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Constructing Education Systems around Students

• John Bailey

We should construct systems of education around the needs of learners.

The vision of learning proposed by the Aspen Institute’s Task Force on Learning and the Internet in its new report is built on that simple premise. The world has changed. The demands placed on our students are tremendous. Information fires across synapses of constantly changing networks—personal, social, and work—and students are challenged to process, learn, and respond to this torrent of knowledge. Education needs to evolve.

As former Governor Jeb Bush and Rosario Dawson, honorary co-chairs of the Task Force, write in the foreword to Aspen’s Learner at the Center of a Networked World, “For today’s students, learning does not start when they enter their homeroom or end when the dismissal school bell rings. Kids can attend class anytime, anywhere, in courses tailored to their own learning style, and at their own pace. We can create an education system where instead of time being the constant with learning the variable, the constant is mastery of content and the variable is time.”

Creating  a new education system where the constant is student-centered mastery rather than time requires new measurements, it requires trust, and it must be built on an infrastructure of meaningful connectivity. But these ingredients are only part of the recipe of producing schools where students can learn at the same rate inside class as they do outside.

The Task Force recognized this gap and found: “More effective models are needed to expand learning beyond the school through connected networks that bring opportunities together into a seamless, integrated experience.”

In the 21st century, there is no reason why the abundance of resources and knowledge on the internet should be partitioned from the physical classroom, and there is little reason why a student should be confined to only taking courses offered by their own school. Libraries should not be thought of as static collections of shelves of books, but as platforms to a universe of resources. No longer should it be acceptable for schools to only offer students the courses they can provide in-house.

As we’ve tracked and encouraged over the last year, one visionary policy that empowers students is Course Access. Course Access describes a policy where states seek to expand the catalog of courses offered at schools to a host of new high quality options and providers. This policy promises to strengthen traditional schools by helping to integrate the opportunities of the 21st century into the daily education of students.

ExcelinEd and Digital Learning Now have worked with leading Course Access states to document this new policy, think through what lessons can be learned about these emerging programs, and recommend ways states can collaborate to support greater options for all students. Captured in a soon-to-be released whitepaper, these lessons build on the solid work done by the Aspen Institute and provide examples of these “effective models.” To receive the report, sign up at

Essential to implementing this type of connected learning is the final area of recommendations from the Aspen Task Force, as the paper recommends “ensuring interoperability of learning networks and of the resources they contain.”

Policies such as Course Access cannot be implemented unless there are ways for states to validate and report on the expanded learning options for students. This alignment between systems is “critical to maximizing their value, including their ability to be affordable and sustainable.”

Embedded in the premise around connected learning is the idea of interoperability. Learning wants to be free and students should find school a place where disparate education experiences can be united. Bringing schools into the 21st century means breaking down traditional silos and remaking class into a place where time is irrelevant, and mastery of content marks true advancement.

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About the author

John Bailey