Internet brings historic shift in learning

The Internet isn’t just a powerful tool for communication. It’s arguably the most potent force for learning and innovation since the printing press. And it’s at the center of what is possibly America’s mightiest struggle and greatest opportunity: How to reimagine education for a transformative era.

Today, technology, digital media and the Internet are reshaping work, the economy, culture, and everyday life, just as books and the printed word did 500 years ago. And yet, most schools around the nation operate in much the same way they did when the first public high school was created in the 19th century, and the telegraph was the most advanced mode of communication. In far too many of our schools, students do not even have access to the Internet, a defining force of knowledge sharing and civic engagement in our times.

Those students who do have access are accomplishing things that were unthinkable even just a few years ago. Youth around the country use blogs, wikis, podcasts, videos, Google Hangouts and question-and-answer sites to share stories, poetry, music, ideas, interests, causes and knowledge with a growing community of peers and co-learners on the Internet.

While there is a legitimate tension in balancing the opportunities and anxieties that come with the Internet, it’s interesting to note that research supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative reveals a massive disconnect between those of us schooled in the pre-Internet world and those coming of age post-Internet.

Today’s youth see the Internet as a treasure chest of learning. The Internet gives a learner the ability to find out anything, anywhere, anytime. Whether it’s the military genius of Napoleon, the writings of Thomas Paine or the pioneering inventions of NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa — it’s as close as a smartphone. This 24/7 learning ecology is exactly what is needed, because the reality of the digital era is that the demand for learning never stops.

Yet, legitimate concerns about equity and access, safety and privacy, the quality of educational opportunities accessed through technology, and the professional development needs of educators all deserve attention. In response to those concerns, we are pleased to be Honorary Co-chairs of a new Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet.

Over the next 12 months, 20 thought leaders and top practitioners in learning, innovation and online safety, will explore, with the public’s help, the best ways to take advantage of this historic shift in the learning landscape. The task force will analyze the research, policy and practice that can help us remove the potential barriers to learning in an online environment.

Why would a diverse group of stakeholders do this? There’s a strong consensus that education in America needs to be far more effective if we want to prepare all our children for the real world. We are already on the fifth version of the iPhone, but too little progress has been made on behalf of public education 2.0 and other institutions that reach learners of all ages. It’s imperative that we leverage the tools of our connected age just as generations before us harnessed the advances of their times.

And, we must design an approach to learning using tools that research repeatedly shows engage today’s students, and support mastering the knowledge and skills outlined in the Common Core State Standards — but also those higher-order 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.

In the participatory spirit of the Internet, we’re seeking to accomplish the task force’s mission in a very public way. We want to build on previous work and learn from those who are working every day to help every child reach his or her potential. There’s way too much at stake not involve as many as possible to make sure the learning tools of the digital age are available to every child and youth in a safe and trusted environment.

Make no mistake: Educational experiences that are accessible to all learners can level the playing field. Wherever and whenever, digital technology and the Internet can provide the opportunity to access knowledge and resources students and educators desperately need. The reality is that some students and educators are already benefitting mightily from the power of the Internet, social networking and digital age tools for learning — when all of them should be.

Jeb Bush served as the governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and is chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Rosario Dawson is an actress and co-founder of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan civic-engagement organization.

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