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Chapter 1 - Introduction - A New Vision for Learning

Please note that this guide is a synthesis of various viewpoints and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of each participant or organization.

The Aspen Institute, with support and guidance from the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, created a Task Force on Learning and the Internet. The Task Force of 20 innovative and respected minds in technology, public policy, education, business, privacy and safety sought to understand the ways in which young people learn today. As part of the discussions, participants explored how to optimize learning and innovation within a trusted environment. The Task Force highlighted both the new opportunities offered by this emergent learning environment and the issues that may arise such as trust, safety, privacy, literacy and equity of access. The following guide serves as a framework for dialogue and action among a learning community’s many constituencies. The guide contains worksheets used for the following stakeholders:

  • Learners
  • Parents or Caregivers
  • In-school or Out-of-School Providers
  • Developers

Task Force action items are marked A to Z in the publication, Learner at the Center of a Networked World at This Guide is inspired by Action U.

Foster collaborative efforts at all levels to establish principles of a Trusted Environment for Learning.

The goal of such a trust framework is to protect young people while empowering them to explore, express themselves, pursue their interests and succeed in their education. The Task Force recognizes a trusted environment is not easy to define precisely and will not be simple to construct. It will require innovative approaches to policy and regulation, new technological solutions and the development of programs that educate teachers, parents and students about the risks and rewards of being online. It will constantly evolve as new technologies introduce new tensions and offer new solutions.

The best approach to establishing trusted environments is to have all stakeholders—including learning professionals, civic officials, local associations, parents, teachers, students and businesses—collaborate in setting local standards. This could also be done at state and national levels.

What’s In it for You?
Everyone has an important role in creating and understanding trusted learning environments.
This guidebook is a resource for you.

Learn about the principles and best practices for trusted learning environments so that you can get engaged and use your own voice and experiences to ensure your safety and security. (See page 18)

Parents and Caregivers
Gain access to information about best practices for creating trusted learning environments and learn about key questions to ask to determine if your child is part of a Trusted Learning Environment when participating in learning networks and online programs. (See page 19)

In-School and Out-of-School Providers
Help create trusted learning environments by leading community conversations, utilizing best practices and asking the right questions. (See page 20)

Learn from others in the field, get a better understanding of key principles and best practices so you can be part of the solution in creating trusted learning environments. (See page 22)

Learning is active, engaged and personalized. It is made possible by a web of environments, or learning networks, that revolve around the learner. The learning networks are at once expansive—including libraries, museums, schools, afterschool programs, homes and more—but also highly individualized. In fact, much of the networks’ power comes from their ability to customize the learning experience to individual users or small groups. Learners are able to choose the pathways that are most appropriate for their needs and learning styles.

While learning in these networks occurs both on and off-line, it is clear that technology is an important catalyst. Technology supports innovation, broadens opportunities and gives learners more agency to connect their interests with educational experiences.

This new vision contemplates connected learning systems that can be included such as: competency based learning, micro-credentials or digital badges, personalized learning and adaptive learning.

Competency-based education. As noted in the Aspen Task Force report, competency-based education models often include five principles:

  • Students advance upon mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs;
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Micro-credentials. Also called digital badges, micro-credentials are an online representation of “skills, interest, and achievements earned by an individual through specific projects, programs, courses, or other activities.”

Personalized learning. Also called student-centered learning, personalized learning facilitates the academic success of each individual student by customizing learning experiences depending on his or her needs, interests and strengths.

Adaptive learning. Adaptive learning is an education technology that changes the content, sequence or assessment that a student encounters in real-time, in response to the needs of the individual.

For technology to become a vehicle to support the learner and advance learning initiatives, learners need a trusted environment.

With trust, we can create incredible learning systems and opportunities that can catapult the learner forward. Trust, in this sense, ensures for a learner a safe experience online while securely protecting sensitive information. Realizing this will necessitate a commitment to establishing trust with teachers, parents, caregivers, children and communities. A trusted environment exists when the network of stakeholders around the learner trust each other and work to keep that trust in tact with transparency, communication and confidence in using technology to engage in learning. It involves policies, tools and practices that effectively address the privacy, safety and security concerns related to learning online. It involves parents being able to trust that their children’s personally identifiable information is safe, secure and will not be used in ways other than to help their academic progress.

Without trust, the ultimate success of networked learning could be in jeopardy. Unfortunately, much of the public discourse about children online emphasizes the dangers of the Internet and does not give enough attention to the positive potential of the technology as a tool for learning. Rather than relying on purely defensive measures for protection (like filtering and monitoring and other forms of restriction), parents, caregivers, educators, and other community stakeholders need to work together to create “trusted environments” that allow young people to pursue their interests safely.

What do parents worry about when it comes to student privacy and safety?

  • Keeping student information safe from “hackers and would-be predators”
  • Unnecessarily sharing information with “people or companies outside the education system,” including for advertising purposes
  • Tracking students and other “unintended consequences” of using data for educational decision-making
  • The unknown

Many districts, schools, communities and non-profits recognize their responsibilities to both learners and learning and are taking impressive steps to create trusted learning environments (see Best Practices in ACTION).

These stakeholders have taken action to keep the learner’s data secure and to help the learner navigate safely online and across multiple platforms while emphasizing innovation and advancing learning. They are focusing on communication and transparency, educating employees, learners, parents, caregivers and communities on the importance of learning online and how to be safe. They are also establishing practices for purchasing technology, products, and programs as well as implementing their own standards for trusted learning environments. These efforts provide valuable guidance to others who seek to create trusted learning environments. For those stakeholders who invest the time and effort, the rewards could be tremendous.

