21st Century Education Requires Distributed Support for Learning

By Chris Dede
Harvard Graduate School of Education

[Note: ETCJ associate editor Bonnie Bracey Sutton invited Chris Dede to submit this article. -Editor]

Educational transformation is coming not because of the increasing ineffectiveness of schools in meeting society’s needs – though that is certainly a good reason – but due to their growing unaffordability. We now see student-teacher ratios in some urban settings climbing to unworkable levels of 40 plus, even 60 pupils per class (Dolan, 2011; Dillon, 2011). This is not a temporary financial dislocation due to an economic downturn, but a permanent sea-change that has already happened in every other service sector of our economy.

Further, in K-12 schooling, our stellar illustrations of success are based on personal heroism, educators who make sacrifices in every other part of their lives in order to help their students. These are wonderful stories of saint-like dedication, but such a model for educational improvement is unscalable to typical teachers. We have not found a way to be effective and affordable at scale, and our resources are now dwindling rather than growing.

Events of the last few years and projections of our nation’s economic future paint a bleak picture of the financial viability of schools as we know them; we can no longer support an educational system based on inefficient use of expensive human labor. These inefficiencies are not simply within the walls of the school but reflect our lost opportunities to help students learn in all the hours and all the places they spend time outside of classrooms.

Social media, immersive interfaces (such as online videogames), and mobile broadband devices are at the heart of this issue: empowering new forms of learning and teaching while simultaneously contributing to the obsolescence of traditional schools/universities as educational vehicles. The 2010 U.S. National Educational Technology Plan (U.S. Department of Education, 2010) provides some important ideas on the impact of these advances in learning technologies, sketching both opportunities and challenges. Given the goal of transforming today’s schools and colleges to a new 21st century model of formal education that would support people’s learning across their entire lifespan, the following elements from the Learning section of the NETP are suggestive about foundations for this redesign (Dede, 2010):

Learning

  • Learning can no longer be confined to the years we spend in school or the hours we spend in the classroom: It must be life-long, life-wide, and available on demand. (page 9)
  • Technology provides access to a much wider and more flexible set of learning resources than is available in classrooms and connections to a wider and more flexible set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom. (pp. 11-12)
  • Engaging and effective learning experiences can be individualized or differentiated for particular learners (either paced or tailored to fit their learning needs) or personalized, which combines paced and tailored learning with flexibility in content or theme designed to fit the interests and prior experience of each learner. (page 12)

Taken together, these ideas suggest to me a different type of formal educational system for the 21st century. In such an educational model, our society would take responsibility for providing universally designed, personalized learning experiences lifelong and lifewide, delivered in and out of dedicated educational settings such as schools and colleges by a variety of educational roles spanning teachers, mentors, coaches, and tutors. Such a system would be roughly analogous in its social services to the various investments localities, states, and the federal government make in institutions that support wellness and medical care, which return valuable benefits to society on multiple dimensions (reduction of healthcare costs, economic productivity, quality of life).

For instance, many talented people not in the teaching profession would be happy to serve as tutors, mentors, and coaches for students if our formal educational system provided training, certification, resources, and formal recognition of those roles. Modern technologies provide ways of coordinating such a distributed system of learning/teaching so that teachers can both benefit from and guide the efforts of others who help students learn outside of the school’s location and hours.

As an illustration of a complementary role in a distributed model of formal education, collaborative media could help to coordinate between museum educators and both teachers and students. Teachers could use technology to make public the progression of curricular goals through the school year and the content/skills on which students need most help. In turn, museums could gear their exhibits and activities to foster these types of learning, making special outreach efforts to students for whom school-based learning was insufficient.

Museums also could craft strong professional development experiences for teachers, with abstract concepts richly grounded in artifacts and with curators providing content expertise. Virtual outreach beyond the walls and schedule of the museum could include both web-based educational activities, such as immersive educational simulations, and “augmented realities” that help people learn about digitized artifacts virtually embedded in physical settings throughout the region and accessible by cellphone.

Members of a student’s family or community could choose to play a different type of complementary educational role in a distributed model. The local context – present and past – in which a student lives provides numerous ways in which to ground, exemplify, and practice the knowledge and skills teachers are attempting to communicate. A learner’s family and people in the community who are close to that student can much better understand how to engage, motivate, and facilitate personalized learning than can a teacher confronted with many students in a classroom.

