Education Opinion

21st Century Education Requires Lifewide Learning

By International Perspectives on Education Reform Group — April 12, 2011 3 min read
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By Chris Dede

Educational transformation is coming not because of the increasing ineffectiveness of schools in meeting society’s needs - through that is certainly a good reason - but due to their growing unaffordability. Events of the last few years and projections of our nation’s economic future paint a bleak picture of the financial viability of schools as we know them; we can no longer support an educational system based on inefficient use of expensive human labor. These inefficiencies are not simply within the walls of the school, but reflect our lost opportunities to help students learn in all the hours and all the places they spend time outside of classrooms.

New media are at the heart of innovative models for education: empowering new forms of learning and teaching while simultaneously contributing to the obsolescence of traditional schools/universities as educational vehicles. The 2010 U.S. National Educational Technology Plan provides some important ideas, sketching both opportunities and challenges. For instance, many talented people not in the teaching profession would be happy to serve as tutors, mentors, and coaches for students, if our formal educational system provided training, certification, resources and formal recognition of those roles. Modern technologies provide ways of coordinating such a distributed system of learning/teaching, so that teachers can both benefit from and guide the efforts of others who help students learn outside of the school’s location and hours.

As an illustration of a complementary role in a distributed model of formal education, collaborative media could help to coordinate between museum educators and both teachers and students. Teachers could use technology to make public the progression of curricular goals through the school year and the content/skills on which students need most help. In turn, museums could gear their exhibits and activities to foster these types of learning, making special outreach efforts to students for whom school-based learning was insufficient. Museums also could craft strong professional development experiences for teachers, with abstract concepts richly grounded in artifacts and with curators providing content expertise. Virtual outreach beyond the walls and schedule of the museum could include both web-based educational activities, such as immersive educational simulations, and “augmented realities” that help people learn about digitized artifacts virtually embedded in physical settings throughout the region and accessible by cell phone.

Members of a student’s family or community could choose to play a different type of complementary educational role in a distributed model. The local context - present and past - in which a student life provides numerous ways in which to ground, exemplify, and practice the knowledge and skills teachers are attempting to communicate. Schools of education could shift their training and credentialing to encompass not only teachers, but also parent tutors, informal-educator coaches, and community mentors.

In the past five years, social media, immersive interfaces from the entertainment industry, and ubiquitous mobile broadband devices have coalesced in powerful ways to empower and integrate learning in and out of school. Too often, I have seen educational technologies used to put “old wine in new bottles.” Now, if we seize the moment, we not only can have new wine - such as peer mentoring anytime, anyplace - but also can move beyond the “bottle” of the stand-alone school to lifewide learning.

Christopher Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard Graduate School of Education. His fields of scholarship include emerging technologies, policy and leadership.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.