Ed-tech consultant Alan November believes in the power of student-centered learning.

Ed-tech consultant Alan November believes in the power of student-centered learning.

The most important change that technology brings to education is that it enables students to take charge of their own learning, said education technology consultant Alan November. Yet, this is happening in too few classrooms, he said—and a key reason is that schools are blocking access to the very tools that allow such activity.

November was speaking at a Jan. 14 session during the Florida Education Technology Conference in Orlando. Sponsored by Lightspeed Systems, the session focused on how to balance safety and learning in the digital age.

If you were to ask teachers or administrators what one indicator they would look for to show that real learning was occurring in a classroom, most people would say they’d like to see that students were engaged in the lesson, November said.

But in most classrooms where educators would describe students as engaged, there is still a dependency on the teacher to direct the learning, he said—rather than the students themselves.

“I think we have to redefine what it means to have engaged learning,” November said.

One of the resources that companies value most in this new global economy is a workforce that is self-directed, November said. He proposed two questions that school leaders should ask to determine if a class is engaged in student-directed learning:

(1) Are students adding value to the learning of other students?
(2) Is information flowing out of the classroom to the larger community—and not just in?

“The real power of the web is that it enables global collaboration,” November said. “Yet this isn’t going on in most schools. We’re blocking all the social tools that enable this.”

November recommended that school leaders give their teachers access to Skype, which is software that lets users make free phone calls over the internet. A former history teacher himself, he described how teachers could use Skype to engage students in a lesson about the American Revolution, for example.

If you use Google to search for information on “American Revolution,” November said, and you add the phrase “site:sch.uk” in the search bar, you’ll get a list of results that are limited only to web sites with the domain “sch.uk”—which is the domain used by British schools. Perusing these results will allow American students to see what their peers in the United Kingdom learn about this pivotal event in U.S. history.

After reading British accounts of the American Revolution, he said, American students could reach out to their peers in the U.K. and arrange to debate them using Skype.

“What’s going to get kids more excited about learning and drive them to prepare more thoroughly?” November asked. “Telling them: ‘You’re taking a test on the American Revolution on Friday,’ or saying: ‘You’re debating British students about the American Revolution on Friday?’”