Schools of education could shift their training and credentialing to encompass not only teachers, but also parent tutors, informal-educator coaches, and community mentors. The inclusion of adult students with substantial life experience might aid in the transformation of education schools, as faculty would confront learners more sophisticated about life and children than their typical students now. Such a shift would extend ideas in the Teaching section of the NETP:

Teaching

  • Connected teaching offers a vast array of opportunities to personalize learning. Many simulations and models for use in science, history, and other subject areas are now available online, including immersive virtual and augmented reality environments that encourage students to explore and make meaning in complex simulated situations (Dede 2009). To deeply engage their students, educators need to know about their students’ goals and interests and have knowledge of learning resources and systems that can help students plan sets of learning experiences that are personally meaningful…. Although using technology to personalize learning is a boost to effective teaching, teaching is fundamentally a social and emotional enterprise. The most effective educators connect to young people’s developing social and emotional core (Ladson-Billings, 2009; Villegas & Lucas, 2002) by offering opportunities for creativity and self-expression. Technology provides an assist here as well…. Digital authoring tools for creating multimedia projects and online communities for sharing them with the world offer students outlets for social and emotional connections with educators, peers, communities, and the world at large. Educators can encourage students to do this within the context of learning activities, gaining further insights into what motivates and engages students – information they can use to encourage students to stay in school (pp. 41-42).
  • All institutions involved in preparing educators should provide technology-supported learning experiences that promote and enable the use of technology to improve learning, assessment, and instructional practices. This will require teacher educators to draw from advances in learning science and technology to change what and how they teach, keeping in mind that everything we now know about how people learn applies to new teachers as well. The same imperatives for teacher preparation apply to ongoing professional learning. Professional learning should support and develop educators’ identities as fluent users of advanced technology, creative and collaborative problem solvers, and adaptive, socially aware experts throughout their careers. (page 44)

Overall, in the past five years social media, immersive interfaces from the entertainment industry, and ubiquitous mobile broadband devices have coalesced in powerful ways to empower and integrate learning in and out of school. Too often, I have seen educational technologies used to put “old wine in new bottles.” Now, if we seize the moment, we not only can have new wine – such as peer mentoring anytime, anyplace – but also can move beyond the “bottle” of the stand-alone school to lifewide learning. “Plan” is a verb, not a noun. The NETP as a document loses value every day it sits on the shelf. Active dialogue about the draft Plan may be our best next step towards improving education for the 21st century.

References

Dede, C. (2010). Reflections on the draft national educational technology plan 2010: Foundations for transformation. Educational Technology 50, 6 (November-December), 18-22.

Dede, C., & Bjerede, M. (2011) Mobile learning for the 21st century: Insights from the 2010 Wireless Edtech conference. San Diego, CA: Qualcomm. http://www.wirelessedtech.com/

Dillon, S. (2011). Tight budgets mean squeeze in classrooms. New York Times (March 6). Downloaded on April 16, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/education/07classrooms.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print

Dolan, M. (2011). Detroit schools cuts plan approved. Wall Street Journal (February 22). Downloaded on April 16, 2011 from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703610604576158783513445212.html

U.S. Department of Education. (2010). Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology [National Educational Technology Plan 2010]. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education. http://www.ed.gov/technology/netp-2010

20 Responses

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  12. Since we’re well into the era of USER-generated content, it is disheartening to see how cautious our traditional educational institutions are about harnessing the power of social media. As I explained in a post about my efforts to get my own school district to try some experiments with social media:

    http://blog.learnstream.info/post/13970257934/moreas

    I wonder IF it’s time for us to seriously consider crowdsourcing education…after all, isn’t that what a homeschool cooperative does? I think I’m going to try to get a homeschool cooperative to try some of my ideas if I can’t get any other educational institution to try!

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  15. Thank you Dr. Dede, as usual for a very well written article that informs those of us looking at, thinking about and trying to create transformational change in education.. I have shared the link to the article in many places .and it is a great conversation starter.

    You said, ”
    All institutions involved in preparing educators should provide technology-supported learning experiences that promote and enable the use of technology to improve learning, assessment, and instructional practices. This will require teacher educators to draw from advances in learning science and technology to change what and how they teach, keeping in mind that everything we now know about how people learn applies to new teachers as well. The same imperatives for teacher preparation apply to ongoing professional learning. Professional learning should support and develop educators’ identities as fluent users of advanced technology, creative and collaborative problem solvers, and adaptive, socially aware experts throughout their careers.”
    This is so important. The whole article is outstanding.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

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  19. Chris I agree we are in a period of fast and rapid change in education. I am impressed that some publishers are beginning to make large libraries of software available for a nominal monthly fee. This streaming of video and software will in an itself radical change learning. your concept of teachers tutors and mentors will be reenforced by this marketing distribution system. I am just finishing a NASA STEM project where high school students live in Mars City and interact with NASA specialists via Ipads and social media meeting STEM challenges

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