US Education Policy

Innovation in education is necessary, but first there must be trust 

June 20, 2016  • Institute Staff

Young man in headphones working on laptop, view from above

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

Digital technologies are transforming virtually every aspect of American society. One of the last areas to fully embrace this revolution, however, is the education sphere. By nature, and by tradition, “educators” have focused on the classroom, where technology is playing a new but limited role. The Aspen Task Force on Learning and the Internet set forth a more dynamic vision of learning in its report “Learner at the Center of a Networked World.” The report found that learning today is no longer limited to the physical four walls of a school room. Instead, learning can happen any time, any place and at any pace. This vision positions the learner at the center of learning networks, connecting them not only with a variety of institutions and organizations such as schools, communities, museums, libraries, homes and much more, but also novel approaches to education. These approaches take place on and offline. The Aspen Task Force report argues that the various stakeholders in the education ecosystem need to embrace innovation to help create a diverse system of learning opportunities that can help each and every child reach his or her full potential.

However, adoption and acceptance of new digital practices remains slow because of a lack of trust in the new platforms, environment or media landscape. Trust as a social construct is easy to understand. It simply requires confidence, precedent and a little bit of faith. But when it comes to digital learning trust can be complicated. An organization must first, and continually, establish a trusted learning environment before novel education approaches can be adopted. Establishing such an atmosphere of confidence and credibility is difficult, subjective and sometimes delicate.

For example, the failed nonprofit InBloom, whose goal was to centralize student information online to help educators personalize lesson plans and track student progress, did not convince its stakeholders of its dependability. Parents, school districts and their broader communities feared for student privacy and safety from third party advertisers and vendors. Thus, there was widespread objection to the organization, forcing its collapse, despite its prominent funders. The lesson is clear: implementing innovative models of learning requires careful thought and a commitment to trusted environments where, as the Task Force Report states, “learners’ safety, privacy and security are protected without compromising their ability to pursue their interests.” Learners must be able to trust in the information with which they interact, the relationship between learner and educator, and in the digital medium itself.

Many schools, communities, non-profits and businesses involved in the education sphere are learning this lesson and are taking impressive steps to ensure trust online. Initial efforts have been challenging, but effective, and provide valuable information to others who seek to create trusted environments. The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program is working with these early innovators to develop a guide on how best to recognize and establish trusted environments for learning.  For those stakeholders who invest the time and effort in following these best practices, the rewards, and the rewards for the larger learning community, could be tremendous. There is no better time to take action and lead the charge on reshaping learning.