High-speed networks, digital devices, and creative applications are revolutionizing education.  Students can be empowered to take their learning to deeper and deeper levels while developing essential skills that will prepare them for success in the 21st century.

For example, our once-isolated classrooms now can connect students to authentic audiences around the world, leading to a deeper understanding of global issues. Powerful yet easy-to-use software tools can empower educators and students alike to create top-quality digital tutorials to contribute and build support for all learners. Our students now have access to primary source materials that would have been beyond the imagination (and limited education budgets) without high-speed networks. We can now support our special education students and have them collaborate where they were once isolated. Virtual reality tools allow us to explore places where a human being could never physically visit, such as the sun or the center of a nucleus. We have technologies that can make abstract concepts accessible and exciting.

Without question, there is a “wow factor” across all disciplines and grade levels. Every day brings the potential for new opportunity to expand and deepen the boundaries of learning. However, adding technology to our campuses does not automatically contribute to improved learning. There is the problem of what we could label, “the $1,000 pencil – applying new tools to do old work.” Research shows that unless we redefine the work we will not be tapping the full power of our emerging technologies. While we must support our educators to learn new tools, the truly creative challenge is to redesign the work and the roles of the learner and educator to tap the potential of our new technologies.

We need leaders who understand how to manage the opportunities of this historic transition. While it is not uncommon to find amazing pioneering educators on any one campus, it is more difficult to find whole campuses that have scaled the innovative practice across their entire faculty. Leadership will make the difference to the rate and distribution of these powerful innovations.

As exciting as these changes are, it is only normal that transformative change will bring some level of resistance from both faculty and students who are used to a traditional design of teaching and learning. One of the most important leadership skills moving forward is to help colleagues manage this shift.

Transforming our education system is not so much an intellectual/intelligence problem as it is an emotional one. For example, many of these emerging technologies represent a shift of control from the educator to the learner. It is not unusual for very gifted educators to feel a sense of professional loss when a new tool, such as the knowledge engine WolframAlpha, allows students to correct their own homework in math, physics, and chemistry and even explore the design of more difficult problems than assigned.

From a management perspective, it is much easier simply to add technology to do exactly what has been done before—the same curriculum, same assessments, same schedule, same assignments—than to fundamentally redesign the work and the culture of learning. While there are benefits to automating certain aspects of teaching and learning, we will need leaders who can create professional cultures of innovation where faculty members feel supported in fundamentally redesigning the work to make it more rigorous, creative, and motivating.

We are in a period of constant innovation that will take decades to absorb. What we need to do is correctly define the opportunity, craft a powerful vision, and develop implementation strategies that scale the improvement in increased quality.


Defining the Opportunity

In defining the opportunity that technology brings to learning, there are two broad decision trees for leaders:

  • What are we currently doing within our curriculum that we could be doing better by using technology?
  • What have we never done before that technology uniquely enables to enhance teaching and learning?

The first decision tree does not require changes to what is learned, but it might change how you approach learning. An example would be the difference between how my two children learned in college. My son, Dan, was able to receive much more support because he could watch lecture videos over and over again, and because he had a social network of fellow students to lean on—and these supports allowed him to learn the same material much more effectively. My daughter didn’t receive the same support, only graduating a few years earlier.

The second decision tree involves redesigning learning to take advantage of design concepts our world of paper could not provide. For example, in Bergen, Norway, students have a much deeper sense of global empathy. The Norwegian teacher is a pioneer in connecting students to journalists, police, prisoners, and native people around the world. Teacher and students fully appreciate that there is no way that a textbook or teacher-designed videos could ever come close to providing the level of depth of critical thinking enabled by global communication. As is too often the norm, this classroom also happens to be the only one in the school where students can gain a sense of developing the critical skill of reasoning based on authentic conversations.

Both decision trees can lead to improved learning.  Since adding technology to existing work is fairly straightforward, this article will focus on the definition of transformation. The questions that leaders should ask themselves include:

  1. Are we adding unique value to what we are doing as a school or district when using technology?
  2. How can we ensure these changes are scaled throughout the organization?’


Crafting A New Vision: ‘Transformational Six’

To support leaders to craft a new vision of teaching and learning, I have put together a framework of six key questions that education leaders can use to assess whether technology has brought transformative value to instruction. If you can answer “yes” to any of these six questions, then you’re on the right track:

  • Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?
  • Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?
  • Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?
  • Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  • Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  • Do students own their learning?

Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?

Before the Internet, our students accessed sources for learning that had been preselected by a teacher or a librarian. Clearly, the Internet has removed any pretense of control of information. Now that students are choosing sources that have often never been professionally reviewed, it is absolutely vital that we prepare students to make thoughtful decisions about how to select high-quality sources.

We must recognize that with fundamental change there can be unintended consequences. Perhaps our weakest response to the web replacing our libraries as the “go to” source of information for our students, is their lack of preparation to understand how to verify the value of their search results. For example, if you have ever watched a student do research online, you probably noticed that they entered the exact title of their homework assignment as their search query—and then they only looked at the first page of results. Critical thinking and careful evaluation of the reliability of sources can be sorely lacking. Too many of our students believe they know how to use Google effectively. When was the last time any student asked a teacher for help in designing a search? Perhaps more importantly, when was the last time a teacher offered to help? If our students fail at step one—selecting the right information—then they will automatically fail at critical analysis.

We cannot abrogate our responsibility to prepare our students to be critical thinkers in the Internet Age. We need to teach our students how search engines work and how to design a powerful (and effective) query.

