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No More One-Size-Fits-All Learning

The federal government finally gets 21st-century learning right.

Imagine online learning communities. Personal learning networks. An Internet device for every teacher and student. Ubiquitous access to the Web.

If you think those ideas are taken from the latest edition of some fringe, technocrazed education group, think again.  This is the federal government talking, as in the Obama administration's new National Education Technology Plan, which was released earlier this spring. Titled "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology," the authors of the plan aren't kidding around; this really is transformation through technology, not just tinkering on the edges.

For example, take this compelling vision of learning: "Technology provides access to more learning resources than are available in classrooms, and connections to a wider set of 'educators' including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom. On-demand learning is now within reach, supporting learning that is life-long and life-wide."

Reform is Not Enough

The thrust of the plan is to give students ample opportunity to learn on their own, based on their own interests, in much more self-directed ways than the current idea of a classroom permits. It recognizes that schools are facing a vastly different and fast-changing landscape, and that reform just isn't going to cut it. If we are to fully prepare our students for the learning environments they will be living in, we have to give them opportunities to pursue their own learning using technology, but not just while they are with us in school.

As the authors of the plan state: "Outside school, students are free to pursue their passions in their own way and at their own pace.  The opportunities are limitless, borderless, and instantaneous. The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students' daily lives and the reality of their futures."

Those online learning communities and personal learning networks mentioned above are where our teachers should be doing their personal learning as well, developing a "connected teaching" model for the classroom.  They should be sharing and collaborating online with other teachers across the hall and across the globe, not only to pursue their own passions but to more fully understand the ways to bring technology and these new learning opportunities to their students in effective and safe ways.

Ubiquitous Access for All

The plan also calls for every teacher and student to have a device to not only communicate and access information, but also create, publish and otherwise participate in the multitude of learning interactions online. Obviously, that requires access both inside and outside of school, and it suggests that we may want to follow Finland's lead: late last year, the country legislated broadband access for all of its citizens by 2012.

But for all of the impressive rhetoric around transformation, the obvious irony is that in many ways, this plan is in direct opposition to the administration's other education plan, Race to the Top.  at policy is all about standardization, not transformation, and it certainly paints a vastly different picture of teacher-learners. RTTT also doesn't have any focus on making technology accessible in ways that will change how schools approach learning. And yet, to date, the NETP has gotten little notice.

Still, this is an impressive vision, one that can be added to the growing body of research from which we can build a compelling case for change. Take the National Council of Teachers of English's new literacies, for example, or the fresh research from both the MacArthur and Pew Foundations that suggests that students' ability to learn on their own, outside of school, using technology in global, collaborative ways, will be crucial to their success.

Unfortunately, that's not something most schools are focused on. At the very least, this new NETP gives us a very compelling reason to get there.

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at