The biggest challenge facing K-12 institutions with respect to digital learning is harnessing the power of technology to produce the most effective results. In other words, we have all this stuff, now what do we do with it to create real change in our learning environment? This challenge is a “big picture” challenge in which many facets are at play: social media, 21s century learning, tech inequity, digital citizenship, professional development and technology integration. What does this look like in schools?
We know we want 21st century students. These semi-mythical creatures innovate, think critically, problem solve, think globally, are in control of their learning and use teachers as facilitators. Great goal, but it is 2015; we are in the 21st century, so is everyone a 21st century learner? The answer is not yet because we still have 20th century learning environments. We have boards at the front (but now they are SMART) and desks in rows. When I walk down the halls I still see many teachers at the front of the room. We have books and pens and paper - both in reality and digitally - but we use them oftentimes in the same way as 20th century classrooms. Teachers & books impart knowledge while students absorb it. Now we can get our knowledge from all sorts of sources - we have websites and Twitter and Back Channel and Discovery Education, one might argue. But most often these sources still are assigned by the teacher and read by the students. In fact, the technology dazzles us into believing we are creating 21st century classrooms, when really we are just bedazzling 20th century practices. iPads and Chromebooks are only tools, and like any tool they can be used by skilled craftsman or struggling apprentices. Having the tool does not automatically make teachers and students become 21st century practitioners. Teachers need time, training and the freedom to fail to fully allow themselves to develop their practice.
Making real changes is hindered by federal education mandates that frighten districts into maintaining these teaching practices. They have worked for centuries, so most schools are reluctant to makes sweeping changes when federal funding and school budgets are on the line. Teachers, too, are caught in the cross hairs of federal and district mandates with the new evaluation system, PARCC and the Common Core. I have helped teachers create surveys to assess student knowledge, not for a strong desire on their part to understand and act on the data, but because they needed to prove student learning for the SMART goal. This situation is not fertile ground for growing innovative learning environments.
Fortunately, I am only explaining the challenge, not giving the solution. Sadly, I don’t have one. These challenges are great because there are no easy answers. We read about schools that have made sweeping changes and become truly innovative, but usually these schools were already failing, so a full sweep was needed and allowed. In school districts that are already successful change is harder. State testing scores are high, SAT scores are high, graduation rates are high, and college acceptance rates are high, so don’t rock the boat.