In little over a decade, digital technologies have profoundly changed our lives. They are now starting to do the same for our centuries-old education model, making us question the most basic tenets of learning.

From rural Uruguay to the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts, educational authorities worldwide are rethinking long-held assumptions about how we learn, which skills we need, and why expanding our access to open education matters.

Technology makes it possible to topple the four walls of the traditional classroom, and in this section, we present innovative initiatives that are doing just that. In Uruguay, the attempt to bridge the digital divide led to providing all public school students with lap-tops and free Internet access. In North America, innovative schools are experimenting with a new blended approach that creates a learning experience focused on the individual needs of each student. And spanning the globe, new MOOCs (massive open online courses) being embraced by over 35 top universities world-wide allow anyone with an Internet connection to participate in classes once limited to a chosen few.

Access 4 all


In 2007, Uruguay’s government made a bold move towards social equality by ensuring access to the Internet for all primary and secondary students and teachers in the country. The first program of its kind in the world, the Plan CEIBAL (Conectividad Educativa de Informática Básica para el Aprendizaje en Línea) was launched under leadership of then-president Tabaré Vázquez, who strongly believes digital literacy is essential to make Uruguay competitive in the twenty-first century.

The plan ventured beyond hardware distribution or classroom walls by gifting the laptops to each child and encouraging their use at home and among family members. The plan also included the set up of an Internet portal and a TV channel.

Five years and 580,000 laptops later, the plan resulted in a giant leap in access to technology and equality, its main goal. Prior to CEIBAL, computer access in schools was highly limited—only 14 percent of schools had more than five computers and, in those, students had access to a computer for a mere three hours per month. By contrast, today 100 percent of the students in Uruguay’s public schools (85 percent of Uruguay’s primary and secondary student population) have their own laptop and 2,300 schools have free Wi-Fi networks.
Furthermore, an independent study published in El Pais showed that students participating in the plan achieved the same level of understanding and usage of technology as university graduates, while also visibly enhancing self-esteem and motivation among children from the poorest quintile.
Although one-on-one computing projects in Latin America have not yet demonstrated improvements in learning outcomes, the initial investment in infrastructure has the potential to transform teaching and learning practices in Uruguay.

Bricks and clicks


In most of the world, the way children are taught hasn’t changed much since the introduction of free, compulsory elementary schooling by the King of Prussia in the 1700s. But finally a paradigm shift is emerging in education. New technology-based approaches pioneered by innovative charter schools across the United States have the potential to revolutionize the way learning is conceived.

These programs—which include the School of One, DSST Public Schools, and High Tech High—rethink the fundamental tenets of education, from the way children are taught to the way courses are organized and classrooms designed.

Conventional schooling systems were designed to educate the masses in the most economical way possible, using a factory-based model that sorts children by age. These new approaches, however, tailor the program to the needs of each child, thereby shifting the focus from seat-time requirements to actual learning.

The methods used by each school vary. Some combine online learning of basic skills with a traditional face-to-face approach (a “hybrid”). Others follow a more blended approach and even “flip” the classroom, which requires students to learn more at home. Still others completely redesign the school infrastructure and curriculum to provide for different learning modalities, support work in small groups, and follow the academic progress of each child in real time.

Regardless of the methodology, all these programs allow students to choose the pace that suits them best while freeing teachers to zero in on critical thinking instruction, and provide extra help for students who are struggling.
Sources: EducationNext, Forbes, and School of One

Open education goes the distance


Open education­—programs from educational institutions that allow anyone with an Internet connection to register—debuted in 2012, when top universities from the United States to Scotland and Australia began offering courses online. These interactive offerings (called MOOCs, or massive online open courses), are unprecedented in their reach and technological sophistication. Unlike the distance learning courses of old, these new platforms incorporate streaming video and interactivity with increasingly complex data gathering algorithms that make teaching more effective.

Although many elite universities are in the vanguard developing MOOCs, courses are by definition free, presenting many students in poor countries with the opportunity of a top-grade education for the first time. The system allows universities to pool resources by using the lectures as a basis for their own credit-bearing classes, and it could also reduce the costs associated with building and maintaining infrastructure while freeing up teacher time for research and fieldwork.

The classes so far have proved widely popular across the globe. At the end of 2012, Coursera, edX and Udacity together offered around 230 MOOCs from about 40 universities worldwide to over three million students in over 196 different countries. And, not far behind, The Open University in the United Kingdom has launched FutureLearn with 12 U.K. universities. It will start offering free MOOCs in 2013, including a course on “Learning Design for a 21st Century Curriculum.”

Sources: Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, Udacity, and Wikipedia