.95 a month, along with the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer for under $150 and free digital literacy training. In its first three years of operation, the program has provided affordable broadband service to more than 350,000 households.
There are also promising public-private partnerships to increase access. In Forsyth County, Georgia, the local school district worked with the Chamber of Commerce to create a directory of free Wi-Fi locations in the community and to provide participating businesses with signs indicating where free Wi-Fi is available. And a middle school in Manchester, Tenn., that has equipped all sixth-graders with iPads had convinced local businesses to open their Wi-Fi hotspots to students to maximize the benefits of their technology tools.
The growth of broadband has provided a powerful new platform for learning. When policymakers consider an update to the laws that govern telecommunications (see "Rethinking communications regulation," Computerworld, Aug. 19), they need to recognize that communications networks are no longer just conduits for information and entertainment, but have become vital resources for many other uses such as education. Communications policy and educational policy are now intertwined. To ensure that the interests of education are taken into account when new telecom rules are formulated, educators will need to have a seat at the table. But if they are to participate in shaping new legislation, they will need to inform themselves about the technology and its educational potential.
Connected learning and the future of education
Brick-and-mortar schools will not go away, at least in the foreseeable future, but they will change. "Blended learning" describes a new educational model that integrates new digital learning into existing classrooms. In this approach, teachers shift from instructing groups of students to acting as mentors to students working individually on their own assignments (a change in role that has been described as teachers going from being "the sage on the stage to a guide on the side").
A study from the KnowledgeWorks Foundation envisions a new student-centered ecosystem in which "learning adapts to each child instead of each child trying to adapt to school." The Foundation predicts that "personalization [of education] will become the norm" and that "learners and their families will create individualized learning playlists reflecting their particular interests, goals and values." Rather than being places where all education takes place, schools become base camps from which students connect to the wider world to pursue their learning.
High-speed broadband networks will not only accelerate learning, but they will also enable students to acquire the skills that they need to flourish in a post-industrial society -- the ability to learn on their own and to keep learning throughout their lives, to think critically and creatively, and to seek out challenges and tackle tough problems. If the U.S. is to keep its place in a hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, if schools are to remain relevant in preparing students for the world they will live in, the shift to this new approach to learning is urgent and mandatory, not optional. The technology to support connected learning is already here; now we need to ensure that all Americans have access to it and make sure that its potential for learning is realized.
Richard Adler is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. He has written widely about the future of broadband and its impact on fields such as education, healthcare, government and commerce.
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