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We are living in a time of transformational opportunities. Technology has been the driving force behind dramatic advances occurring in every sector of society. Industry after industry has seen traditional business models challenged as customers connect directly with suppliers or one another and the line blurs between consumers and creators. The digital revolution has turned passive viewers into active users.

America is at an inflection point with respect to reshaping learning, teaching, institutions and indeed how we deliver these to individuals—of every age. In our country, the quality of education today will determine America’s strength in the future and help individuals secure their own prosperity.

Yet, according to international tests, American students are falling farther behind their counterparts in other countries, which suggest that our 18th and 19th century model of education is not working as it should in the 21st century. Nearly half of all Hispanic and African American fourth graders are functionally illiterate. They are two and a half years behind white students. Even many students who make it through our secondary education system and enroll in college find they must take remedial courses before they can begin their college studies.

Manufacturing and factories which influenced subjects, teaching models and even classroom design have been replaced by an economy of creating, developing and selling across a vast array of platforms. The jobs of today-and tomorrow-will require an entirely new system of learning—online and offline, in traditional settings and in the real world, inside and outside walled classrooms.

This report sets forth a vision that stems from the premise that the learner needs to be at the center of novel approaches and innovative learning networks. It argues that we need to embrace innovation to create a diverse system of educational opportunities that can help each and every child reach his or her full potential.

New learning networks allow learners and teachers alike to connect directly to resources, people and activities. Teachers likewise will utilize networking for preparing classes, connecting to students and parents, and learning from and with other professionals. A new era is expanding the possibilities for inspiring, mentoring, assessing and credentialing learning for students of all ages.

This starts with putting the focus on the student. For today’s students, learning does not start when they enter their homeroom or end when the dismissal school bell rings. Kids can attend class anytime, anywhere, in courses tailored to their own learning style, and at their own pace. We can create an education system where instead of time being the constant with learning the variable, the constant is mastery of content and the variable is time. If the opportunity for personalized learning were made available to all students—and we believe that it can be—we could realize the potential for improving academic performance for all students, substantially reducing the disparities that have long been a troubling aspect of the American educational system.

This is the education every student can and should receive.

To address these and many other important issues, the Aspen Institute, with support and guidance from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, established a high level Task Force on Learning and the Internet. We were honored to serve as the Honorary Co-Chairs of that Task Force.

We are very grateful to the members of the Task Force, ably co-chaired by our colleagues John Bailey and Maria Teresa Kumar. We thank Connie Yowell and the MacArthur Foundation, and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, for bringing this project to fruition. We appreciate the support they received from Penn Hill Group, SWELL Creative Group, and Richard Adler for their in depth work and support, and to Robert Rothman for his support with writing. And we very much value the many contributions from the public dialogue and the outreach interviews that the Task Force undertook. These are also detailed in the Appendix.

After a year of study, outreach to many stakeholders, public input and internal deliberations, the Task Force has arrived at the following report and recommendations for action. While this report conveys the sense of opportunity of the Task Force’s deliberations, understandably, not every member agrees with every sentence or point in the report. This represents a shared sense of a vision based on our belief that students must be at the center of education.

Good teachers have always put the learner first. But this vision goes further. If the learner is at the center of the learning process—a proposition that seems obvious, but has not always been easily realized in practice—then learning networks are individualized and centered on that learner and his or her collaborators. In America, everyone needs affordable access to sufficiently robust networks and the opportunities they offer. The system needs to be interoperable so that learners can seamlessly move among learning platforms, providers and networks and have credentials that follow them. Learners need digital literacy skills to navigate these networks from their first click. They need to learn in “trusted environments” that will protect children’s safety and privacy online without compromising their ability to learn. And the myriad of institutions involved in providing learning opportunities—from schools to afterschool programs, from museums to libraries, from online course providers to parents and in-person tutors, need to adapt to be part of these learning networks and support these new ways of learning. This Report explores each of those concepts and makes recommendations for actions that we hope everyone will join in taking.

We commend this vision to you. If you, as we, support this vision, then you will see that much needs to be done to improve the learning processes and opportunities offered to our students. We hope that in the months and years ahead you will become part of this movement. We urge you to place students—the learners—at the center of your thinking about this topic and the exciting future our country holds. Our children and our nation are depending on it, and deserve nothing less.

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