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How social networking in school can drive innovation

When students connect globally through social networking in school, they develop important skills, ed-tech advocates say.

Countries around the world are leveraging the power of social networking in school to prepare students for highly competitive workplace environments, and the U.S. education system could learn from some of those best practices, ed-tech experts say.

A conversation between two nationally recognized ed-tech advocates reveals that the United States, often ranked near the bottom of industrialized nations in terms of teacher preparation, can take more steps to “globalize” K-12 education. And that, in turn, could help with workforce development and innovation, they say.

“We’re seeing incredible applications right now; numerous examples of how [ed-tech] content and tools impact learning and the digital school ecosystem,” said Tim DiScipio, co-founder of ePals.

An important question is how educators and policy makers should assess these digital learning environments and the impact they might have in 10, 20, or even 30 years.

“We’re at this doorstep of enormous technology coming into learning, and yet there are still [traditional practices],” DiScipio said. “It’s probably one of the messiest points I’ve seen in the last 10 years.”

He described what he calls an “internet web sprawl,” with a variety of digital learning tools and applications, each with its own username and password. Some involve hardware, others are cloud-based, but all lack centralization.

“We’re in this very interesting transformation,” DiScipio said. “Who is defining academic excellence in the 21st century as it relates to [ed tech]? How are countries and their school systems positioning for innovation? What’s the roadmap to have kids using the technology in a way where, when they get out of school, it’s so complementary that they bring [those skills] right to the workforce and impact a country’s economy?”

(Next page: “Social learning”—and its place in workforce development)

Mastering social learning tools equates to more inventive uses of data, teamwork, and resources to design, create, and process information in the future, he said.

When working with a top executive, ed-tech consultant Alan November said he asked the executive what one skill distinguishes an employee from other highly-qualified workers. The executive told him that empathy—the ability to value different perspectives, approach complicated problems with a team, and collaborate globally—is a necessary skill in the new global economy.

Other cultures do well incorporating empathy into the workplace, but November said Americans are notoriously some of the worst in this area.

“If the rest of the world doesn’t look like the U.S. version of democracy, American talent thinks it’s broken,” November said. “We really don’t prepare our kids to truly value different cultures in collaborative work.”

“The new digital workforce has many different things that can help drive it, and this is something very unexpected,” DiScipio said.

Australia is creating a brand-new ed-tech roadmap that brings together technology, the curriculum, and all stakeholders, he said. That plan is being evaluated for the potential impact it will have on commerce, the Australian industry, and the highly skilled jobs that will be created from future economic relationships with Asia.

“It’s so smart in terms of what they’re going to teach,” DiScipio said. “Asian classroom connections will be part of the curriculum,” and schools will pair up with Asian classrooms to learn with and from one another consistently throughout the school year.

“Australians are thinking about where their industry is being impacted [and are] shaping curriculum tools and methods around what the outcome is,” he added.

(Next page: Why global collaboration should happen ’15 to 20 times a day’)

“When I see global collaboration in many classrooms, it’s a project of one video conference with all the kids watching a big screen,” November said. “It’s not 15 to 20 times a day. The use of technology in schools is fairly far removed from the use of technology in the workforce. My sense is that you need the 15 to 20 times a day [to have an impact.] … We need teachers who really have ongoing relationships with other teachers all around the world, where there’s a constant checking-in with other students, and that’s what seems to be missing even when people have the tools.”

“It’s no longer about learning the curriculum,” DiScipio said. “It’s how students will apply and share what they’ve learned in a global digital economy and how that will impact what they do later on.”

“We have the opportunity every day to have authentic conversations with students in any country,” November said. “I want to be wrong on this, but I just don’t think this country has the urgency, and I’m going to say that maybe we don’t even have the capacity, to innovate [like] other countries do. I think part of it has to do with our culture. American education doesn’t prepare teachers the way other countries do.”

Referring to Harvard’s Eric Mazur, who performed some of the first flipped learning work in the country, he said: “Mazur says the single most important information any teacher can have to [create] lesson plans are the questions of students.”

He added: “If you have an online community, it is so essential that teachers collect questions every day from every student, to do an analysis on how to organize the learning ecology for the next day.”

Professional development for social learning communities should extend beyond the technical, November said, and delve into “what we can do with information and relationships that we could never do before.”

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