What do we mean when we say, “Transformative learning experiences powered by technology”?

When I was in the fourth grade, I lived in a small, mostly rural community surrounded by giant rice fields in Arkansas. I spent my summers floating stick boats down the gutter after a thunderstorm or “racing” my Hot Wheels™ cars against each other in the living room.

Author Joseph South, 4th Grade

My best friend, Brian, lived across the street, and we would explore the nearby woods. I spent 95% of my time within a block or two of my house. My world was happy, but pretty small.

One summer day, a kid in the neighborhood, whose father worked at the local state university, invited me go with him up to campus to visit the engineering lab. That lab is where I met my first computer, the Commodore PET Personal Computer. It had a tiny green monochromatic screen (just like in the Matrix movie). It saved programs on audio cassette tapes. It was big and blocky and heavy and wasn’t connected to anything except an electrical outlet.

It transformed my world.
Commodore PET Personal Computer — Oak Ridge, Tennessee — August 1, 1983

I spent the rest of the summer teaching myself how to code in BASIC. My friend knew a little to get me started and the engineering students, once they got over the shock of having a fourth grader in their lab, would also teach me bits and pieces of code when I got stuck. Occasionally, I would teach them something, too. In fact, they eventually treated me as a peer, realizing they were using the same machines and learning the same programming language to do their work.

This was exhilarating. I learned by trial and error, and enjoyed every minute of it. I didn’t mind the setbacks and failures because I was trying to do something big and knew that of course it wasn’t going to work the first time. I chose projects that interested me, and I worked hard at them. Hours would go by, and I wouldn’t even realize I had skipped lunch until I found myself completely famished on the bike ride home. My learning was transformed.

The opening line of the introduction to the newly-released 2016 National Educational Technology Plan (NETP) states, “Technology can be a powerful tool for transforming learning.” This premise is the basis of all that follows in the plan.

What exactly do we mean by this? What are the characteristics of transformative learning experiences powered by technology?

Technology can help affirm and advance relationships between educators and students

A transformative learning experience transforms our relationship with each other. In my case, technology allowed me to become a peer learner with college students, on near equal footing as we explored the problem space together. It also allowed me to be a teacher to them and to my friends. It changed my role from learner-observer to learner-teacher-participant and gave me a confident, legitimate voice in negotiating adult relationships.

Today, schools are accomplishing the same thing when they take a project-based approach that empowers students to use technology as a tool to solve meaningful problems and treat learners as co-investigators alongside their peers and teachers.

For example, the Workshop School in Philadelphia is transforming the learning of some of the city’s most disadvantaged youth with a project-based learning model that is focused on meaningful, real world problems and skills.

Open Education Philadelphia — The Workshop School

Students work side-by-side teachers to design and build sustainable, alternative fuel cars or to design a food truck for mobile nutrition education. Academic skills are learned in a context of action and collaboration that affirms the individual talents of each student while giving them experience using technology to accomplish shared goals as a diverse team.

Technology can reinvent our approaches to learning and collaboration

A transformative learning experience fundamentally changes our understanding of what it means to learn and what it means to work together with others to learn. Until my experience in the lab, I thought that learning was mostly about memorizing facts and correctly regurgitating them at test time. Teachers and textbooks knew everything, I thought, and learning was the process of loading what was known into my brain so I could spit it back out verbatim. This earned me letter grades that hopefully made my parents happy, and more importantly, earned me free tokens to use at the local video arcade.

In the computer lab, I discovered that learning was about solving difficult problems through trial and error that I was personally invested in and creating authentic artifacts (in this case, computer programs) that through their intrinsic usefulness and relevance demonstrated my mastery of the domain. I also learned that working with others to find solutions was not cheating, and was, in fact, the only way I could possibly accomplish my learning goals.

Today, schools accomplish the same thing when they allow students to choose projects that are relevant to their lives and community, when they offer them roles as designers and problem solvers using digital tools to create solutions, and when they provide work that is of a scope that requires interdependence among learners, teachers, and expertise outside the classroom.

In today’s classrooms, technology continues to redefine borders and barriers previously established by geographic and economic status.

Next Generation Schools at School without Walls

In Rochester, NY (a city with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the country), high school teachers and students are leveraging connectivity and videoconferencing tools to connect with peers 1,200 miles away in Tampa, FL, to understand what life is like on the other end of the country. More than trading photos and favorite foods, these students are participating in a yearlong collaborative course examining civil rights in America. For students who might have otherwise seen their world as being as small as mine was in rural Arkansas, experiences like these can open doors, minds, and possibilities.

Technology can shrink long-standing equity and accessibility gaps.

Some of the most powerfully transformative learning experiences are those that overcome equity and accessibility gaps in innovative ways. I was a child living in a rural area with limited prospects for summer learning experiences, at risk of the “summer slide,” of losing academic ground between school years. For me, it was chance and good fortune that introduced me to powerful learning experiences. And once I had access to the technology, I didn’t need a lot of adult support to learn and grow, I just needed time to work, something interesting to do, and willing mentors to help me accomplish it.

Today, schools are expanding their reach beyond the classroom walls to make technology tools available to rural, urban, and low-income students, year round.

For example, the HIVE Learning Network supports city-based networks made up of community-based organizations, including libraries, museums, schools, and after-school programs and draws upon the talents of educators, designers, and artists.

Hive Learning Networks

Coordinating the work of all these groups, they bridge the gap between formal and informal learning environments. This focus on student and professional learning helps Hive expand learning beyond classroom hours and the school year to provide children and adults with interest-driven, hands-on making and exploration that develop digital and web literacy skills for future success.

Technology can adapt learning experiences to meet the needs of all learners

One of the most powerful and difficult aspects of teaching is personalizing the learning experience to a wide variety of student needs and interests. Teachers who lack tools and training to help them accomplish this find themselves “teaching to the middle” which is unsatisfying for both educators and learners and does little to close achievement gaps. In my case, being given a powerful tool and the flexibility to use it to accomplish ambitious projects of my own choosing, provided both the personal buy-in and the opportunity to adapt the learning experience to my needs. I also had the “customized” support of knowledgeable mentors who could provide me the just-in-time help I needed to get unstuck and move forward.

While schools may not use this exact approach to personalized learning, they can use technology to connect students to peers and mentors who can provide them customized, real-time feedback or provide access to adaptive learning programs that can track their specific areas of mastery and needs and provide customized feedback based on this data. They can also use technology to expand the types of learning activities available to students, giving them motivating options adapted to their needs and interests.

What this means

So when we say transformational learning experiences powered by technology, we are talking about authentic, project-based learning, where students have agency, ownership and commitment to a relevant and meaningful goal that allows them to use digital tools to take on roles of creators, problem solvers, and learner-teachers working with and alongside peers, instructors, and other mentors to accomplish something bigger than themselves.

These experiences must be offered to all students, regardless of circumstances or background, and are most powerful when they are personalized to individual needs. These are the types of experiences that changed everything for me, and the types of experiences that I hope students in every public school in America can be a part of. The 2016 National Educational Technology Plan is designed to be a roadmap to those experiences. I hope you will find it helpful in getting there.

Joseph South is Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

To read the 2016 National Education Technology Plan visit tech.ed.gov/netp