It Will Take Leadership to Transition to Digital Age in Education

With the creation of The Jetsons in the 1960s, Hanna-Barbera projected what 100 years into the future could look like.  Set in 2062, The Jetsons lived in an automated, push-button world.  Long distance conversations took place face to face through a television screen, groceries were ordered on-line and delivered to your doorstep, and household chores are performed with the click of a button.  What Hanna-Barbera missed was the time horizon. It wouldn’t take 100 years for these changes to occur, it would happen in half of that time.

Little did they know, at the beginning of the 21st century soldiers across the ocean would be able to read their kids a bedtime story via Skype or Facetime.  Questions would be answered with a simple Google search.  Music would be downloaded straight to your phone with the click of a button.  And kids in rural Nebraska would learn physics from engineers in Japan without leaving their 11th grade classroom.

Most schools around the nation operate the same way today as they did a century ago.  They have the same schedule, the same classrooms, the same grade levels, the same teachers, and the same courses. With the ring of a bell, students move to the next subject, and the cycle starts all over again.

What if we were to channel our inner Hanna-Barbera, and visualize what public education should look like in the digital age?

I submit we would have an education system focused on student learning.  No arbitrary schedules or seat-time requirements.  Just learning.  Each student at his or her own pace, according to their learning style.

Interactive and adaptive learning technologies can allow students to learn in their own style and at their own pace.  This means no student gets bored and no student gets left behind.  Teachers are no longer forced to use textbooks that become outdated the moment they leave the printer.

Digital learning can provide real-time data so teachers can differentiate instruction with laser-like precision.  Data brings a level of efficiency to both teaching and learning that will improve both the experience of education as well as the outcome.

Imagine with me an education system where a student’s homework is listening to their teacher’s lecture, and class time is spent working through the military genius of Napoleon by using the latest GPS mapping software?

Or it might be a 10th grader in his backyard, at the picnic table, diving into his chemistry lesson via his mobile tablet.  He gets so caught up in what he is learning that two hours go by before he even looks up.

It could be a 5th grader whose classroom consists of students from several grade levels engaging in an interactive learning environment where grammar skills and concepts are practiced through gaming.  After providing an overview lesson on sentence structure and basic concepts, her teacher works with each student individually, based on their specific needs.

This modernized education system cares less about HOW she learns sentence structure as long as she learns it.

When a student masters the course concepts and skills, they have the opportunity to advance to the next level.  Some students might advance in 3 months, some in 9 months, and – potentially – some would advance after a year.  The bell would no longer control public education in our country.  The focus moves from how long it takes to master the content to simply making sure students master it – period! There would be no need for end-of-year tests, but only end-of-course tests.

What I do know is that our education system will not modernize itself without leadership.  We need state, district, and school leaders who can see this vision and have the courage to make the changes necessary to support student-centered learning.  These leaders should focus their efforts on moving to a competency-based education that requires students to demonstrate mastery of the material, ending the archaic practice of seat-time, funding education based on achievement instead of attendance, eliminating the all too common practice of restricting students to district boundaries, and removing barriers to effective, high quality instruction.

Digital learning levels the playing field. No matter where you live or what school district you are assigned to, technology provides the opportunity to access knowledge and resources students and educators need.

Ask any teacher what their students spend most of their time doing in the halls, not to mention during class, and they will tell you that their kids are always on their smartphones – for academic as well as social reasons.  We are already on the 4th version of the iPhone, but very little thought has been given to the need for public education 2.0.

If each student was given the opportunity to learn at their own pace with an education plan customized to their individual needs, then each and every student would achieve his or her God-Given potential for learning. They would all be prepared for success in the 21st century economy.

Hanna-Barbera had the courage to visualize 100 years into the future.  The technology is available, just waiting to be utilized. Do we have the courage to act today?

-Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush is the chairman of the Foundation for Florida’s Future and Foundation for Excellence in Education.  This blog first appeared on redefinED.

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