Reflections: US National Education Technology Plan (ALT-C 2011)

By Matt Cornock

This is the third of a series of blog posts in which I write up my reaction and reflections on some of the sessions at the ALT-C 2011 learning technology conference. This keynote looks at US policy for elearning.

Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology

Karen Cator

US Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan

Cator started this Keynote talk with a few examples of the way that big brand companies create engagement through cleverly devised advertising campaigns. These campaigns aim to build momentum, using social media to promote their brand and not releasing all elements to a particular advert story line at once, but hooking the audience in. Cator’s point though is that if we (as a society) are used to engaging media (and I presume by extension, an engaging internet experience) then surely learning technology must take the same path in order to create stimulating and engaging learning experiences.

The US National Education Technology Plan is divided up into the following sections, and Cator provided a snapshot summary of each (the points that stuck in my mind are below):

  • Learning: bring in the ‘long tail’ of expertise and personal experience.
  • Teaching: how can teachers be connected to resources, each other and experts.
  • Assessment: increasing and improving feedback loops.
  • Infrastructure: what needs to be in place to allow the above to happen. Treating the school as just one node in the network of learning.
  • Productivity: understanding where peak productivity lies between frustration and boredom.
  • Research and development: being aware of the interdisciplinary nature of learning technology.

Support, encouragement and engagement

Cator expressed three further ideas which I found particularly useful as ideas for supporting and engaging people with learning technology: understanding demand, gaming, integrated support.

The need to create an “intelligent demand cycle” which is informed by research, therefore instead of elearning being pushed onto staff and students it becomes wanted by them. In this respect, I think what Cator is trying to express is how by informing staff about the potential of learning technologies, by exposing them to new pedagogies and offering opportunities to try out learning technologies which have research that proves their worth, they are more likely to be willing to adopt technology. Being informed is certainly part of the way there to adoption.

Cator briefly drew upon the analogy of the gaming world. Where mass multiplayer role play games such as World of Warcraft engage tens of thousands of users over sustained periods of time, they incorporate some form of achievement and status structure. Whether this is by rank, rewards or badges, these achievements act as motivators to continue playing in the game. Cator believes that we should be looking at ways to add this level of engagement to elearning. She refers to “competency-based systems”, which are in effect adaptive to the learner, releasing content and activities based upon the way the learner engages with the system. Simulations already contain much of these principles, but can this be translated to other resources with the same effect? For most in HE, it is feedback and the expertise of the teaching staff that act as motivators. One of the challenges I’m looking at currently is what happens if you don’t have the staff there to provide expertise and feedback, can you still create a motivating and engaging learning environment? Anyone that’s had to click through corporate online training will share my concern that we need to avoid that particular route at all costs, or rather develop a way of true learning within these restrictions.

Finally, a long term professional development commitment needs to be incorporated within a strategic plan. Examples like portfolios, recognition and the perennial community of practice. Creating a permanent online profile, which is transferable between institutions, is an approach that Cator suggests may bring staff into the web dominated world, and encourage them to up their skills to the level of their new students.

Personalisation

Responding to a question from the audience, Cator drew attention to how personalisation of learning is not a given. Some students, for qualification purposes, must do certain things the same and at the same time. In these cases the student could be seen as a “consumer” and therefore we would need to look at the ways in which we can help the student “consume.” In these cases though, it would appear that creating more engaging assignments (even if they are only formative assessments) may be the way to address the monotony of knowledge consumerism in an effort to foster understanding.

Equitable homework

The final point that was interesting, again a response to an audience question, looks at equity. Cator made a poignant observation: the rich suggest that pupils should turn off their computers at school because they have enough ‘screen time’ at home (the assumption is for gaming or pleasure rather than learning), however those unable to afford computers at home demand that access be given at school. How do you cater for both parties? In HE, we are constantly aware that we cannot make assumptions about the ownership of devices by students. This is why we still provide computer classrooms with 24/7 access, each with all the software required for the student to complete their degree. Any suggestion to remove that central, albeit baseline, provision would be foolhardy.

Conclusion

This was an interesting insight into US policy and policy-making. Some of the assumptions (particularly about how pervasive technologies are) contradicted with the evidence I have seen in other research, but it is significant that the US are attempting a country-wide policy. Unfortunately, this may lead to too many compromises and a system (technological or institutional) that no-one wants to use and doesn’t meet the full potential. The key to success  in these mass-scale projects is having the right people supporting those on the ground and choosing the right tools. A solid understanding and more importantly a critical view of the research out there will help this policy evolve into a sound implementation. It is reassuring therefore that research takes such a significant role in this policy.

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