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LEARNERS AT THE CENTER - Findings and Recommendations

  • While educators are often learner-centered in what they do every day, educational systems are not always geared that way. Many, if not most, students still learn in classrooms that follow an educational model developed in the 19th century. The United States must create a system for the 21st century that is able to meet the unique needs of each individual learner and that takes advantage of every resource and opportunity inside and outside of a school.
  • Digital technology can help the education system move beyond the factory model of education and empower students, teachers and parents with a personalized learning experience in a way that was never previously possible. Digital media provides new opportunities for learners to pursue their interests and find educational resources, experiences, and courses any time and any place.
  • Experiences outside of the classroom are important sources of learning. More effective models are needed to expand learning beyond the school through connected networks that bring opportunities together into a seamless, integrated experience.
  • Competency-based approaches to assessment and credit-granting can ensure that all learning counts, no matter where or when it occurs. But implementing these approaches will require modernizing the way education is organized and regulated.
  • Educators and other professionals have always played a critical role in inspiring and supporting learners, and they are vital to a learner-centered approach. The importance of skilled, dedicated teachers to guide students’ learning increases under this new model, even as their role evolves from instructing groups of students to guiding individualized or collaborative learning experiences and providing more intensive assistance when needed.

New digital technologies give students the ability to participate in networks that enable them to pursue their individual interests and learn at any time, in any place and at any pace, both online and off-line, in school and beyond. These “learning networks” can provide direct access to a variety of educational resources. Within these networks is an expanding variety of providers, including schools, museums, libraries, colleges, universities and afterschool programs. There is also an explosion of resources ranging from e-books and websites to virtual worlds and engaging multimedia content, as well as connections to peers, mentors, parents and teachers who will support learning.

We need a culture shift regarding digital learning versus layering it on. It will take considerable time and energy, but with adequate training and development, teachers can take ownership of the disruption.
- Shilpi Niyogi, Pearson

The emerging learning networks are at once expansive and broad but also highly individualized. Much of their power comes from their ability to customize the learning experience to individual users or small groups, enabling them to choose the pathways that are most appropriate to their needs and diverse learning styles. These new networks can accelerate learning and enable all students to realize their full potential, creating a strong foundation for success as workers, citizens and family members.

Making this exciting new form of learning succeed will require the active support of all parts of the public and private sectors. In order to create an infrastructure that will support students as they engage with learning networks, parents, educators, government, industry and philanthropy, all need to work to modernize educational institutions, regulations, tools and services. This will include development of new pedagogies, new tools for both students and teachers and new competency-based approaches to measure and give credit for knowledge and skills acquired through nontraditional means.

In addition to the participation of the formal school system, this transformation will require the involvement of a broad range of informal educational institutions—libraries, museums, science centers, afterschool programs—that have important roles to play in supporting learning networks.

The sage on the stage style of teaching is coming to a rapid end. In a competency-based model where teachers have to customize education all the time, they become more like a manager of educational opportunities for kids instead of the sole provider of information.
- Steve Bowen, Council of Chief State School Officers, Innovation Lab Network

To achieve this new vision, stakeholders must address the challenges learners face today. In some cases, learners have limited access to education outside the school walls, while in-school learning is too tightly bound by time and place and too often presumes that all students learn at the same pace. New, informal networks can support a more customized learner-centered approach to education, but mindsets and policies must evolve to support this new approach and help accelerate its adoption.


1 Redesign learning environments to empower learners to learn any time, any place and at any pace, both in school and beyond.

Action A: Invest funds to develop next-generation models, strategies, tools, services and platforms needed to enable effective student-centered learning networks.

The Institute for Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education funds millions of dollars of research that is primarily focused on providing evidence of "what works." While that is an important goal, there is a need to develop new, innovative approaches that could fuel accelerated change and help educators understand how to transform education systems. While some steps have been taken to support education reforms through the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund and the proposed ARPA-ED program, new private, public and philanthropic funding should allow for more development and scaling of transformative educational models, devices, tools and systems.

Action B: Support pilots for new, competency-based learning approaches that recognize knowledge, skills and competencies achieved in or outside of schools.

Students learn in different ways, at different speeds and through different pathways, both online and off-line, which may also vary by subject for each student. Yet these differences are not taken into account by current credentialing schemes, many of which give too much weight to how much time a student spends in the classroom.

To allow competency-based learning models to evolve, state policy needs to provide flexibility around seat time and other requirements that govern when a child must be in the “line of sight” of a teacher. Institutions of higher education need incentives to recognize competency-based transcripts. Flexibility will be needed in existing teacher certification and evaluation systems. And states, districts and schools need concrete road maps for building new systems that are inclusive of all learning styles, consider all stakeholders and allow for anytime/anywhere learning both in and out of school.

Development of sound principles should lead to efforts by government and philanthropies to support pilots for implementation of these new systems for learning. These pilots should be designed to be iterative and to respond to what’s working in context. These pilots should:

    • Include a range of institutions, actors and organizations in implementation.
    An enormous benefit of competency-based systems is their ability to leverage learning anytime and anywhere and to take advantage of experts throughout the world and in the community beyond the school walls. For example, learning that happens after school in a library can count for credit, and students who want to master a language not offered at their school can find online classes in that language. The ability for these partnerships to take hold in the system should be built at the outset.
    • Consider all learning styles as new systems are developed.
    Students with learning differences may require varying levels of support when education systems move to competency-based systems with more self-direction and personalized learning. Some students may respond best to direct, explicit instruction, for example, while others may thrive in collaborative spaces or self-paced digital environments.
Action C: Disseminate case studies and evaluations of effective programs and best practices in advancing student-centered learning through learning networks and competency-based approaches.

