iNACOL13 - A GPS for Learning

iNACOL officially changed the name of its annual conference from the Virtual School Symposium to the Blended and Online Learning Symposium this year. While this change may seem symbolic to some, I noticed a real difference in the tone of the conference.

Susan Patrick, president and CEO of iNACOL, clearly set the tone for the conference by opening her keynote address with the story of the boy genius of Ulan Bator, Battushig Myanganbayar. Briefly, Battushing is a teen in Mongolia who earned a perfect score in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) massive open online course (MOOC) called “Circuits and Electronics.” How does a boy in Mongolia even know about a MIT MOOC? The answer is simple, his principal knew that Battushing and his classmates would benefit from this experience. The principal knew his students and he put students first in designing learning experiences. You see, the tone that Susan was setting is that the learner should always be central in any educational decisions. In fact, the conference tagline was “Transforming Education to Student-Centric Learning.”

Before I go on, I should clarify why I’m intentionally using the term learner instead of students in this post. First, the term students implies someone in a formal education setting, typically in grades K-12. We are not all students, but we are all learners. Second, learning happens everywhere, not just in the formal structure of the education system. Learning takes place 24/7 and not just within the confines of four walls.

Susan continued to hone in on the conference theme by using a GPS analogy. A GPS provides the user with digital directions and corrects the user as soon as he or she is off course. Too often in education we wait until the final assessment to find out if a learner is off course. The user tells the GPS where he or she wants to go and a possibly a few parameters, like avoiding tolls or using public transit. All too often learners have little control over what they are learning. Learners, whether children or adults, should have a voice in what and how they are learning. Blended learning is an excellent way to design highly personalized learning environments.

So often we hear educators talk about 1:1 initiatives or technology-driven initiatives. When schools or districts adopt blended and online learning, digital curriculum decisions also have to be weighed. The best blended learning programs often don’t have the most expensive technology or the most exhaustive online repository of curriculum. It was clear from listening to experts and colleagues at the conference that the best blended learning programs are the ones where student needs are central to the design process. Tools, like technology and curriculum, need to be tailored to the needs of the students and flexible enough to allow for corrections along the way, like a GPS.

Another personal observation from the conference is that the most effective sessions I attended were ones where dialogue was encouraged. Sometimes the dialogue occurred between participants in the room and other times the dialogue happened through social media, like Twitter. The sit-and-get lecture of the past is not an effective way to learn. The key to deeper understanding of a concept is the interaction among learners. It is through interactions that we are able to truly make sense of new information and correct our understanding if our learning (GPS) is off course. This holds true for conferences, classrooms, and professional development opportunities.

The big takeaway from the conference is that blended learning, when designed with the learner in mind, can be the bridge to truly student-centric learning environments. Curriculum and technology decisions can not be one size fits all and must be flexible enough to adapt to the individual needs of learners. Dialogue and personal relationships are also critical factors in highly effective learning environments. Blended learning gives us an opportunity to provide learners with their own educational GPS.