Critical Challenges

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. 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.

Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession. The challenge is due to the fact that despite the widespread agreement on its importance, training in digital literacy skills and techniques is rare in teacher education and school district professional development programs. As teachers 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.

Economic pressures and new models of education are presenting unprecedented competition to traditional models of schools. Across the board, institutions are looking for ways to control costs while still providing a high quality of service. Schools are challenged by the need to support a steady — or growing — number of students with fewer resources and staff than before. As a result, creative institutions are developing new models to serve students, such as streaming survey courses over the network. As these pressures continue, other models may emerge that diverge from traditional ones. Simply capitalizing on new technology, however, is not enough; the new models must use these tools and services to engage students on a deeper level.

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.

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 results in a lack of engagement in learning on the part of students who are seeking some connection between their own lives and their experience in school. Use of technology tools that are already familiar to students, project-based learning practices that incorporate real-life experiences, and mentoring from community members are a few practices that support increased engagement. 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.

Many activities related to learning and education take place outside the walls of the classroom. 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.

Putting 21st century technology into 19th century schools is a major undertaking. The 19th century school systems are still ubiquitous, from the outdated, industrial nature of old buildings to the old learning models and processes upheld therein. Schools must adopt 21st century technology to overcome the challenge of the current linear archetypes. These new tools are the antidote; organic and non-linear, 21st century technology facilitates the freedom for students to quickly discover information whenever they need it. In turn, they develop more sophisticated skill sets that open the doors to four-year universities and better jobs.

We need to build curriculum that allows for a mixture of experiences and online 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 perform group work outside the classroom that is accompanied by online exploration. The goal of this curriculum is for students to work with peers in other schools, connecting with each other online to design projects that incorporate local or global issues. While the students complete the project individually at their respective schools, the groups convene to review the project scope and present the results. The blended learning experience fosters a better grasp of project development, online collaboration, and ultimately encourages students to think outside the four walls of their classrooms and experience learning within communities.