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Introduction to My New Book: Learners without Borders

13 July 2021 660 No Comment

My latest book Learners without Borders: New Learning Pathways for All Students is published by Corwin in July 2021. Below is Chapter One.

It may surprise you to learn that teenagers in Nepal are using Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to learn English and Egyptian, study dinosaurs, and take high-level STEM courses. On Episode 33 of Silver Linings for Learning, a weekly show about educational innovations during COVID-19, we had five Nepalese students and two teachers as guests. They told an unexpected story of learning beyond their schools. Nepal, a very small country largely located in the Himalayas, has a population of about 28 million. Nepal is not a wealthy country; with a nominal GDP of just above $1,000 in 2019, the country ranks about 159th in the world. But in this poor and remote country, teenagers have started learning from MOOCs offered by universities and other providers in the United States and other places.

The students who came on the show speak English fluently. They told wonderful stories of their experiences taking 40-70 MOOCs over the past few years. They were introduced to MOOCs and supported by Mr. Baman Kumar Ghimire and Mr. Bishwa Raj Gautam, two teachers, but their learning has been entirely on their own. One student started with a course about dinosaurs, but she got so interested, she studied world history to better understand the history of dinosaurs. It was a complete new world to her, as she said on the show. The students were nervous when they first started taking MOOCs because they did not know what they would encounter. They had to manage their time because they also had school to attend. They had to convince their parents with their certificates that they were doing something meaningful outside of their own school.

The results are amazing. Beyond just the content they learned in courses, they also learned to be independent. They learned that there is a world beyond their classrooms. They learned that they could have access to that world and participate in it.

This is not to say that MOOCs are the only way for students to have access to an outside world or that MOOCs work for everyone. The message is that students, however young, can learn anything from outside their schools. Today, we have MOOCs and YouTube. We have Google and Facebook. We have Khan Academy and many other courses online. We have the local community and local experts. Not one works for all, but each and every student can become owners of their learning by accessing these rich resources. They can learn beyond what is prescribed for them by a government or education system. They can learn without being directly taught by a teacher in their local situation.

The Failure of Education Reforms

Students have rarely been considered an active and intentional partner in educational reform efforts. The government-led and government-driven reforms over the past few decades have played with almost all the essential elements of education. They changed curriculum. They tweaked with assessments. They played with teachers and teaching. They held school principals accountable. They experimented with class sizes. But they never touched students directly. Students have been simply the recipients of the reforms, of the massive changes that have been created for them.

The results have not been good. The desired outcomes of the reforms have been excellence and equity—excellence being higher levels of achievement by all students, and equity a closure of the achievement gaps among different groups of students. After so many decades of reforms, education has not achieved either of these aims. Take the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the national report card of the United States, as an example. The most basic indicators of educational quality, the assessment of math and reading, has not seen significant improvement. The 2019 reading assessment shows that on average, American 12th graders did significantly worse in 2019 than in 1992 when the assessment was first given (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2020). The students’ math performance in 2019 on average shows no difference from that in 2005 (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2020). The achievement gaps between black and white students and the gaps between Hispanic students and white students remain large (Zhao, 2016). International assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) have not found significant improvements in the performance of most education systems’ performances over the years. The performance of most education systems essentially stayed very much the same over the past two decades (OECD, 2019;Mullis, 2016).

Our Changing World

In the meantime, a lot has changed over the past three decades. Today’s world is drastically different from what it was in the 1990s when TIMSS and PISA took measures of the world’s students’ performances and national educational policies zeroed in on the achievement gaps in education. The Internet was just beginning in the 1990s, but today the world cannot exist without it. Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, iPhones, Amazon, eBay, and TikTok have penetrated virtually every corner of the world and altered human life. New technologies have displaced millions of humans from their jobs and created millions of new possibilities. They have ended industries and created new ones.

The technological changes have brought new expectations for our children. It has become certain that for our children to thrive in this new world—which is still being changed by emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, and nanotechnology—they have to develop new abilities and skills. These new competencies, generally referred to as 21st Century skills, include a broad range of knowledge, skills, abilities, and human attributes. They include new school subjects as financial literacy and computer coding. They include capabilities such as creativity and entrepreneurial thinking. They include skills such as critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. They also include mindsets and attributes such as curiosity, growth mindset, and resilience. They also include social and emotional well-being and physical health.

As we are struggling to improve the traditional measures of education and help students learn the new skills and abilities, COVID-19 came. This pandemic has disrupted education globally in unprecedented ways. While billions of children were sent home as their schools closed, a new form of learning began. Remote learning, almost overnight, became a common approach for students to learn, at least for a short period of time depending on which country they were in. In the various forms of remote learning, students had to adapt to however the learning opportunities were offered. Teachers, as well, had to be innovative and adaptable. Innovative approaches were taken, although by and large, remote learning was not considered a tremendous success.

