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eSN Special Report: Convergent Education


eSNSpecialReportConvergentEducation_CoverFew would argue with the idea that education–not only the business of education, but also the way educators teach and students learn–is undergoing great change, and it could be on the cusp of an even greater transformation. Technology has changed the way the world works, and inevitably, it’s changing the nature of learning as well.

Today’s students are wired 24 hours a day and seven days a week with laptop computers and mobile devices. Content is available from a variety of sources and content experts online, and much of it is available free of charge. Students of today, growing up in the Information Age, have a vast world of knowledge available at their fingertips: If they learn something of interest in school, they know they can find out more about the topic in just a few clicks. Sometimes, what they learn online differs from what they were taught, and they are learning to question the veracity of information.

In short, students no longer are limited to learning only in classrooms under the tutelage of certified instructors during designated school hours–and this change has profound implications for educators.

“When I was growing up, your teacher and the library were really the conduits to be connected externally beyond your local community,” says Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the use of information technology to aid in teaching and learning. “Today, if that’s all the connectivity you have, your world is pretty bland.”

With all this information available through such a variety of media, today’s students have become masters of the art of multitasking. Barbara Kurshan, executive director of Curriki, a community of educators, learners, and education experts who are working together to create high-quality online materials for teachers and students, refers to a recent experience she had with a group of middle school students she encountered in a friend’s basement. Some students were on the computer, some were sending text messages via their mobile phones, and others were on Facebook. She asked them what they were doing, and they responded, “Studying.” They had been given a problem set and were collaborating on how to find the answers, working together and reaching out to other friends to see who had the knowledge they needed.

“That’s exactly what goes on in the work world when solving a problem,” she says–and too often, “it doesn’t go on in the classroom.”

Some people believe that when students are multitasking, they are not learning as well. “I disagree,” Kurshan says. “I think they’re learning the way we work in the business space. If there’s something you don’t know, you’re finding it, and you’re doing a lot more critical thinking and problem solving. At the moment, kids may be learning more outside of schools than they are [inside them].”

As the world changes, a gulf has grown between the way students have begun to learn and the way many schools continue to teach. Students are becoming used to learning in a nonlinear way. They’re learning in both formal (schools) and informal (within their own communities, online, and so on) situations.

Yet schools are still, for the most part, entrenched in teaching in a linear fashion, starting on page one of a textbook, moving through the last page, and then testing to ensure the students have learned the subject. And they’re not allowing students to use many of the very tools–social networks, YouTube, and their mobile devices, to name just a few–that keep kids anchored and learning within their own communities.

This has led to a feeling among today’s students that schools have become less relevant and meaningful, and dropout rates are increasing.

A recent survey of students showed that 66 percent say they are bored in class each day, says Caleb Schutz, president of the JASON Project, a nonprofit subsidiary of National Geographic founded by Robert Ballard, the oceanographer and explorer who discovered the shipwreck of the Titanic. Moreover, a National Science Teachers Association study showed that the No. 1 problem science teachers face is a lack of motivation among students.

“The longer they’re in school, the more it’s like a prison. That’s a greater and greater problem as we get to middle and high school,” says Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking. “Kids have to power down as they walk into a school. They have to turn off the technology they use and go back to a traditional lecture environment. No wonder kids are bored and disengaged.”

Yet it is difficult to get educators and school leaders to tackle the problem, because of the existing school system infrastructure. “There are long-term pacing guides and scope and reference guides, and those dictate what a teacher will do every day of the school year,” Schutz explains. Those pacing guides need to be made revolutionary and exciting for real change to take place.

The JASON Project, for example, works with the National Geographic Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Department of Energy, and other leading organizations to develop multimedia science curricula based on its cutting-edge missions of exploration and discovery. By providing educators with those same inspirational experiences, and giving them the tools and resources they need to improve science teaching, JASON is able to motivate students to want to learn science. Innovative and creative teachers have always found ways to keep kids motivated and engaged by using resources such as the JASON Project. But many in the education sector worry that the system does not encourage such innovation, collaboration, and creativity.

This schism between how schools have traditionally taught and how students want to learn is bringing education ever closer to a tipping point.

All too often, technology is simply absorbed by schools, with educators using the technology to make their jobs easier but basically conforming it to the way education already operates–as, for example, when students take tests on a computer rather than on paper.

“When you cram any innovation, in any sector, into an existing model, that model basically usurps it, conforms it to the way the model already operates,” says Michael Horn, a co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. “It doesn’t fundamentally change that factory model in a way that’s student-centric. It doesn’t give each student what [he or she] really need[s].”

Yet a number of trends are driving the adoption of innovative technology in education, and these are, indeed, beginning to change how education works. In many cases, technology has been used as an enabler to teach in new ways. This so-called “convergent education”–the series of developments, aided by technology, that is changing how education works–is creeping across the country, forcing transformation.

Trends spurring change

One major trend that is speeding the push toward convergent education is the availability of a far greater amount of educational content than ever before.

Content providers include traditional education publishers as well as new organizations such as the JASON Project, Curriki, and Thinkfinity, a literacy, education, and technology initiative from the Verizon Foundation, that offer content to educators and students–much of it for free. Because online content can include audio and video, simulations, and games, among other things, it is far more interactive than much of the traditional learning that takes place in schools, and more likely to engage students.

“We focus on hands-on science and doing science in the lab like the scientists do it, which gives [students] a better understanding of science,” says Patsy Magee, preK-12 science supervisor for the Beaumont Independent School District in Texas.