In its report, the Aspen Task Force recognizes that the composition of a trusted learning environment may vary based on different contexts, platforms and stakeholders. It is a constantly evolving concept as new technologies introduce new tensions and offer new solutions. To help the process along, the Task Force identified a set of high-level principles intended to guide the process for developing a trusted learning environment. The key characteristics of a trusted environment: transparency and openness; participation; data stewardship; technology innovation; accountability; and oversight & enforcement.

The following principles demonstrate key characteristics to consider when developing a trusted learning environment:

Transparency and Openness:
Require easy-to-read disclosures to enable learners and other stakeholders to clearly understand who is participating, what the norms and protections are, what data is collected and how it is used.

Often, adoption and acceptance of new digital practices remains slow because of a lack of information regarding the use of data. This lack of information reduces trust in the platform, environment or media landscape. For example, the failure of the non-profit InBloom, who centralized student information online to help educators personalize lesson plans and track student progress, failed to communicate with its stakeholders the trustworthiness of its information gathering.

The Aspen Task Force report states that stakeholders should have access to easy-to-read disclosures to enable learners and other stakeholders to understand clearly who has access to personal data, what the norms and protections are, what data is collected and how it is used. This is codified by the Federal government in its adaptation of the Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPs) within the Privacy Act of 1974. As a key principle, organizations should be “transparent and notify individuals regarding collection, use, dissemination, and maintenance of personally identifiable information (PII).”

Here are some examples of a variety of organizations that have taken steps to address transparency and openness:

Provide opportunities for individual and interest-group participation in the decision-making and policy making of the development and deployment of connected learning solutions.

Another way to build trust with learners and key stakeholders is to involve and engage all end users throughout the different stages of a project or product development. For example, the VIF International Education’s Global Pathways project provides professional development to teachers across the globe in an inquiry-based model. VIF enables teachers to provide each other with peer feedback. In particular, VIF Global Pathways works on-the-ground with international teachers to help them acclimate to the variety of different teaching environments they encounter. VIF staff said that while initially the organization sought simply to update their online teacher peer review system, they quickly realized they needed instead to change the whole platform. Based on user feedback, teachers wanted more choices in how they interacted with the platform. They also said the best professional development they received was not just from expert assistance, but from other teachers. Having identified peer feedback as the driving need for users, VIF returned to the drawing board and is building a peer feedback tool that can be used across the platform, regardless of content.

Provide access for all to digital media and the internet while keeping privacy and security in mind, supporting the teaching of digital, media and social-emotional literacies, and working to ensure access to high quality content. That is, be mindful not to exacerbate the tech divide.

As noted in the Aspen Task Force report, in order for students to pursue their interests online, they need to have access to the resources required for learning.i It is through broadband that students can access resources around the globe, or an instructor on the other side of the country, or expand their learning to times and places beyond the classroom. Broadband is also a vital mechanism for accelerating innovation and for fostering faster, more affordable distribution of services, content and tools for teachers and students.

However, connectivity should never be a trade-off for privacy and security. Though not federally mandated, or required by all states, stakeholders should ensure that learners’, parents’, caregivers’ and communities’ data is secure and will not be used for targeted advertising. In October 2016, the Federal Communications Commission proposed and adopted privacy regulations for broadband Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The FCC’s privacy policies regulates how and when broadband providers can collect and use data for targeted advertising (known by regulators as “contextually relevant advertising” or “behaviorally targeted advertising”).

In instances where learners currently lack access, it is important for schools and communities to think about how to embed principles and best practices for trusted learning environments. This includes digital literacy for learners and parents. The Aspen Task Force report calls on states and districts “to adopt policies to ensure that digital, media and social-emotional literacies are taught as basic skills, not as an ‘extra’ or an ‘afterthought.’ These literacies should be embedded into all appropriate core subjects rather than be taught as a separate course.” These literacies ensure that learners can safely navigate digital media and the Internet.

In addition, all learners should have access to high quality content. While digital literacies help learners identify and understand high-quality content, it is often difficult to locate and utilize that content online. The Task Force report noted several emerging products to help learners in this area. These are included below along with a number of new offerings which have been launched since the report’s release:
  • Graphite, a website for preK–12 teachers developed by the nonprofit Common Sense Media to help preK–12 educators by providing ratings and reviews of apps, games, websites and digital curricula contributed by other teachers.
  • The Federal Registry for Educational Excellence (FREE), a site created by the U.S.
    Department of Education that includes a directory of over 400,000 learning resources organized by subject and by standard.
  • Gooru, a search engine specifically designed to help teachers to find high quality interactive learning materials.
  • Amazon Inspire, an online marketplace launched in August 2016, offers free lesson plans, worksheets and other open educational resource materials for teachers.
  • Summit Personalized Learning, a Facebook-backed platform launched in August 2016, offers a free student-directed learning system developed jointly by Facebook and Summit Public Schools. The platform comes with curriculum developed and maintained by teachers and gives students the ability to set and track learning goals and work on content at their own pace.

Data Stewardship:
Find ways to protect data to include mechanisms to reduce the risk of harm. This may include: clearly delimiting the permissible uses of data, de-identifying sensitive data and/or deleting data once it no longer has value for learning. Data can also provide feedback about what works, thereby shortening the cycle to improve the ecosystem of learning networks, and improve learning itself.

Technology Innovation:
Create and deploy technologies that support a trusted environment, such as the use of metadata to convey and enforce data policy or privacy dashboards that indicate what information is shared with whom.

Adopt policies and procedures or a code of conduct that support responsible learning environments.

Oversight and Enforcement:
Establish governance structures to protect the integrity of learning networks with competent and appropriately resourced bodies in place to enforce these principles

i The Aspen Institute recognizes inequities in connectivity and while tackling this issue is not a focus of this guide, there are many organizations who do invaluable work in equitable access to connectivity, including the following: Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). (2016). “Digital Equity Action and Digital Equity Action Agenda.”

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