Hope for the Future

The stories of students from Nepal are enlightening—and there are many similar stories all over the world. Young students anywhere can learn from online courses, as they are so widely available. The local efforts by people like Mr. Baman Kumar Ghimire and Mr. Bishwa Raj Gautam to create a system of support are also essential to this success. In other words, we have the students who are interested in learning outside their school. We have the MOOCs and other online resources that have been created by various individuals and institutions. We also have adults who are able to create a local support system. These three elements are what we will need to cultivate different forms of learning in the future.

This book is about creating such a learning future. First, we must be able to imagine a bigger learning context for our students. For too long, our students have been placed within the borders of learning. Their learning has always been tightly linked to the school pathway, which specifies that all children to be in school and go through schooling, grade by grade, before they can graduate and work. The school pathway also gives students the borders of curriculum, assessment, and classroom. Students’ learning is limited to what has been prescribed in the curriculum, what is assessed, and what individual teachers teach in the classroom. However, given the technological changes, our students no longer need to be confined within these borders.

Second, the learning future must include students who are capable of and interested in taking ownership of their own learning. One of the reasons that educational reforms have failed to deliver results is the lack of student involvement. The reform efforts have been directed at strengthening the grammar of traditional schooling—enhancing curriculum, strengthening teaching, and improving assessment. In other words, the goal was to make stronger the borders of learning. But students are the learners. They have their own passions and interests, strengths and weaknesses, and personal contexts. Unless they are involved as change makers and make schooling work for them, it is unlikely that school outcomes can change. Moreover, to learn the new and emerging knowledge and skills required in the age of smart machines, students have to follow different pedagogical approaches from traditional direct instruction. They will have to learn through experiencing, through inquiry, through projects, and through unknown problems.

Third, to create the learning future we also need local teachers and school leaders to create an ecosystem to introduce and support students learning from outside the school. Such an ecosystem is part of the large global learning ecosystem. The ecosystem would have the capacity to introduce students to possible opportunities and resources in the global ecosystem. It would also have personnel acting as advisors and facilitators to support the learning. It certainly also involves small communities of learners and teachers working together to help each learner grow and participate in the global learning environments.

Finally, we need a lot of learning resources, institutions, mentors, experts, and educators globally. They would, together with participating students, form the global ecosystem. This ecosystem is already there with YouTube, Google, and all sorts of social media as well as institutions and individual offering courses and learning experiences. This ecosystem can of course grow more, and it is growing more.

In this book, I am interested in presenting the future of learning, which is possible today. The future of learning is students participating in a global learning ecosystem with the support of their local schools. In this new ecosystem, students will be liberated from the borders of the previous, failed system.

We have many books and articles on how to improve schools and classrooms. We also have many arguments that schools are outdated and should be abolished. At this moment, neither arguments work well. I am not sure how small improvements in curriculum, teaching, and assessment can truly help our children to develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values required in the new world. At the same time, I don’t think schools, as a social existence, can or should be abolished. What we need is to maintain schools as educational institutions but make significant transformative changes. We need to create space and develop support for students to become the owners of their learning.

This book is a call to action. It is intended for educators, education policy makers, parents and students to imagine a different kind of learning, learning that is owned by students. This book has many examples of the forms and formats of the new learning as well as examples of how to make such learning happen, but it is not my intention to present a step-by-step prescription for all educators and schools to make the change. I strongly believe that educators, school leaders, parents, and students are all capable of making significant and meaningful changes when they are inspired and motivated. I also strongly believe that contexts matter. Different classes and schools should and can make different changes. I want this book to inspire and motivate people to take action to make those big changes.

To make the big changes will require a lot of small changes in classrooms and schools. In the book, I start with a chapter focusing on the borders that limit our students today. In Chapter Two, the discussion is about technological changes and the abundance of learning opportunities that have developed over the past decades. Chapter Two shows how opportunities already exist for students to learn beyond their schools. Chapter Three is about the border of schooling, which has created smaller borders within the school, and which we can consider reorganizing. Chapter Four discusses new possibilities to personalize the curriculum for all students. I propose that a student’s curriculum can have three parts—government-mandated, school-mandated, and personal. In this way, students would have common knowledge and skills to function as citizens but also unique strengths and passions to thrive as individuals. Chapter Five makes the argument about decentralized teaching and learning. Teachers no longer need to teach classes for all their students. They can make arrangements for them to learn from outside. This changes the role of the teacher from traditional instructor to consultant and supporter. Chapter Six turns to the learner. It discusses how to help each learner to become self-determined and the owner of his or her learning. Chapter Seven brings all together and discusses how to help all students become learners without borders.

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