Here’s an example: Suppose the assignment is to write an analysis of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Here are two very different search designs in Google:

“Iranian Hostage Crisis”

site:ac.ir “conquest of the American spy den

It would be normal for students to type the name of the assignment “Iranian hostage crisis” into Google.  This will yield only search results with Western sources if the search is done anywhere in North America.   If you ask students to review their results and ask them what is missing, many will not know how to answer this question.  They cannot imagine that what is missing from the first page of search results are Iranian sources.

If you challenge students to refine their search strategy to find Iranian sources, most will simply add “Iranian sources” on the back end of their original search. This still will not yield any Iranian sources. But it’s possible to use the advanced search page to select Iran as the source of your content. Or, you can use the Google operator “site” to switch your search to Iranian sources with the two-letter Iranian country code “ir” (site:ir).  If you further want to improve the quality of your Iranian sources you could type: site:ac.ir + “conquest of the American spy den” into the search bar. Now you will find sources that are limited to Iranian universities that deal with what the Iranians called that historic event.  This last search query will have no overlap with the original search yielding only Western sources. You will be learning about the Iranian point of view.  This can lead to a fascinating set of comparison questions.

It should be the responsibility of all teachers to teach the research skills that lead to high-quality comparative searches. In this case, the teacher could have required two sources from Iran. There should have been a review of country codes and the use of the advanced search techniques to generate results from Iran. Finally, the teacher should have spent some time in class challenging the students to think about their search terms—such as by asking: “What did the Iranians call the takeover of the American embassy?”  We need leaders who recognize that it is no longer sufficient to teach students how to read books and articles. We must prepare students to be web literate across the curriculum.

Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?

With access to massive amounts of information, including primary sources and different points of view from around the world, comes an opportunity to teach students to ask questions we could never ask in the limited world of paper.

Continuing with the example about Iran, if students discovered Iranian points of view about the hostage crisis, they could develop whole new lines of inquiry that would broaden their perspective of these events. For instance: Why did the Iranians refer to the takeover as the “Conquest of the American Spy Den?” Did the goals of the student-initiated revolution against the Shah align with the goals of the religious leaders who became the leaders of the new government?

In an interview I had with Stephan Wolfram, a chief designer of the computational knowledge engine WolframAlpha, he explains that most of the answers to traditional assignments are available online if you know how to find them. What isn’t on the web are the questions. One of the most important skills we can teach our students is how to ask creative, innovative, and even impossible questions. “The new answers are the creative questions,” Wolfram says.

Are there opportunities to provide our educators with new insights into how their students are thinking?

We now have powerful new tools that can help reveal what students are thinking in ways we couldn’t do before without technology.

These tools also help with self-assessment, which research shows to be one of the most important skills that can improve student achievement. And when students know what their peers were thinking about an assignment, they are more comfortable sharing their ideas in class—which can lead to richer discussions.

Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?

As mentioned in the Norwegian example, not only are students gaining valuable perspectives that have served to deepen their learning and help them develop new lines of inquiry, but students can also learn critical global communication skills that will prepare them for future success in anything they do—and they are typically fully engaged in their learning.  As one student commented, “I will remember these conversations for the rest of my life.”

Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?

This might be the most difficult quality to build into assignments, but it’s no less important. Many teachers I talk to worry about the decline of student focus, but we can immediately address this decline by adding a meaningful purpose to student work. As author Dan Pink notes in his book Drive, research shows that purpose is a key motivating factor.

A colleague in Istanbul has her geometry students designing the geometry curriculum for blind students by visiting a local center for the blind and working with the students to understand how to build tactile activities to understand the subject. When her students finished their project, they published it to the web for global access. They know they are potentially making a difference in the lives of 1,000’s of blind children worldwide.

When I interviewed these students in their classroom in Istanbul, many shared with me that they chose to extend their required 40 hours of design work to more than 200 hours. Some students even continue their work the year after their course ended. Their commitment to their work does not depend on an external reward such as grades, but an intrinsic drive based on making a contribution. It will become increasingly essential to give our students access to a global publishing platform to help build more capacity for student driven purpose.

Are students being challenged to take more responsibility to own their learning?

Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur knows how difficult this is from his own experience. He also knows just how incredibly rewarding it can be for students.

Dr. Mazur has figured out there are seven problems that require the knowledge he used to lecture about in his Introduction to Physics course. But instead of giving those lectures, he now gives his students these seven problems to solve in teams. He gives them the necessary background information, along with other resources, and then he inspires them to solve these seven problems on their own. They now do much better on the course’s final exam, because they understand at a very deep level how to apply what they have learned. He had to let go of what he once absolutely loved about teaching – giving a brilliant lecture.

Next Steps

Harnessing the power of high-speed networks and other technologies to transform teaching and learning will require that leaders recognize the opportunities of both automating existing practices and creating new opportunities for learning that we could never do before. As knowledge becomes more available online, we are moving to a new reality where the added value of an educator will be measured less by their ability to transfer their knowledge and more by their ability to inspire students to continuously expand their own boundaries of learning.

As we teach students the lifelong skills of validating content, connecting globally, and applying their knowledge to add value to the world, educators will become more important than ever. The essential leadership skill will be to help manage this transition to redefine the work of both educator and student. It is an amazing time to be in education!

Article produced in partnership with Alan November of November Learning.


Alan C November

Senior Partner November Learning