Calling technology’s greatest potential for education its ability to personalize instruction, Katie Lovett, chair of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), kicked off the group’s 12th annual K-12 School Networking Conference in San Francisco March 28.

The conference brought together school district chief information officers and other educational technology leaders from around the globe to discuss key ed-tech challenges and solutions. One of these challenges, Lovett noted in setting the stage for the meeting’s opening general session, is the need to break out of the mold of the one-size-fits-all approach to instruction.

Lovett, who is the CIO of Georgia’s Fulton County Schools, introduced Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Dede moderated an opening general session that explored two creative yet very different approaches to personalizing instruction with the help of technology.

One of these approaches is Notschool.net, a United Kingdom-based international virtual learning community. Notschool.net offers an alternative to traditional education for students who, for a variety of reasons, can’t cope with school.

“We’re the absolute antithesis of what school is,” said Jean Johnson, project director.

Johnson explained that Notschool allows students to take ownership of the curriculum and shape their own education. They can choose their areas of study, and because instruction is asynchronous and online, they can choose when they’ll participate. “Teenagers don’t want to learn at 8 o’clock in the morning,” she said–but, given a choice over the direction of their education, they do want to learn.

Operating within the confines of the traditional school system, Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools–the nation’s 12th largest school district–is working to create an Individual Learning Plan for each of its 163,000 students. “It’s time to craft our vision for the future, instead of dwelling on the past,” Superintendent Jack D. Dale told conference attendees.

After Johnson and Dale described their respective projects, Dede moderated a discussion about the challenges each faces. He concluded the session by noting that, while it’s clear technology allows educators to personalize instruction “in ways we never could before,” school leaders often must confront significant political and cultural hurdles to make this happen.

(Note: For highlights of this opening general session, see the nine-minute video clip titled “Personalized learning.”)

Re-engaging students

A key idea to emerge from this opening general session was the need for schools to re-engage today’s youth.

“Why are kids on MySpace?” Johnson asked conference attendees. “They’re there because they want to be there.” But, too often, the same can’t be said about school. Today’s students are growing up immersed in a world of video games, cell phones, and instant messaging–but when they get to school, they’re often forced to leave these technologies at the door.

In an international symposium held March 27, the day before the conference officially began, CoSN brought together education leaders from several nations to discuss how computer games and simulations–interactive media that today’s students embrace and understand–can be used as serious learning tools.

The symposium included an address from Lord David Puttnam, a widely respected British filmmaker and education official. Puttnam, whose films include The Mission, The Killing Fields, and Chariots of Fire, is the only non-American to lead a major Hollywood studio, having run Columbia Pictures in the 1980s. After retiring from the film industry, he went to work for the United Kingdom’s Education Department, where he has sought to spread the message that today’s schools must change if they are to reach a new generation of learners.

In an interview with eSchool News, Puttnam said education can learn a lot from the entertainment industry. The primary lesson? “Know your audience,” he said.

(Note: For highlights of the interview with Lord Puttnam, see the five-minute video clip titled “Know your audience.”)

The exploration of computer gaming as a serious approach to instruction continued on the conference’s first day, with a session examining a project in Japan, called the Instructional Activities Game (AIG), that is using games in teacher education, and another session that looked at existing research on the effectiveness of using games to teach core curricular content.

Links:

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Notschools.net
http://www.notschools.net

Fairfax County Public Schools
http://www.fcps.k12.va.us