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Broadband and the future of learning

Richard Adler | Sept. 3, 2014
High-speed broadband networks will not only accelerate learning, but they will also enable students to acquire the skills that they need to flourish in a post-industrial society.

800px student teachers kindergarten 1898
Credit: Ontario Ministry of Education

America's schools have gotten wired. Virtually every school and library in the U.S. is now online, thanks in part to the federal E-Rate program, which has been providing subsidies for Internet connections since 1997.

The Internet has become a vital part of the education process, from elementary school through college and beyond. Students are using the Internet to do research, to get assignments and to submit homework. Millions of students will soon be taking standardized tests online to measure their academic progress. Teachers enjoy access to online libraries of educational resources that they can use in their classrooms. There is growing adoption of interactive e-textbooks that can be continuously updated in ways that traditional printed texts cannot. And in almost every library in the country, patrons can be found in front of terminals looking for work, taking online courses or pursuing personal interests.

The advent of connected learning
But these uses, important as they are, are just the beginning of a larger, more far-reaching revolution in education that is being enabled by broadband technology. A new concept, called "connected learning," has emerged that has the potential to fundamentally change the way students learn. To appreciate the significance of this transformation, we need look at how our current educational system evolved.

Back in the 19th century, as the U.S. shifted from an agricultural to an industrial society, there was a growing need for workers who were literate and able to function well in structured environments like factories and offices. To meet the need, we developed a system in which groups of students moved through school grade by grade in more or less lockstep fashion to learn the three Rs and how to function in a highly regimented environment -- a sort of factory model of education that persisted through the 20th century.

When digital technology was first introduced into schools, it was mainly seen as a way of enhancing traditional instruction. But just as technology has disrupted many other sectors of society, it is now poised to disrupt education. It is becoming clear that technology has the potential not just to improve education but also to transform the way students learn, both in the classroom and beyond.

Connected learning leverages digital network technology to empower students to pursue their own interests and assemble their own curriculums, making it possible for them to learn anytime, in any place and at any pace. Online resources that support this kind of individualized learning include search engines, digital libraries, blogs, wikis, podcasts, videos, social media, open education resources and specialized communities of practice. Broadband networks -- both wired and wireless -- along with personal digital devices ranging from laptops and tablets to smartphones are the "on-ramps" that provide access to these resources.


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