CoSN Day 1: Education Reformers Abroad Hitch Their Star to Technology

Day 1 from the 9th Annual International Symposium of CoSN (Consortium of School Networking), in Washington, D.C.

March 1, 2010

Editor's Note: Don't miss David's dispatch on Day 2.

Sunday, I camped out at the 9th Annual International Symposium of CoSN, also known as the Consortium of School Networking, in Washington, D.C., and learned a ton from an A-list of international education innovators. Listening to folks from Australia, Brazil, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, as well as some of our own American leading lights, I came away understanding, with ever more precision, how essential technology will be to educating students everywhere.And how this tech-enabled education has the potential to prepare students for what will likely be a great challenge and reward in their adult lives: to work collaboratively across borders in an innovation-driven, global economy. That is, of course, if those of us in the most powerful and wealthy countries don't screw it up. And, happily, there are more than a few indicators that at least some of those nations are determined not to do so.

Some highlights and some links you can check out:

The keynote speaker was a man named Francesc Pedró, a senior policy analyst with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in France. (OECD is developing tests for measuring critical thinking, problem solving, and other 21st-century skills. These tests could be a model for the way standardized testing in the U.S. could change. Here is an OECD link, not the sexiest website in the world but. . .)

Pedro's talk was wide ranging. On the loaded topic of learning assessment, he said something that stuck with me. Technology, he explained, is not the most powerful driver of education reform. Assessment is. Because assessment represents the values of our society, those things that we hold dear that ought to form the core of what we teach children. Technology, he said, should enable the process.

Pedro and other speakers also called out a social media tool worth checking out. (Caveat: it is mostly for European educators.) But it will inspire anyone who is looking to link their classroom efforts with those of another teacher and class in another country. It's called eTwinning and it's being used by more than 80,000 teachers on more than 36,000 learning projects, involving more than 18 million students. Lots of inspiration and smart, simple ideas there.

Sasha Connors, a teacher from Burlington County, NJ shared some of her efforts to connect her students to peers in India and Afghanistan via Web 2.0 tools like Skype. Connors's students read their poems and essays to their counterparts and, as she tells it, were transformed by the praise and feedback they got from their Indian and Afgahn peers. Suddenly, interest, enthusiasm and hard work in class and at home, all began to rise. Discussion of Islam, dating, marriage, and the de-bunking of stereotypes (all Americans are not over-weight and infatuated with violence) energized kids on both sides, far more, she reports, than their more traditional studies.

Ken Kay from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills took a moment to distill what he thought the essential 21st century skills would become in the future: 1) the ability to accommodate change and 2) to work in concert on global teams. Interesting, when you think about the long list of virtues touted as "21st Century skills."

Just about every speaker agreed that the world faces a host of challenges in reforming education: human issues, technological issues, finance issues, language issues. And everyone agreed that the human issues (national prejudices, fears, long-held habits and customs) are and will be the hardest to solve. And everyone agreed that technology would be among the least difficult.

Michael Trucano of the World Bank said that without technology it would be impossible to make a meaningful dent in the inequity issues that plague education reform around the world. He cited his organization's commitment to enabling a decent primary education for every child in the world by the year 2015 -- impossible without technology, especially 2.0 tools.

There was lots of talk about understanding the role of technology in learning. Some call it an indispensable tool, an enabler, a required utility. The interpretation offered up by Karen Cator, Director of Educational Technology at the U.S. Dept of Education, captured my imagination. Think of technology as an environment, the eco-system in which education unfolds.

We, Americans, can get caught up in our national cocoon, living in a big, well-to-do nation, we come by it naturally. Yet I walked away from Sunday's symposium reminded how swiftly our nation's fortunes will change for the worse (already we are losing ground by the day) if we don't embrace efforts to reform the learning process and listen and learn from our global neighbors as we go. What did Darwin say? It's not the strongest who survive, or the smartest. . . but those who adapt best to change.

-- David Markus, Edutopia's editorial director

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