The Digital Promise: Bringing People Together to Ensure Learning for All

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

[Note: The following article is Frank’s response to comments received on his “The Digital Promise Must Be a Total Learning Experience,” 9.26.11. – Editor]

I once was a scoutmaster and had two boys that were eager to become Eagle Scouts. They both succeeded. One was very smart and things came easy to him. The other had to sometimes struggle to master content. The smart kid was a loner and liked to work alone and could care less about what the other Scouts were doing. The other wanted everyone to join him in his effort to become an Eagle. When he discovered something new that he liked, he wanted all his friends to join in and share the joy with him. I knew both boys from when they were just preschoolers. Both made Eagle, both did well in college and both had successful families and were successful in their fields of work.

The lone wolf passed away a few years ago. He was a good citizen and a good professional and had a good life. The other is retired now after a life working to benefit others. I recently got an email from him on Facebook saying he was volunteering to work in a social charity effort to help disabled people. He in effect said he could not think of not working at something that brought good to other people. He indicated that he expected to continue doing such work as long as he lived.

I worked at a private residential school. As a teacher you take joy in seeing your pupils graduate, find work, marry and have families of their own. Many make their outstanding marks in the world. If you live long enough some of your former pupils leave the stage of life. I think of these two Eagle Scouts often and wonder why one was a lone wolf and the other a social being that wanted everyone to join in what he felt was the joy of learning. Both were smart and eager to learn and achieve. Both contributed their own particular skills to society.

To me they represent the challenge to the education system. How do we design an assessment system that measures accurately the progress of these two learning styles? That the Eagle Scouting system motivated both boys and assessed them along life’s journey is not in question. The broader question is how do we measure progress in both personality styles? One wants to learn alone whereas the other wants everyone to join him in his learning journey. The Digital Promise is that we can develop the needed tools to do just that. We can motivate, inspire and measure learner’s achievements accurately and authentically in a digital learning system. A good assessment system will measure where a learner is and how far she has gone in meeting the content standards she is striving to achieve. Moreover, it will guide the learning process towards the individual learning goals of the student.

The Digital Promise is that we have the tools to design a new learning environment. The issue is whether we have the will to implement it. The future of the world is in the quality of the learning systems we design and implement for our greatest natural resources — our people and their minds. The human mind is the most important natural resource we have. We must cultivate it and enrich it. The mind even when it is encased in a crumbling body can and does make major contributions for the benefits of all mankind. The examples of Stephen Hawkins today, FDR in his day and Helen Keller are a few examples of the wonders of the human mind even when it is encased in a frail body.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy dreamed of going to the Moon. As we now know his frail and painful body did not limit his vision of the future. Teams of dedicated minds working together landed men on the Moon and returned them safely to mother Earth. The Digital Promise is that we can inspire, motivate, and empower all children around the world to learn and grow in order to create a more perfect union of peace and good will for all mankind.

Hands and minds around the world can bring peace. The Digital Promise can unite people and expand our minds across space and time. Let us resolve that No Child in the World be Left Behind to live in ignorance.

An educated mind can move mountains. Minds working in teams can reach across insurmountable barriers. Hope means that we dream impossible dreams and achieve them. We must believe in the future and have the will to reach out and grasp it. The Millennium generation believes there is a better future. If older generations stand in their way it is time to move out of the way.

5 Responses

  1. The point is well made. Some do well in groups; a few do not. Both approaches can result in great success. We just have to look at the scientists of history to see both. You don’t hear about Watson without Crick. Others were involved in this pursuit also. Alternatively, how often do you hear of a collaboration with Einstein or Feynman.

    I wholehearted agree that the digital promise in education is to allow for every person to be educated well no matter how fast or slow, how social or not, how verbal, visual, or otherwise. Online education can allow for learning to mastery and for learning to think well much better than a standard classroom situation.

    Today, more teachers than ever are new. The mode used to be somewhere around 15 years and now is around two years experience. I just heard a comment that only 10% of our K-12 “STEM” teachers are trained in their subject. Not sure what the standard for “trained” is, but clearly we could use teachers with more such training. Really good online course materials can overcome that problem for students having untrained teachers and also help to train those untrained teachers.

    I’m sure that the invention of the printing press did not result in good textbooks overnight. They’ve been evolving for a very long time. We’re in the same position today with our newer technology, which has much broader potential scope. I, for one, see the future of educational technology mostly dimly with just a few clear spots. Students going at their own pace with teachers who learned from the same sorts of materials is one such spot.

  2. It took years for the printing press to produce texts that were highly vetted and peer reviewed. We went through a period of yellow journalism and the printing press was used among other places in Hitler’s Germany for propaganda. One of our greatest challenges in the digital world is how to develop validity. I am encouraged and believe our young people will meet this challenge. I think the so called millinium generation is ready to make major societal changes,

  3. My concern is that those who have been across the digital divide are across all of the other divides , technical, support, content, and what I call ways of knowing. Frank and I go way back. What that means is that there was not a competition there was, an invitation to learn. The promise was that I would enhance my pedagogical skills when I first started to learn the use of new technologies. I am sure that every once in awhile I get frustrated, but I was grateful for being included, for the invitation and for the support and programs , while I learned.

