Bridging the School-Community Divide in Digital Learning

Michael Robbins at SXSWedu

ED’s Michael Robbins led a session on digital learning and collective impact in education at this year’s SXSWedu in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Instagram user chbrenchley.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at SXSWedu – a national education convening leading up to the South by Southwest festivals and conferences in Austin, TX. What began three years ago as a handful of education-focused sessions at SXSW Interactive has grown into an inspiring and informative gathering of over 4,000 participants from across the world.

Jeff Edmondson, the managing director of Strive, and I led a session on digital learning and collective impact in education – how technology can improve how schools, families, and communities collaborate to advance student engagement and learning. The power of technology to transform education was a major theme at SXSWedu, but the discussions in Austin underscored my concerns about how K-12 digital learning transitions are evolving.

Many conversations were intensely focused on technology to support school-based initiatives, but missing attention on how digital learning should connect students to their passions, peers, communities, and careers. We will miss essential opportunities to transform schools if transitions primarily create digital versions of traditional analog education processes – trading textbooks for tablets and paper files for databases.

At the other end of the spectrum were SXSWedu sessions on learning outside of schools, many of which approached schools as hurdles to be overcome instead of partners in learning. Frustrated by the slow pace of change, efforts like the maker movement and open badges have chosen to move ahead outside  K-12 institutions and bureaucracies. Despite significant advancements, most of these are on the sidelines of school district digital learning transitions, more likely to be the subject of TED talks than digital curricula or school turnaround plans.

Students and families are mostly left to themselves to connect the dots between school-based and non-school learning. The students most disadvantaged by these silos are ones already facing the greatest challenges inside and outside the classroom, and they could benefit the most from the digital learning that transcends the school-community divide. Partnerships between schools, families, and community-based organizations are an important way to bridge this divide, and ensure the success and sustainability of digital learning transitions.

I’ll be facilitating conversations to delve deeper into these issues as part of a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) that begins April 8 – advancing the Department’s efforts through Epic-ed to support digital learning transitions. Please join us for the MOOC to share your ideas on partnerships among schools, districts, teachers, community organizations, education technology companies, families, and others to ensure the digital learning revolution propels engagement and achievement for all students.

Michael Robbins is senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education