Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Options and Opportunities

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 01, 2008

This Magazine Article published as Options and Opportunities in Threshold Vol. 6, No. 1 24-27 Mar 01, 2008. Cable in the Classroom [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

IT WAS A CRISP, CLEAR SEPTEMBER MORNING THE KIND WHERE YOU CAN SEE FOREVER ACROSS THE Manitoba prairie-when the police car pulled me over. It was mid-1995 and unusual to see a van crammed full of computers and electronic gear on a rural highway hundreds of miles from the nearest city. At least, that is what I told myself as the officer approached, his speeding-ticket notepad in his hand.

In the end, I escaped with a warning-and a convert. The Internet was coming to Manitoba students, I told him, and with it, a vista of new educational opportunities. Over the years that followed, I would demonstrate my portable, Internet-enabled network in communities across southwest Manitoba, building support for the online high school and college courses local Assiniboine Community College would be offering.

Providing Alternatives

What I offered them, and what we built in our rural region of western Canada, was not simply access to online resources. It was choice. In a small high school, only one or two students might be interested in contemporary world politics. Or perhaps, on a First Nations reserve, supplementary English instruction might not be available. We could build a course for those students and for others like them across the province. Our province-wide course made these things possible.

Today, choice is becoming increasingly important to parents and students. We have learned the importance of serving students with special needs, including those who are gifted and those with learning or physical disabilities. We understand the need for an increasingly varied cultural dimension in learning, as parents seek to pass on their language, religion, values, and traditions to their children. And we have seen the value of schools that specialize, such as the Aviation High Schools in Seattle, Wash., Long Island City, N.Y., and Oakland, Calif.

And so parents are being presented with an increasing range of choices. For those who can afford it, private or parochial schools have always been an option. Today, students also have the opportunity to study the advanced International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. Outside-of-school instruction is possible, such as that provided by Sylvan Learning Centers. Online courses are another option.

Meeting Diverse Needs

Faced with an increasingly demanding parent population, students who want more choices and opportunities, and a wider range of competing alternatives, what can public school administrators and supporters do to respond? How can schools and school boards be reconfigured to provide the range of options being asked of them? Fortunately, examples exist that illustrate how systems can adapt to meet changing conditions.

For many years, Canada's Edmonton Public Schools has successfully operated a system that allows parents and students to opt for one of a number of alternatives. Students can choose between advanced placement schools, Arabic or Mandarin bilingual programs, dance programs, hockey programs, IB programs, and much more. "We believe that the one-size-fits- all model of education is no longer appropriate in today's rapidly evolving society," write the school board trustees. "Children have different learning styles and some achieve better in certain environments. Edmonton Public Schools is making a strong statement about our ability to address and meet the changing needs of students."

Working with the teachers' union, the school board drafted a framework for decision-making at the school level. It encourages principals to foster "meaningful parent and community involvement in school matters." A key element of this is a program in which parents, teachers, and community members jointly review testing results and collaborate to design special programs or special schools.

Technology's Role

Educators also have learned that the dedicated use of technology can support effective and diverse learning. While many schools struggle with traditional computer labs, initiatives such as the Maine Laptop Program, which provides each student with his or her own personal computer, are promising models. Teachers are able to personalize instruction, students are more motivated, and learning has improved.

The development of cheaper, more agile computers will greatly extend the range of school laptop programs worldwide. Most well known is the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project, led by computer scientist and educator Nicholas Negroponte. OLPC's stated goal is to distribute hundreds of thousands of its $200 XO children's laptops throughout the developed and develop- ing world so all children can be "given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community." Similarly, computer-chip maker Intel, through its World Ahead Program, is offering the Classmate PC, a cheap and lightweight computer for classroom use. And ASUS made headlines in November 2007 when it unveiled the wireless Eee PC. Priced at $250, the seven-inch device was immediately snapped up by the Fresno (Calif.) Unified School District, which purchased 1,000 units as part its campaign to boost student achievement. This initiative included giving each student a digital portfolio that is linked to the district's main computer network and will hold all of the student's schoolwork from kindergarten through 12th grade.

With more affordable and more mobile computers with Internet access, administrators can rethink the design of schools and school districts. There is, for example, no reason to restrict students to a common program of studies in the same classroom at predetermined times. Thus, the Knowsley Metropol- itan Borough Council in Merseyside, England, an industrial suburb with a student population of 21,000, is closing its 1950s-era high schools and replacing them with student learning centers. As reported in The Independent, "The style of learning will be completely different. The new centres will open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. in both term-time and what used to be known as the school holidays. At weekends, they will open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Youngsters will not be taught in formal classes, nor will they stick to a rigid timetable; instead they will work online at their own speeds on programmes that are tailor-made to match their interests."

