It's not every day that you get former Governor Jeb Bush and actress and activist Rosario Dawson to sign off on a major education report. But today, the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet released their findings entitled, "Learner at the Center of a Networked World" with Honorary Co-Chairs Bush and Dawson's endorsement.
Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, Aspen gathered 20 of the leading folks in the fields of education, technology, online safety and public policy for a year to craft an intelligent and challenging blueprint to bring our children's education and learning experiences into the 21st Century.
But do we really need another Blue Ribbon committee to tell us our school system is broken and we, in the US, are hopelessly falling behind the rest of the world? Is there room on our shelves for another weighty tome extolling us to connect our schools and unleash the limitless potential of the Internet into our kids' lives? And can we expect our teachers and parents to respond to yet another set of objectives as they get their collective heads around the Common Core and its' new demands?
To Aspen's credit, the authors tackle these and other challenges right up front. They also point out that the growing use of technology can lead to greater digital divides between the haves and the have nots. That teachers and, particularly parents, often feel unequipped and uncertain about digital technology and feel at a loss in supporting their kids. They even concede that school districts fear cuts in funding if labor-saving technology is more widely spread.
Add to this, the broader environment of parental fear and mistrust of how their children's digital records will be used, as shown in the recent collapse of inBloom. Combine a general unease around safety and privacy and concerns that our children will be exploited by commercial third parties if technology encroaches any further into the classroom. The fears are real and legitimate, says the report, but they are not insurmountable. The potential rewards are real and, if done sensitively and with the informed consent of all involved, could transform how students learn and ready themselves to live and work in our networked world.
Naturally, with a report of this nature, there are a slew of recommendations - helpfully labeled from A to Z. And there are five broad principles that inform these proposals, namely:
• Learners need to be at the center of new learning networks
• Every student should have access to learning networks
• Learning networks need to be interoperable
• Learners should have the literacies necessary to utilize media as well as safeguard themselves in the digital age
• Students should have safe and trusted environments for learning
While many talk about putting the student at the center of any educational effort, the reality has too often been that the school system, the methods of teaching, the curriculum and even the architecture of schools works against this noble ideal. What the report envisions is that with good access to both hardware and high quality content as well as data and systems that can travel with the student from home to school to library to Boys and Girls Club, the learner becomes the center of the hub, with help and support from all those around.
The Task Force members admit that much will be needed to be done to bring parents up to speed on a number of levels. They will require help in acquiring digital and media literacies - literally how the machines and devices work through to understanding what flows through them. The report is mute on how this will be funded or what will be needed to bring a generation of parents to much higher levels of digital competency. Whatever happens, it will be a major undertaking.
They also call for "deeper research" into the effectiveness (or not) of existing privacy laws such as the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), CIPA and FERPA, not to mention a flurry of state laws and seek to improve or modernize them. Alternatively, craft better policies that actually support learning networks rather than putting unnecessary or outdated rules in the way.
On a final, positive note, the report points out that the rewards of personalized learning in a safe and trusted environment will have untold benefits for this generation of learners. As Bush and Dawson see it, we need to put the focus on the student, and build novel and innovative digital systems around them.