Facing up to the challenges

Seems like it's been a week of looking at challenges and change in our education system for me – the field of education is a truly complex network of inter-related subsystems, each with its own ‘way of working’, supported by the expectations of its various stakeholders. While such a situation inevitably provides strength and resiliance, it also makes the system somewhat resistant to change, unless that change forces itself upon it by way of some political agenda or a natural disaster for example.

I’ve just come home from a meeting where I was discussing issues in the health system with someone working to bring change about in that sector, and there are lots of parallels – the magnitude and complexity of the situation can feel overwhelming, and put people off knowing where (or even wanting) to start. 

With this in mind I was reading a section in the recent NMC Horizon Report: 2012 K-12 Edition dealing with the significant challenges faced by schools adopting the use of new technologies, as identified by the advisory board.

It seems that even schools that are eager to adopt new technologies may be constrained by national or school policies, the lack of necessary human resources, and the financial wherewithal to realize their ideas. Sounds familiar!

Still others are located within buildings that simply were not designed to provide the radio frequency transparency that wireless technologies require, and thus find themselves shut out of many potential technology options. While acknowledging that local barriers to technology adoptions are many and significant, the advisory board focused its discussions on challenges that are common to the K-12 community as a whole.

The highest ranked challenges they identified are listed here, in the order in which the advisory board ranked them.

  1. Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession, especially teaching. This challenge appears at the top of the list because despite the widespread agreement on the importance of digital media literacy, training in the supporting skills and techniques is still very rare in teacher education. As classroom professionals begin to realize that they are limiting their students by not helping them to develop and use digital media literacy skills across the curriculum, the lack of formal training is being offset through professional development or informal learning, but we are far from seeing digital media literacy as a norm. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that digital literacy is less about tools and more about thinking, and thus skills and standards based on tools and platforms have proven to be somewhat ephemeral.
  2. K-12 must address the increased blending of formal and informal learning. Traditional lectures and subsequent testing are still dominant learning vehicles in schools. In order for students to get a well- rounded education with real world experience, they must also engage in more informal in-class activities as well as learning to learn outside the classroom. Most schools are not encouraging students to do any of this, nor to experiment and take risks withtheir learning — but a new model, called the “flipped classroom,” is opening the door to new approaches. The flipped classroom uses the abundance of videos on the Internet to allow students to learn new concepts and material outside of school, thus preserving class time for discussions, collaborations with classmates, problem solving, and experimentation. The approach is not a panacea, and designing an effective blended learning model is key, but the growing success of the many non- traditional alternatives to schools that are using more informal approaches indicates that this trend is here to stay for some time.
  3. The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices. The increasing demand for education that is customized to each student’s unique needs is driving the development of new technologies that provide more learner choice and control and allow for differentiated instruction, but there remains a gap between the vision and the tools needed to achieve it. It has become clear that one-size-fits-all teaching methods are neither effective nor acceptable for today’s diverse students. Technology can and should support individual choices about access to materials and expertise, amount and type of educational content, and methods of teaching.
  4. Institutional barriers present formidable challenges to moving forward in a constructive way with emerging technologies. A key challenge is the fundamental structure of the K-12 education establishment — aka “the system.” As long as maintaining the basic elements of the existing system remains the focus of efforts to support education, there will be resistance to any profound change in practice. Learners have increasing opportunities to take their education into their own hands, and options like informal education, online education, and home-based learning are attracting students away from traditional educational settings. If the system is to remain relevant it must adapt, but major change comes hard in education. Too often it is education’s own processes and practices that limit broader uptake of new technologies.
  5. Learning that incorporates real life experiences is not occurring enough and is undervalued when it does take place. This challenge is an important one in K-12 schools, because it can greatly impact the engagement of students who are seeking some connection between the world as they know it exists outside of school, and their experiences in school that are meant to prepare them for that world. Use of project-based learning practices that incorporate real- life experiences, technology and tools that are already familiar to students, and mentoring from community members are examples of practices that can bring the real world into the classroom. Practices like these may help retain students in school and prepare them for further education, careers, and citizenship in a way that traditional practices are failing to do.
  6. Many activities related to learning and education take place outside the walls of the classroom and thus are not part of traditional learning metrics. Students can take advantage of learning material online, through games and programs they may have on systems at home, and through their extensive — and constantly available — social networks. The experiences that happen in and around these venues are difficult to tie back to the classroom, as they tend to happen serendipitously and in response to an immediate need for knowledge, rather than being related to topics currently being studied in school.These trends and challenges are a reflection of the impact of technology that is occurring in almost every aspect of our lives. They are indicative of the changing nature of the way we communicate, access information, connect with peers and colleagues, learn, and even socialize.

Seems like we've all got our work cut out for us in the education system 😉 My biggest concern is that these issues require some high level, sustained, solution-focused attention to be resolved, and won't be addressed through short-term 'quick-fix' solutions that are based on what's popular. The future of our kids hangs in this balance. The challenges listed above are certainly not unique to the US context where this report was drawn from – and they haven't only just emerged. Much of this has been spoken about for more than a decade – and the fact that these things continue to be identified as challenges even now suggests that we are falling short in our approach, at a political level, at a national level within our profession, and at a local level within our schools. Either that or we don't really believe that it's an issue, and that the integration of ICTs is really only an optional extra, to be considered after we've sorted literacy and numeracy, and got our sports and cultural programmes running well. 

The report can be read in full by registering here, and can be accessed on mobile deviceshere.


One thought on “Facing up to the challenges

  1. The Horizons report certainly is on the mark, thanks for sharing, Derek.  Scary, too, for the lack of progress being made!

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