The purpose of the Knowsley initiative is to provide a more diverse school system in order to offer choices to an increasingly diverse school population. In a BBC News article, Nick Page, the man responsible for overseeing the transformation, argues that the district is responding to parent and community demands. Students, parents, and employers wanted "different types of products" from the education system, Page said. "What we are trying to do is to make sure that the physical and learning structures are adaptive and relevant in 25 years' time."

A Look at Online Learning

Online schools are far from new. The Virtual High School in Ontario, Canada, has been offering online credits since 1996. Anyone can enroll-many of its students are adult learners- and can sign up for classes at any time. Learners study at their own paces and are credentialed via a proctored final exam. "The flexible time schedule and professional, committed teachers enabled me to work full time in my senior year, and to graduate early and pursue an exciting internship with an international company," writes student Brent Emanuel in what is a typical case study.

There is a substantial role for the public-education system in supporting online learning. The iQ Academies, for example, offer online courses and services to students in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Arizona. Students are able to go full-time or to take courses not offered at their schools, such as advanced placement or foreign languages. Again, the objective is to provide choice and diversity to students and parents. By taking advantage of distributed educational services and resources, even small and remote schools can offer a personalized course of instruction for every student. The key to offering choice is not only to offer choice of school; it is to offer choice in school.

What Kind of Choice?

The diversity offered in online programs is illustrative. We are used to thinking of online learning as resembling traditional classroom instruction, with a teacher leading students through a course of study. In online learning, however, students can learn from interactive videos and animations, they can work with simulations, or they can listen to music. Students learn to write, and more important, to read and be read. They can work in groups, collaborate, and share their work with an online audience.

Online learning also allows students to work on programs of study that are grounded in real problems. In a simulation called Cyber-Budget, for example, students can work on the national budget of France. There is no reason why this educational and community-based activity cannot inform the actual budget passed by the French parliament.

This is also the approach taken by a collection of institutions based in Rhode Island known as Big Picture Schools. Founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, Big Picture charter schools offer personalized education programs that allow students to work with their community to pursue their interests. They do not focus on content-oriented curricula. Thus, for example, we see Shenandoah High School, a Big Picture School in El Dorado, Calif., in which students do internships with more than 300 mentors at businesses and organizations throughout north- ern California.

Students, though, need not align themselves with the interests of local employers to address real problems. In Denmark, an entrepreneurial educational program called KaosPilot International lets students identify real-world problems that interest them and address these in the course of their studies. While many KaosPilots form their own businesses, others perform social and outreach work, such as a group that is working with the organization MyLife in Cape Town, South Africa, to build a village for street children and help with product development.

Students do not have to travel to Denmark or Cape Town to engage in authentic learning, however. In the years following my work at Assiniboine, I traveled around Alberta, Canada, working with town managers and elected officials for Alberta Municipal Affairs and the University of Alberta, creating MuniMall, an online-learning and resources community where participants' learning and work could merge. It was important in the design of this project to enable people who aspired to become municipal officials and those who already were employed to share the same online resource, to learn from the same sources, and to talk with one another, because when a student engages in personal learning-when he or she is learning to make choices in an uncharted discipline-it is important to find support in a community.

Embracing the Community

It is possible, and probably necessary, to support choice in the public-school system. And there are many examples to learn from-many more than could be included in this short article. We know that a school district can create a range of school choices, and we know that school districts or entire states can provide the online resources to make choice possible. And we know that what today are called alternative forms of schooling can make real-world engagement in genuine problems not only an instrument of student choice, but also of deeper, more meaningful learning.

Proponents of public-school education will have to embrace not only new technologies that support learning and new pedagogies that leverage those technologies, but also new forms of organization suggested by those technologies and pedagogies. Where in the past we have relied on standardization as our guarantor of quality and access, we will in the future be looking toward more flexible measures- measures rooted in the needs expressed and pursued by an increasingly diverse population. We will be able, in ways we haven't previously, to enable each person to pursue his or her own educational objectives in his or her own way. And as the economic imperatives that demand a standardized curriculum fade, the educational, social, and economic benefits of diversity not only will become clearer, they will become imperative.

What will be required is a set of educational- and board-governance policies that end the isolation of the school board and of education generally, and that embrace the entire community. If pedagogy in the future amounts to creating the conditions under which students can learn for themselves, the community will absolutely have to participate in that education. Creating opportunities for students to see and share in the workings of their community, to interact with the mentors and role models that will shape their lives, and to work directly with the tools they will use to build their futures-this will be the role of teachers and of the educational infrastructure that supports them.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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