‘Convergent education’ comes together

Default Lines from eSchool News, first published in print on Nov. 1, 2009–As I was saying last month, an avalanche of change is rumbling towards our field. I propose we call this cascading phenomenon "convergent education."

Here’s what I mean: A new species of education is emerging that artfully aggregates up-to-the-minute instructional technology, sophisticated pedagogy, robust and standards-based educational content, and web-based delivery that requires a computer or other personal digital device but no fixed address. Under most circumstances, convergent education certainly can amplify the impact of traditional instruction, but it is not necessarily dependent on face-to-face encounters between teacher and student.

At its best, convergent education features diverse learning opportunities delivered via multiple media platforms combined with field trips (virtual or real), live streaming video, interactive archived video, educational gaming, student collaboration, animation, celebrity lectures and adventures, project-based instruction with student-managed data, virtual demonstrations and experiments, continuous monitoring of student engagement and learner satisfaction, and classic, in-the-classroom instruction.

In general, convergent education is based on developments such as distance learning and lecture-capture strategies that have been around for some time, but which are now reinforced by the completely unprecedented fact that nearly every willing learner has (or soon will have) economical access to the rich multimedia resources of the internet–access delivered by such devices as personal computers, netbooks, smart telephones, personal digital assistants, interactive whiteboards, pocket projectors, and handheld reading devices.

Convergent education has been made feasible–and perhaps even inevitable–by a unique confluence of social and technological forces that ultimately must transform the way we learn. Such forces include–but are by no means limited to–the thinning of our teaching corps by retirement, reductions in force, and classroom abandonment; the movement toward charter schools, open-courseware, and online universities; the push for school reform from government and industry; and the desire and necessity of multitudes of adults to obtain new skills and knowledge to survive and thrive in a swiftly changing job market.

Here’s what’s profoundly different now: This time the transformation will come whether entrenched interests like it or not.

Those elements of the education establishment that traditionally have defeated change will be powerless to stop it this time. Their hands will be tied, because the general population will no longer be limited to learning in authorized institutions at appointed hours under regular supervision.

At its best, convergent education eventually might embody the classical values of Paideia in ancient Greece, except now, its benefits will no longer be restricted to the aristocracy alone. Technology will make rich learning experiences accessible to the population as a whole.

Authentication of electronic resources will represent a crucial challenge, to be sure, so the role of colleges and degreed professionals as certifiers of curriculum and educational materials will be secure. Likewise, the need for accreditation agencies will grow stronger. But so will new methods of course validation such as crowd-sourcing and content valuation in the free marketplace of ideas.

Already enclaves of the learned are forming up–not only in traditional institutions, charter schools, and open universities, but also as independent cadres of scholars and academics working outside traditional environments. And now these mavericks are drawing on electronic media in all its forms to convey ideas and insights.

Persons committed to learning are now experimenting with open-course education. They do it sometimes for money, sometimes for honor, and sometimes just because they can. These experiments are under way in colleges, schools, museums, corporate offices, military installations, and shopping malls. The fruits of their endeavors now are offered up across the internet–quite often completely without charge. Like latter-day monasteries, some of these enclaves go about their illuminating work primarily to ennoble the spirit and enrich humanity. 

The best example I’ve seen of what convergent education can become is the Jason Project, a nonprofit subsidiary of National Geographic. As one student engaged in the Jason Project explained it, "It’s like school, only more fun."

The Jason Project is staffed by a relatively small team of highly skilled and fully credentialed experts. They deploy new media in all its manifestations to present serious and rigorous content in academically valid programs aligned with state and national standards. The programming–dubbed "education by exploration"–is designed to fit within school districts’ core fifth through eighth grade curricula.

Although the Jason Project has a venerable pedigree, it has now been completely revamped and upgraded. To get a clearer idea of what’s involved, check out these video clips featuring educators at Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools in metropolitan Washington, D.C.: here and here.

And I’ve saved the best for last: All the Jason Project’s course materials are free. By popular demand, the Jason Project does now offer professional development for a fee, but those services are optional, not required to obtain access to the courses.

To learn more about this groundbreaking example of convergent education, visit www.jason.org.

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