This year’s annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) in San Francisco has had a decidedly international feel to it, highlighted by a closing general session on March 30 examining what might be the world’s largest effort to transform instruction through the use of technology on a national scale in Great Britain.

In a session titled “Personalization and the U.K.’s Whole-School Reform Effort,” Doug Brown, head of learning technologies for the U.K.’s Department of Education and Skills, described the scope of these efforts and the vision behind them.

The U.K. has pumped a tremendous amount of funding into educational technology over the last 10 years, Brown said. It now spends the equivalent of $1.5 billion a year on school technology alone for its 9 million students–and this figure is growing at a rate of about 5 percent, per year. The country also has made a push to install interactive whiteboards in its school, and though the decision to participate is left to each institution, the devices are now in more than 50 percent of the nation’s classrooms.

By 2008, the country’s goal is to have all schools using learning platforms, all students using personalized learning spaces, and “universal access” to technology, wherever and whenever students need it, Brown said. That could include laptops, personal digital assistants, Sony PlayStation Portables, tablet computers, or whatever technologies school leaders choose.

The goal of these initiatives is to personalize instruction, Brown explained, adding: “One size fits all isn’t going to work.”

Sir Michael Barber, a consultant on global public-sector practice and former head of the British Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, was the original architect of Great Britain’s school-reform movement, which provides the context for that nation’s ed-tech initiatives.

Barber addressed the conference in a pre-recorded video, saying, “Change will only happen if it is placed in the context of whole-school reform.” It also will happen only if education leaders combine pressure with support, he noted.

Toward that end, high-quality leadership is key. Brown acknowledged that education officials made a mistake when their initial push to train teachers in the use of technology to improve learning didn’t include training for school principals; that has since been rectified, he said.

How are these reform efforts working? There is some evidence that achievement gaps have been narrowed, Brown said, and literacy rates in the elementary schools are on the rise–but there is still much more work to be done.

‘A new kind of conversation’

The “British invasion” at this year’s CoSN conference wasn’t limited to a discussion of that country’s revolutionary school reform program.

Earlier in the show, Jean Johnson, project director of the UK’s Notschools.net, showcased her project’s efforts to re-engage students who have dropped out of the traditional school system through an asynchronous, online learning community that she referred to as “the absolute antithesis of what school is.” (See story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStoryts.cfm?ArticleID=6959.)

Other conference sessions highlighted such initiatives as Australia’s national education portal, EDNA; the use of open electronic learning content in Japan; and an international research project to investigate new ways of measuring the value of school technology.

For the last six years, CoSN has held an International Symposium in conjunction with its annual conference, in which the organization has brought together key education and policy leaders from the United States and abroad to examine global responses to educational technology. This year’s symposium, held March 27, focused on the role that computer games and simulations can play as instructional tools.

But with this year’s conference, CoSN has made an effort to integrate more international speakers and voices into the general program itself, said Keith Krueger, the group’s executive director.

This year’s CoSN conference featured more than 50 international participants from more than a dozen countries, Krueger said; that’s double the number from past years. Besides the U.K., Japan, and Australia, these also included Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, France, and Denmark.

Krueger said CoSN wanted to give more international education leaders the chance to showcase their own ed-tech challenges and solutions, “so we can start a new kind of conversation and not just stop at the ocean’s shores.”

Links:

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

U.K.’s “Personalised Learning” web site
http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/personalisedlearning