Aspen Report Says Learning Networks Key to Kids’ Success

A new Aspen Institute report focuses on building strong learning networks that facilitate learning anytime, anyplace, while keeping kids safe online.

Last year, the Aspen Task Force on Learning and the Internet was charged with a big task. The team of 20 leading minds in education, technology, business, public policy, and online privacy was asked to understand how young people are learning and to come up with ways to optimize new learning in safe, trusted online environments.

They found that an entirely new vision of learning is emerging. The Industrial Age education model, which revolves around the school as a central storehouse for information, is out of date. This approach to education fails to acknowledge that kids grow up accessing hoards of information online. And it doesn’t harness all the valuable learning that happens outside of a schools’ walls in places such as libraries, museums, afterschool programs, and online. (After all, students spend only 14 percent of their time inside the school.)

The report encourages a shift from the outdated system toward learner-centered environments, including traditional places for education, while making safe, trusted online environments a priority. The report’s five major recommendations and 26 steps for action lay pathways for making that shift a reality for all students, no matter where they live.

Its overarching recommendation is to build learning networks filled with online and physical places that empower students to learn anytime, anywhere. As the report explains, “New learning networks connect it all.”

The report’s ideal networks look a lot like what we’re creating here in Pittsburgh. The report even gives a shout-out to Hive Learning Networks as an example of “new learning” in action. Schools here in Pittsburgh still play a critical role in education, and many of them are on the cutting edge with high-tech learning labs, robotics, and game-making classes. But when the school bell rings, for the end of the day or for summer vacation, the Hive Network’s consortium of programs and organizations turns the city into a giant, messy, engaging classroom.

What does this network look like? This summer, kids in Pittsburgh are making science videos in the ti5 High Def Summer Smash Jam. They’re tinkering in maker spaces and creating art for social change. Meanwhile, New York City’s learning network takes shape in programs such as Digital Ready, which has matched 10 public high schools with Hive New York organizations to teach students everything from coding, to game making, to sculpting with welded steel. If they want to document that experience, they can earn online badges, a new form of credential that employers and educators, among others, can see.

The report also emphasizes that learning networks, particularly online networks, must be interoperable, that is, they have to share information and data to be effective. Tools too often exist in separate “silos,” or closed systems. They don’t talk to each other. But it’s “impossible to have a seamless connected learning experience,” the report notes, if the data and information on what is learned or where kids get stuck can’t be transferred without sacrificing a student’s privacy and identity.

The report’s last recommendation deals with safety. An increase in learning networks must come with a commitment to safe and trusted online environments. For example, data sets are an important tool for individualized instruction. Teachers can see in real time where a student is stuck or where the entire class is hung up. But there’s growing concern about how students’ individual data is used by third parties, and the report recommends re-examining and possibly modernizing federal and state regulations on student data use.

But when it comes to broader online safety, the task force claims tight restrictions and fear-based strategies, such as banning mobile devices from classrooms, don’t work. These strategies ultimately limit the internet’s potential for education. Rather, arming kids with digital literacy skills to protect themselves fosters critical thinking and gives them a lifelong skill. (Researcher danah boyd writes about this very topic in her new book.)

Responding to the Aspen Task Force’s recommendations, HĀSTAC and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a $1.2 million challenge dubbed the Trust Challenge. The challenge will offer year-long grants of up to $150,000 to teams with promising innovations for creating the types of trusted online learning environments recommended by the task force.

Successful teams will develop tools that build privacy and safety into its online offerings and “build awareness around data and trust.” This could take the form of online applications, digital badging systems, data management platforms, or learning content. Plus, the challenge is open to any part of a learning network: museums, libraries, higher education institutions, community organizations, developers, researchers, and others.

All working parts of modern learning ecosystems, outlined in the report, bring the famous John Dewey quote to mind: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” We want kids to be prepared for the changing world out there. Learning networks let them take advantage of deep, interest-driven learning that enhances their lives not only today, but also when they graduate. That’s a future worth working for.

Published June 24, 2014