    Here’s the magic that he and Jennelle Leonard did for me. I had resources, training and permission to share the ideas that I had learned. My principal let us explore, examine, integrate, involve and extend learning using technology.

    Technology is always a leap. My Native American name is Blue Eagle.
    It is a boy’s name usually, but I could read when I was three.

    Frank allowed everyone to learn. I fear that the constant competition,
    like a game excluded those who do not have mentors, or the best in technology. Jack Kent Cooke sponsored a study called the Achievement Gap. It is here defined here in a blog.

    The Achievement Gap

    http://blog.masslive.com/real_learning/2010/01/bright_disadvantaged_students_doubly_at_risk.html
    The gist of the study , these points
    Strike one you are poor, You school may not have all of the resources, it may not be the best. Some of the books and resources may not be up to standard.

    A recent report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, argues compellingly that our society does not adequately nurture the potential of low-income high achievers. It makes sense. Poor, smart kids have two things going against them.

    Strike one, you’re poor. The culture of study may not be accepted in the group that the students come form.

    It is well understood that low income students are at risk for underachievement. Lower expectations, less- rigorous programming, limited enrichment, fewer skilled teachers, and challenging home circumstances are among the factors contributing to this risk.
    These children know about bullying. I am old but I learned to dance between those who liked learning and those who did not. Bullying
    I always wrote two of my homework papers, and I carried extra money for lunch until my mother decided that I would ride to school with my dad. Bullying was normal because I knew the answers in class. Not popular in these days or those days.

    Strike two you are bright,
    It is also known that bright students are at special risk for underachievement. They make less academic gain during each school year than do average and below average students, they spend a great deal of their time re-learning material they have already mastered, they underachieve to fit in, and they drop out in greater proportion than average students. I love the digital connection the way that well written programs can have children lost in thought, ideas and thinking skills. The Voyage of the Mimi, was a project like that. It was video, back in the day, there was a teacher set of resources, and there was
    professional development. Recently I taught at the Smithsonian and we were surprised to see that some elements of the program which were really great to use even now. But that is another story.
    History, Geography, Stories, Science, Cultures, STEAM, because we also did art .

    Strike three G and T students can be bored, impatient and want out of school because it does not suit their needs

    I got my first Mac treating a student, who was not a minority but a student who had a learning disability. He could not write longhand
    his brain worked so fast he could not squeeze the thoughts into legible pencil scrawl. His father and I decided he could use a computer. Additionally, bright students with learning disabilities often are never presented with sufficient challenge in strength areas.
    They were going to put him in Special Ed because of this inability to write, he was so intelligent and I knew it but I did not know how to validate his knowledge. Well, we entered this contest on the future and he typed out his essay, Fourth Grade. He won in a group of students who were mostly high schoolers. Instead of going to Disney land, he opted to have a computer for me, and the classroom and that was high tech back then,
    You know what, there are schools who do not have what I had back then, and there are teachers who have never had a comfortable invitation into learning using technology in effective ways.

    I keep waiting for Frank to get funding for that project on the Mississippi, it would be geography, literature, history and stories of
    that waterway. I don’t know what it would take, to restart meaningful programs.

    Of course when everything is in the cloud, and you don;t have but dial up. There is a problem and you are always running to catch up, hard enough to catch up when you can twitter, tweet, FB, MySpace and G+.

    Let’s go one more round. Ever heard of computational thinking, math, science. Most kids have not, Learning in this way shapes
    life long habits. The resources are free, but we are still using old
    ways to teach math and science and those kids who are like
    Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, are outside of a good path to the future. We spend more to incarcerate than we do it educate.
    You may have to read the book to get what it means to be invisible in education.

    In today’s tough economy, some political visionaries talk about “crossing the digital divide,” bringing America’s most needy into the high-tech age. Every home should be wired to the Internet, it’s argued, and every citizen should own a mobile phone – tools vital for kids to keep up on schoolwork, for job seekers to connect with employers. Comcast has a plan.
    http://articles.philly.com/2011-09-28/entertainment/30213199_1_broadband-service-comcast-internet-comcast-service

    I keep working because of stats like this.
    http://www.infographicsshowcase.com/combating-mass-incarceration-infographic/

    I was able to be successful because I was given permission, but not in a competition, just a learning landscape that was permissive.

    “For, like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being ‘for’ society and then ‘against’ it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase – still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.”
    ― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

    Lots of our students are invisible and cannot find themselves.

  4. Harry Keller stated that most of the teachers were new. Sure, we lose most of the teachers who go into teaching. Its a brutal world in some places. It is hard to stick and stay.

  5. “Digital Promise” Factsheet

    From the White House
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/15/fact-sheet-digital-promise-initiative

    It is too bad that Shirley is the only educator, but that’s better than nothing. We can help her if we work using the website.

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