The Future of Education Isn’t Free. It’s Open.

The Future of Education Isn’t Free. It’s Open.


Listening to the political debates about education in the United States, you might get the mistaken impression that nothing is changing other than costs going up and performance going down. Things are better than you may realize, especially in one area: instructional resources. We are on the threshold of sweeping change that will make it easier for teachers to teach and students to learn faster and more effectively.

Advances in learning science are powering a new generation of technologies that, when used by dedicated teachers, improve student performance and extend learning beyond the confines of the classroom. Digital adaptive learning coupled with an explosion of relatively low-cost learning applications has the potential to dramatically lift the performance of all of our students.

The bad news, the thing that frustrates so many students, parents and teachers, is that many of these technologies simply do not work well together.

The good news is that there is a solution that requires no new money. It merely requires the existing stakeholders to agree on standards to make interoperability an immediate reality. It would also enable schools to make certain the data on their students is protected.

The need to support technology standards

The simple solution to accelerate open edtech for everyone is to support technology standards set forth by organizations like the IMS Global Learning Consortium. Building digital content and learning technology around open standards ensures that educators and students can determine what’s most effective without worrying about whether different technologies will work together.

There’s some debate about just what we mean by “open” in the context of education. For some time, the term has been synonymous with free content, usually found online, which educators can use in the classroom. While free resources play an important role in education, a far more useful definition of open is technology or content that can integrate painlessly with other resources. Regardless of whether a product is free or paid, what’s essential is that it works well within a larger ecosystem designed by educators to promote student success.

What seems like a simple concern of IT departments has serious implications for learning. Technologies that live within closed systems create roadblocks in students’ learning pathways. As a result, educators find themselves with added complexity and cost. Often, they’re unable to use the technology that works best for their students because they’re locked into systems they’ve used in the past or because the complexity of creating a seamless classroom overwhelms them. After all, I rarely meet a committed teacher who simultaneously wants to be the IT helpdesk and systems integrator for his or her classroom. Those are too many demands.

At its best, learning technology has the potential to transform education and change lives. It can provide safe and effective personalized learning pathways that grab and hold the attention of a learner. Learning technology can empower teachers with new insights and new understanding that maximizes students’ abilities.

In an open learning ecosystem, educators can select from a wide range of curricular modules and learning technology curated from various sources—including open educational resources—to design experiences that aren’t just personalized, but are also likely to improve learning outcomes.

I have seen many great examples of educators using technology to create learning experiences that fit the needs of their students and that harness the educator’s teaching style for better student outcomes. Teachers know what works best for them and their students. Data analytics can be layered on top of all of this to give educators insights into what’s working and where there are opportunities for refinement. The possibilities of technology are tremendously exciting.

Seeing a well-done combination of content and experiences in action is like listening to an orchestra. It’s artful and powerful. The technology fades into the background and the teaching, learning and community are brought to the foreground where ideas flourish, just like a melody.

Unfortunately, when systems are closed, this symphony of learning becomes much more cacophonous, if not impossible. Closed and rigid learning technology can keep students and educators stuck in place and create frustration. Given the funding challenges of our K-12 system, it’s not something we should accept. It is why we must push for adherence to open standards for learning technology across education.

My company is not immune from criticism here. In our former life as a print publisher and in the early stages of our digital transformation, we thought of content and technology as discrete entities—we didn’t quite have a sense of how educators combine different tools. In short, we weren’t yet thinking like an open software company. But our philosophy has evolved considerably: this past spring, we began opening our products to others— customers, students, partners, and even competitors—to allow for deeper levels of modularization, integration and personalization.

A call for responsible development of edtech

Learning technology has advanced more in the last five years than the last fifty, but a lack of openness is one of the key factors keeping it from having the massive effect on results that it should. By committing to a more open, collaborative future, we can accomplish our goals by putting students and educators in a better position to achieve theirs. This is not just an imperative for companies—the entire ecosystem needs to adopt these standards too. School districts building their own content, well-meaning philanthropists who are funding developments, policymakers and the Department of Education all need to endorse and insist on these standards. It will create a better world for us all. 

Stephen Laster (@slaster) is the Chief Digital Officer at McGraw-Hill Education.

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