Parents, educators and students have different levels of understanding about digital media learning environments. We need to help people visualize and understand what the ideal learning environment looks like, the benefits of a transformed environment and the challenges in getting there. Communities can use these case studies and evaluations to inform and guide the creation of digital media environments that suit their needs. These models will, in turn, encourage schools and other learning institutions to adopt or adapt to these new approaches.

Action D: Develop new assessments and tools to convey evidence of student achievement through learning networks, such as badges or other new credentialing, and encourage states to develop mechanisms, such as portable data backpacks, that can assist with the collection and secure storage of student credentials, work and outcomes.

New methods of more fine-grained assessment of student accomplishment are now available. These include real-time assessments embedded in new learning platforms and education games. In addition to traditional academic credentials, there is also a growing array of badges that document the acquisition of specific skills or learning experiences. One of the advantages of badges is that they can recognize learning no matter where it occurs.

To date, badges have been mainly used in out-of-school learning projects, such as Chicago’s 2013 Summer of Learning. Several colleges and universities, including Northern Arizona University and Southern New Hampshire University, are developing competency-based degree programs that involve giving credit for specific skills rather than for completed classes.9 At the end of 2013, with support from the Lumina Foundation, a Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), involving up to 20 institutions of higher education, was established to serve as a platform for sharing experiences and identifying best practices.10 Meanwhile, the Mozilla Foundation, with support from the MacArthur Foundation, has developed an Open Badges Infrastructure11 that “makes it possible for badges issued by different companies and communities to be interoperable and shareable across the web”. Open SUNY ( is an early exemplar of a traditional higher education system employing Mozilla’s Open Badges. Common Sense Media is using badges as part of its “digital passports” aimed at building digital literacy (

Policy makers and education leaders need to establish reliable and secure mechanisms for capturing, storing and reporting students’ academic progress based on their learning experiences in a variety of settings across a variety of networks. This may involve the development of enhanced learner profiles that are capable of representing student accomplishment on a more granular level while still maintaining a student’s privacy. It could also involve the creation of secure, portable “data backpacks” containing detailed evidence of their owners’ learning levels, preferences, motivations and personal accomplishments. In addition to containing traditional transcript data, these backpacks would include supplementary information that gives a more holistic view of student learning and provides feedback loops to strengthen learning that takes place across networks.12 Data backpacks also can help build trust among parents, students and educators.

Ultimately, though, this is not a problem just for educators. Employers, as well, need to think through and explain what they look for when hiring. Specifically, what kind of credentialing will they value and base hiring decisions on? To facilitate this process, as the world transitions to more accurate credentialing, the Task Force suggests that industry officials and experts gather regularly to define what credentials outside of the traditional route they will find most helpful in hiring and maintaining a workforce. Similarly, educators and others who provide alternative credentials should engage with business leaders to keep up to date about the progression of skill sets necessary for jobs of the future.

2 Enhance the ability of educators to support and guide learners in a networked learning environment.

Action E: Invest in research and professional training to better prepare educators for changing roles in supporting students' use of new and existing learning networks.

While many teachers are skillful in using digital technologies and in providing personalized learning experiences for students, most teachers were educated at a time when the dominant model was lecture-driven and textbook-based. Research is needed to generate new pedagogical approaches for a networked learning environment and to develop new ways of preparing teachers to thrive in such environments.

There is also a need for additional research on policies to support the shift to a new learning environment. Specifically, state policymakers need to rethink teacher-certification policies that fail to take into account the changing roles of teachers, as well as evaluation practices that do not consider teachers’ roles in forging links with other institutions. While there are some promising exceptions—Florida has been working to integrate competency components into teacher training for over a decade, passing a law in 2013 that provides a framework for offering a competency-based certification program—more work is necessary in this area.

Action F: Align teacher quality policies and professional development funding to ensure that educators have the necessary support, resources and skills to leverage technology and to enhance learning for their students.

Adapting to a new style of teaching involves orchestrating the use of technology for learning among a group of students, each of whom may be working at a different pace. This will pose a real challenge to teachers who are used to more traditional classroom methods. But, fortunately, the same network technology that can enhance and accelerate student learning can also be used to help teachers make this transition.

The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement encourages teachers to harness educational resources that are released with copyright licenses allowing for their free use, continuous improvement and modifications by others. The world is moving fast, and OER enable educators to access, customize and remix high-quality materials that incorporate state of the art teaching methods, contributing their own insights along the way. The sharing and re-use of educational materials moves one step beyond digital and free to allow remixing and redistribution and thus allows teachers to exchange materials and teaching methods they have created.

College and university education departments will also need to transform their pedagogies to support the training of new teachers’ styles and techniques.

Finally, online networks can and do support communications among teachers, parents and students outside the classroom. Just as parents can securely access medical records online, check their bank accounts or track the progress of a shipment, they should have the opportunity to monitor their child’s progress, homework assignments and other activities assigned by teachers.

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