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Report Questions Future Relevance of Formal Education
Can formal education remain relevant in the long term? That's one of six critical challenges facing schools identified in a new report examining the impact of technology on education.
According to the report — a preliminary edition of the annual Horizon Report introduced this week by the New Media Consortium and the Consortium for School Networking — one of the more complex challenges for education in the face of technological advancement is defining the role that schools will fill in the future as some of the traditional functions of schools are being replicated by other sources.
"As online learning and free educational content become more pervasive, stakeholders and administrators must seriously consider what schools can provide that cannot be replicated by other sources," according to the report. "The idea is to rethink the value of education from a student's perspective and identify what learners need to know to seek credible information, work in teams, and persist in achieving their goals."
Each year, NMC releases an annual Horizon Report, detailing new and impending developments affecting K-12 education in the United States — including emerging trends, technology drivers and barriers to adoption. The findings are the result of research in coordination with an expert panel of Horizon Project participants, ranging from representatives of individual schools to the World Bank. (A complete list of current panelists and methodology can be found online.)
The report this year identified six key challenges, grouped by complexity: solvable challenges, difficult challenges and wicked challenges.
The struggle for relevance was one of the "wicked challenges" identified in the report, which, as the authors described them, are challenges that are difficult to define, "much less address."
The second wicked challenge identified by the researchers was a related issue: competition from new models of education.
According to the report: "New models of education are bringing unprecedented competition to schools, especially for students whose needs are not being well served by the current system. In the past year, massive open online courses have fueled much public interest in online learning, but competition from alternative schools, especially those with online programs, is not new in most K-12 school settings. Charter schools and online learning models have particularly gained traction in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia. For school leaders and policymakers, the challenge is to meet such competition head on, offering high quality alternatives to students who need them."
On the easier side of the challenge spectrum, the report identified two challenges that are "solvable" but that nevertheless have yet to be solved on a large scale. The first of these is "creating authentic learning opportunities" — which is to say bringing "real-life experiences" into the classroom.
"Authentic learning is seen as an important pedagogical strategy, with great potential to increase 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," according to the report. "Use of learning scenarios that incorporate real life experiences, technology, and tools that are already familiar to students, and interactions from community members, are examples of approaches that can bring authentic learning into the classroom."
The second is integrating personalized learning: "While the concept of personalized learning is fairly fluid, it is becoming more and more clear that it is individualized by design, different from person to person, and built around a vision of life-long learning."
Between the wicked and solvable challenges are two education challenges identified as "difficult" — challenges that we can understand but whose solutions have proved somewhat elusive.
The first of these is increasing privacy concerns in the face of the booming practice of collecting student data.
The second difficult challenge identified in the report is "complex thinking and communication." According to the report:
It is essential for schoolchildren both to understand the networked world in which they are growing up and also — through computational thinking — to understand the difference between human and artificial intelligence, learn how to use abstraction and decomposition when tackling complex tasks, and deploy heuristic reasoning to complex problems. The semantic web, big data, modeling technologies, and other innovations make new approaches to training learners in complex and systems thinking possible. Yet, mastering modes of complex thinking does not make an impact in isolation; communication skills must also be mastered for complex thinking to be applied in profound ways. Indeed, the most effective leaders are outstanding communicators with a high level of social intelligence; their capacity to connect people with other people, using technologies to collaborate and leveraging data to support their ideas, requires an ability to understand the bigger picture and to make appeals that are based on logic, data, and instinct.
The complete preview report is publicly available at nmc.org. Methodology and additional information can be found on the Horizon Report wiki. The full final report is expected to be released this summer.
About the Author
David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 29-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.
He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEDavidNagel (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).