Critical Challenges

As the number of students who want online educational options grows, educators are challenged to offer high-quality online materials. Time, training, and access to technology are all required in order for that to happen, but those are three very scarce resources for teachers. The challenge is often greatest in areas where the potential to affect students is highest, such as in rural or low-income areas, with nontraditional students, or situations where students are unable to physically attend school.

Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession. The challenge is due to the fact that despite the widespread agreement on its importance, training in digital literacy skills and techniques is rare in teacher education and school district professional development programs. As teachers begin to realize that they are limiting their students by not helping them to develop and use digital media literacy skills across the curriculum, the lack of formal training is being offset through professional development or informal learning, but we are far from seeing digital media literacy as a norm. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that digital literacy is less about tools and more about thinking, and thus skills and standards based on tools and platforms have proven to be somewhat ephemeral.

A key challenge is the fundamental structure of the K-12 education establishment. As long as maintaining the basic elements of the existing system remains the focus of efforts to support education, there will be resistance to any profound change in practice. Learners have increasing opportunities to take their education into their own hands, and options like informal education, online education, and home-based learning are attracting students away from traditional educational settings. If the system is to remain relevant it must adapt, but major change comes hard in education.

Learning that incorporates real life experiences is not occurring enough and is undervalued when it does take place. This challenge is an important one in K-12 schools, because it results in a lack of engagement in learning on the part of students who are seeking some connection between their own lives and their experience in school. Use of technology tools that are already familiar to students, project-based learning practices that incorporate real-life experiences, and mentoring from community members are a few practices that support increased engagement. Practices like these may help retain students in school and prepare them for further education, careers, and citizenship in a way that traditional practices are failing to do.

Many activities related to learning and education take place outside the walls of the classroom. Students can take advantage of learning material online, through games and programs they may have on systems at home, and through their extensive — and constantly available — social networks. The experiences that happen in and around these venues are difficult to tie back to the classroom, as they tend to happen serendipitously and in response to an immediate need for knowledge, rather than being related to topics currently being studied in school.

Many policy makers and educators believe that deep reform is needed, but at the same time, there is little agreement as to what a new model of education might look like. It is difficult to envision profound change in a system as firmly established as K-12 education is today. Proponents of change promote more learner-centered approaches; open content; programs for continuing teacher professional development in partnership with higher education institutions; and the use of social networking tools to increase access to peers and professionals for both teachers and students, but not everyone is in agreement. Opinions also differ on how to make progress at all and whether it is better to build success slowly, using pilots and small proof-of-concept classrooms, or to push for rapid and radical change on a broader scale.

Students are different, but educational practice and the material that supports it is changing only slowly. Schools are still using materials developed to teach the students of decades ago, but today's students are actually very different in the way they think and work. Schools need to adapt to current student needs and identify new learning models that are engaging to younger generations. Many education professionals feel that a shift to a more learner-centered model focused on the development of individual potential instead of the imposition of a body of knowledge would lead to deeper and more sustained learning across the curriculum. To support such a change, both teaching practice and the tools used in the classroom must adapt. Assessment has also not kept pace with new modes of working, and must change along with teaching methods, tools, and materials.