Beaumont is using the JASON Project for its middle-school science curriculum. Textbooks are not the way scientists learn in the field, she explains. Incorporating the JASON curriculum, with its online and offline multimedia materials, gets students involved and excited about learning science, and motivated to continue learning.

Texas is one state–California and Virginia are others–that is moving away from the linear teaching model by using more online textbooks, which can incorporate multimedia aspects to engage learners.

Distance or virtual learning has begun to spread as well, and many schools now take advantage of opportunities to offer courses outside their main curriculum. For example, 25 percent of the nation’s high schools do not offer advanced courses, claims Horn–no chemistry, no physics, to say nothing of Advanced Placement courses. But with distance learning, students can report to the computer lab or media center to take an online course.

“Progressive schools are then unbundling the completion of those courses from seat time, and are focusing on mastery,” Horn says. He believes that by 2019, 50 percent of all high school courses will have a strong online component.

Another trend that is just beginning to happen is that some school leaders are changing their mentality of providing “one device for every child.” Many districts have tried to move to a one-to-one computing environment–but the high costs of this approach have largely kept it from becoming scalable.

Students historically have not been allowed to bring their own devices from home and connect to the school’s network. Today, however, a few schools are experimenting with a guest network, where students and teachers can bring their own devices. When this is allowed, it changes the whole economics of the issue, as schools are then providing devices only for the students who cannot afford them. The one-to-one model becomes viable, and more students can be connected.

The proliferation of collaborative tools such as wikis, blogs, social networking, and communications tools such as Skype is another trend that is speeding the move toward convergent education. These are emerging technologies for learning that are being used by the most creative teachers around the world, says Krueger. And the proliferation of mobile devices, which put information in the hands of learners wherever they are, is spurring the change as well.

Change is inevitable: How do schools adapt?

Experts say a change in thinking among educators is needed for the country’s educational system to be prepared for convergent education.

Students need to be taught more critical thinking, says Magee. When learners are made to memorize facts and then spit them back, they are not learning how to think.

Memorization “means nothing, especially with the kinds of students we have today,” Magee says. “There’s no reason to memorize it. They have access to information 24/7, their hands are on the computer.” It’s better, she says, to understand the how and the why of something rather than just memorizing content.

Kurshan agrees. Students need to know content, but more than that, they need to understand the process of learning, she says: how to realize what knowledge they’re missing, and then how to discover the answers to what they don’t know. “It’s not the content that needs to be changed. There’s not a whole lot of ways to change the content of math,” she explains. “It’s the way you teach that has to be changed.”

Teaching also needs to begin to move toward differentiation, or teaching different things in different ways to students, depending on their existing knowledge and on their learner profile.

Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia and founder of a new educational site called WatchKnow.org, a directory of educational videos for students, describes how such differentiation might happen: Teachers must currently use the lecture format–teaching a roomful of students the same thing at the same time–because there is not enough time in the day to teach them one by one. “But what if there are really excellent explanations of everything you could want to explain to a kid, available instantly?” he says. “Wouldn’t that take the necessity off the teacher to do the lecturing, and make it possible for people to proceed to learn at their own pace? This frees the teacher up to act as a tutor,” giving one-on-one time to students.

Cheryl Lemke, CEO of the Metiri Group, a consulting organization for the education sector, sees another side of differentiation. “One thing we’re suggesting to teachers is that they get to know their students,” she says. If an instructor is teaching cell biology, she might know her students well enough to know that with one student it should be approached in the sense of genetics, while with another you might approach it from the angle of disease, and so on. “There are a lot of approaches you can take, and you won’t know which to use unless you know your students pretty well. You could do interest inventories to learn about their lives beyond school,” Lemke says.

The ability to assess the quality and veracity of online materials is also a necessity in embracing convergent education. Students and educators alike need to learn skills of discernment, to understand what online sources are the most valuable and accurate.

“We’ve come to realize that knowledge-based content has exploded to such a degree that the ability to find it and use it is more critical than having it archived in our brains,” says Knezek. “What’s clear is that we can’t learn all the content. We’ve got to be sure we’re providing learning experiences that give skills for working with the body of content that is expanding so rapidly. We must learn to find it, judge it, and use it.”

Embracing urgency: The time for change is now

While some experts agree that change is happening, and happening quickly, others think the education sector does not feel the urgency it needs to force real transformation to occur.

“People say [education] can’t get any worse, that it’s hit bottom. I don’t think there’s any bottom,” says Gary Stager, a visiting professor at Pepperdine University. The system has been attacked by government regulators at an unprecedented rate, creating “the perfect storm of an abusive relationship,” Stager believes. Educators are being cowed into accepting things–like more testing and rote memorization–they know are wrong. This situation must change, and change quickly, he believes.

Countries such as Korea and Singapore, which were in the lower third of countries in terms of education, are now at the top, while the U.S. is in the lower to middle third of developed nations according to international benchmarking exams. Yet many educators are hanging on the edges, not seeing how fundamentally the world has changed, Krueger says.

“We have an inherently creative culture, but we’re on a path to squeeze out the creativity,” he says, “We’ve squeezed everything we can out of the accountability issue. Now we have to start looking at the whole system and see how we engage kids, to get them as excited in school as they are out of school. And I don’t think we’re going to get there by continuing to do the same thing.”

Jennifer Nastu is a freelance writer from Colorado who writes frequently on education and technology.

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