I’ll be the first to admit that I have not been a fan of the federal government’s approach to educational technology. In 2010, the National Educational Technology Plan, which was subtitled, “Learning Powered by Technology,” was an mismash of ideas from technology education scholars and Silicon Valley education entrepreneurs. Created by academic leaders from distinguished Ivy League education schools, the report called for leveraging the learning sciences and computing technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences. Reading the report, it seemed to me at the time that the focus of the plan was all about the needs of the #edtech industry and the education researchers in line for funding. THEY were going to create marvelous things. THEY were going to create reams of data documenting each kids’ keystroke and their accomplishments on “personalized” adaptive learning technologies. And indeed they have done this in the past five years. As I read this report, I remember thinking about how completely absent the voices, perspectives and lived experiences of teachers, students and families were in all this. For this reason, it was a dud of a report, in my view. I made no use of it in my professional development work with teachers and school districts. It just wasn’t useful.
So how refreshing to read the 2016 National Education Technology plan, entitled Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education. This document is clearly written for a wide audience and I will be using it as a professional development resource in my work with teachers and school leaders. Here are some of the highlights (and a few lowlights) of the plan:
Create to Learn. The report acknowledges that creating media is a powerful pedagogy of learning — an idea that is central to digital and media literacy. Why is this important? Of course, “to remain globally competitive and develop engaged citizens, our schools should weave 21st century competencies and expertise throughout the learning experience. These include the development of critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration, and adding multimedia communication into the teaching of traditional academic subjects.” Sadly, however, the report does not use the terms “digital literacy” or “media literacy.” But plenty of examples in the report demonstrate what is obviously the pedagogy of media literacy For example, in Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a project of the U.S. National Park Service, students learn about history by making videos about their visits to historical sites, taking on the roles of writers, actors, directors, producers, costume designers, music directors, editors, and filmmakers.
The Courage to Teach. The 2016 NET Plan obviously benefitted from the participation of teachers in its design and construction. Particularly in urban schools, it takes courage to resist the pressure of “all test-prep all the time.” The report describes the work of a 4th grade teacher, Katie McKay, whose students explored the history of discrimination in the United States, developing comic strips and videos on the topic as a way to learn. The report acknowledges that this work requires courage, noting that the teacher experienced pressure to perform on tests “that were isolating and divisive,” noting that “in a climate that valued silence, antiquated skills, and high-stakes testing, we engaged in peer-connected learning that highlighted 21st century skills and made an impact on our community.” What a refreshing thing to read in a government document!
Active and Passive Redux. Among the 53 examples cited in the report, there is a high priority placed on active learning strategies that position students as creators of knowledge. The report describes a “new digital divide” caused by differential approaches to instruction. The report distinguishes between “active” and “passive” technology use, noting that some students get to use technology to create, design, build, explore, and collaborate, while other simply use technology to consume media passively, work through boring adaptive learning tutorials or take online tests. Project-based learning is lionized in this plan as teachers “create an engaging and relevant lesson that requires students to use content knowledge and critical thinking skills” by asking students “to solve a community problem by using technology. The report praises projects where students reach out using the power of communication and information to make a difference in the world, by (for example) creating an online community forum, public presentation, or call to action. When students use social networking platforms to gather information and suggestions of resources, and then draft and present their work by using animated presentation software or through multimedia formats such as videos and blogs, this work is authentic and meaningful to learners and community members alike. Throughout the report, I see good evidence of activation of the digital and media literacy competencies of access, analyze, create, reflect and act.
Professional Learning Matters. Teachers must see themselves as curators, guides, facilitators, co-learners and motivators. The plan calls for professional learning and development programs to support and develop educators’ identities as fluent users of technology. That’s a topic of dearly valued importance to me. Our work with the URI Graduate Certificate in Digital Literacy is described on page 38, where it says, “A critical aspect of ensuring that young Americans learn appropriate digital literacy skills is equipping educators at all levels with the same skills. To that end, URI offers a graduate certificate in digital literacy for graduate students, classroom teachers, librarians, and college faculty. By targeting a broad audience to participate in the program, URI is expanding the number of educators with the professional capacity to help students to learn, access, analyze, create, reflect, and take action using digital tools, texts, and technologies in all aspects of their lives.” As the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy now enters its 4th year, Julie Coiro and I are proud to have worked with 400+ amazing educators!
Teachers Must Learn to Scaffold Student Learning with Moving Image Media. Video and moving image media has always been important to teachers, and as more and more teachers rely on YouTube as a learning resource, the National Education Technology Plan actually acknowledges the complexity of using video for learning. I believe this is the first time the federal government has acknowledged the challenges and opportunities of the use of video for learning in an educational technology plan. I love the example provided in the report about Ryan Carroll at Crocker Middle School, Ryan Carroll, whose sixth-grade world history students had trouble learning from watching online videos. “[N]o matter how entertaining or interesting the videos were, his students were not retaining much of the information being presented, and often they were confused about key concepts. When the teacher discovered Zaption, he could support students’ ability to learn from moving image media by “adding images, text, drawings, and questions to clarify tricky concepts and check for understanding as students watched.”
Beware of BYOD. The 2016 National Education Technology Plan doesn’t offer much evidence to support its negative position on the practice of allowing students to use their own mobile devices at school. Yes, BYOD practices may widen the socioeconomic gaps and yes, it can be difficult for teachers to manage learning experiences and activities when they have to support multiple platforms and device types. Personal devices may not have the security features required for taking online tests. But here I would have liked to see some sensitivity to the practical realities that school districts face, with enormous pressure to continually buy the fastest, latest hardware. In many communities, this is simply unsustainable with current revenue models. To help support learning transfer between learning at school and learning in the home, BYOD approaches may offer real affordances for learners. Robust research and practical exploration continues to be needed to learn how BYOD approaches may support a culture of lifelong learning in and out of school.
Lots of Other Good Stuff. There’s great examples that will excite the imagination of K-12 educators, entrepreneurs and school and community leaders. How about the all-digital BiblioTech Library in San Antonio? The report also recognizes the importance of students developing a sense of agency in their learning and the value of non-cognitive competencies including forming relationships, self-awareness, control of impulsivity, and caring about oneself and others. The report even offers examples of innovative state leadership, including the development of the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan, developed by the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University.
So thanks to this fine document, my frustration with government ed tech has come to an end. Congratulations to Richard Culatta, Joseph South, Katrina Stevens, Zac Chase, and Joan Lee for creating a truly useful document that will help inspire and guide K-12 educators and school leaders in moving forward with innovative practices to support learning.