Mapstorytelling and the Learning Revolution
Underneath the popular debates in public education over vouchers, charters, unions and the role of the federal government, a quiet digital learning revolution is taking root. In the United States, this is fueled by the confluence of four related trends:
- The adoption of common standards in mathematics and English language arts by 45 states: Such broad-based adoption creates new opportunities for content innovators to build towards scale and operate on a more transparent and level playing field.
- The ‘new normal’: Officially dubbed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a November 2010 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, the ‘new normal’ recognizes the coming decade of flat or decreasing budgets states and districts are facing now that the one-shot injection of federal stimulus dollars is finished.
- Technological advance and cost-efficiency: Breakthroughs in the availability and affordability of tablet technology, computer adaptive assessment, gaming applications and social media platforms represent a shift from the first generation of digital learning which mostly served as an add-on to traditional instruction towards transformed blended environments in which technology is a force-multiplier and anchor for personalized instruction.
- Progress in learning science: Born in the 1990s as an outgrowth of cognitive and neuroscience, learning science is quickly growing into a robust discipline of its own and is increasingly able to explain and predict the way different types of people acquire knowledge, form meaning and interact with instructors and instruction.
After a slow build-up, the move to digitally-driven systems is quickly picking up steam. Next fall, Utah is moving to digital textbooks statewide. In higher ed, MIT’s new MITx initiative – the most extensive effort of any major research university to offer credit to anyone that demonstrates mastery of content on an open courseware platform – could be a market signal of further disruptions to come.
Yet, my nervousness about the rise of digital learning exists on many levels.
For starters, it poses further equity questions to a system already defined by stark disparities. We know from the 2000 census that over 30% of Americans have no access to the internet at home. And, while the US spends more as a whole on education than any other OECD country, we are also one of three in the OECD – alongside Turkey and Israel – that spends the same or less on poor students than wealthier ones.
Without a parallel focus on remedying inequality, dramatic moves to digitally-driven systems will only maintain, or in many cases, exacerbate the inequalities that already define learning in America.
A second concern has more to do with the effect of digital content on learning itself. In the short run at least, and in K-12 particularly, it seems that digital content will be aimed at the core domains of mathematics and literacy. Common Core State Standards create a demand structure that makes them most ripe for private sector innovation at scale. What’s more, as foundational subjects that follow a clear chain of linear progression from simple to complex topics, math and literacy play best to the strengths of a computer-enabled environment.
So far, innovations making the most headway in the digital learning space are focused on things like video tutorials, embedded and formative assessment, gaming, and badge credentialing. All of these require progression-based content environments in which students’ learning trajectories are clearly structured and measured.
However, the great challenge for the digital learning revolution is to advance equally that learning which is not inherently linear but, instead, is about making connections between disconnected and multi-layered ideas and information. This is the challenge for which MapStory holds great promise.
These fuzzier fields of history, civics, and much of modern science are understood through correlations between concepts and phenomenon. Students must see how places change over time and how different human and environmental factors have interacted and might interact to produce unforeseen outcomes.
Imagine, for example, teaching the Arab Spring, the Great Recession, or climate change to today’s students. To grasp these phenomena students need to see how countries, local communities, global firms and even their own behavior shape the current of events. In other words, we need digital learning tools built for narrative and multi-disciplinary understanding.
Mapstorytelling represents a potential breakthrough for educators concerned with seeing their students make connections across the complexities that mark our modern world. By situating content from a variety of subjects into a visually compelling platform of space and time, students will be empowered to see layers and relationships within seemingly disconnected information, and to see those MapStories continuously accumulate and improve.
And perhaps most importantly, MapStory will help us inject students as subjects of history – operating not only as participants in an endless sea of social media, but as creators, constructors and contesters of knowledge itself.
That process – of turning students into knowledge builders – has always been the central project of the educational enterprise. MapStory, as both an informational tool and a catalyst of an entirely new communication medium, will help us accomplish that project for another generation of young minds.
Jonathan Marino, a 2007 Fulbright Scholar, is a Senior Associate at the Council of Chief State School Officers, coordinating their Innovation Lab Network. The views expressed here are his own.