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Need | Connect Learners

American students were once the highest achievers in the world. Now? We’re 14th in literacy, 17th in science, and 25th in math within the member nations of the OECD according to the PISA*. Students from low-income families or who have disabilities are behind further yet. The devices youth constantly use need to become portals for a new Connected Learning Environment that will create lifetime learners and make us a more prosperous nation. New apps can both help create and reap some of this new wealth.

Of the nearly 80 million students in K-12 public education, a large percentage – 40% – will never graduate high school. Only half of those finish a GED. Of the ones that finish, most won’t pursue or complete post-secondary education. The rates are even more devastating for low-income students of color. While the achievement gap, “observed disparity on a number of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by gender, race/ethnicity, ability, and socioeconomic status”, has plagued our schools since the first studies on the phenomenon in 1966, it appears to only be getting worse:

Much attention and money is paid to different models that may or may not improve the public school system. Success is being measured for the most part in the classroom, first by the No Child Left Behind Policy, and now Race to the Top. But the fact is that learning happens every moment of a person’s life, and by focusing on school models alone, opportunities are missed. Great potential lies in creating technology tools for parents and teachers to use with children, as well as for adult and elder learners to use on their own or with each other, to expand the boundaries of where successful learning happens.

The educational success of a country’s students has a great affect on that nation. The High Cost of Low Educational Performance: THE LONG-RUN ECONOMIC IMPACT OF IMPROVING PISA OUTCOME, a 2010 report by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and a team of Stanford researchers, made a irrefutable economic connection between the educational performance of students/schools and the economic success of a country, measured by GDP. Out of the top 30 developed nations, the United States ranks 16th. The “report uses recent economic modeling to relate cognitive skills – as measured by PISA and other international instruments – to economic growth. The relationship indicates that relatively small improvements in the skills of a nation’s labour force can have very large impacts on future well-being.”

According the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focusing on learners with low-resources, from low-income families, with learning disabilities, ESL learners, and students of color (especially African American males) will do the most to bridge the achievement gap. There are also two crucial periods when it is most important to create essential learning skills and keep students engaged – early pre- and primary school and the transition from high school to college.

Apps Out There

Numerous studies point to the successful use of technology to aid in the education process, like the work of Bill Gates’ favorite teacher Salman Khan with the Khan Academy. The mobility of feature phones, smartphones, iPads, eBook, and other devices make them an excellent learning tools. Play is one of the best learning tools. Josh Koppel of iPad app maker Scrollmotion believes the key to great learning apps is “to make play possible throughout the app in unexpected places”. Knowledge plus fun is what makes apps like Motion Math and Miss Spell’s Class so great.

While there are many learning apps that are useful to all learners, there really are no applications that are specifically geared towards the educational needs of low-income, low-resource, learners with disabilities, or learners of color.

Apps that Should Be

When considering ideas for apps to Connect Learners, consider how to help 21st century students build the skills to:

  • Communicate effectively: Students must have a range of skills to express themselves not only through paper and pencil, but also audio, video, animation, design software as well as a host of new environments (e-mail, web sites, message boards, blogs, streaming media, etc.). Visual expression gives students behind in reading and writing an opportunity display their creativity and build confidence. Anyone with a phone can now make a movie.
  • Analyze and interpret data: Students must have the ability to crunch, compare, and choose among the glut of data now available Web-based and other electronic formats.
  • Understand computational modeling: Students must posses an understanding of the power, limitations, and underlying assumptions of various data representation systems, such as computational models and simulations, which are increasingly driving a wide-range of disciplines. Game consoles are perhaps the best platform for this.
  • Manage and prioritize tasks: Students must be able to mange the multi-tasking, selection, and prioritizing across technology applications that allow them to move fluidly among teams, assignments and communities of practice. Setting goals and sticking with them is especially important for potential first-in-family college students.
  • Engage in problem solving: Students must have an understanding of how to apply what they know and can do to new situations. Devices can open up real world learning with maps and augmented reality.
  • Be safe in a modern world: Students must know and use strategies to acknowledge, identify, and negotiate 21st century risks. SMS has proven effective for counselling teens about STDs, smoking and pregnancy.
  • Learn collaboratively: So many tasks and jobs take a group effort. Students must understand how to collaborate with others, both in person and via social networks. Facebook should become known as an instrument of education, not a distraction from it.

Just the self-paced eLearning portion of the education software market is expected to double from $24b to $49b by 2014. Both the needs and business opportunities are clear.


* Intro Programme for International Student Assessment
TakePart, High School Dropout Rates, 2010
Mona Mourshed and Fenton Whelan How to Close the Achievement Gap: The world’s best schools offer important lessons about what works, 2010
U.S. Department of Education, Four Pillars of NCLB, 2004
U.S. Department of Education, Archived: NCLB Executive Summary Overview, 2001
Critical Issue: Using Technology to Improve Student Achievement, 2005
Lauren Indvik 5 Classic Children’ Tales Reinvented for the iPad, 2010, Common Core States Standards Initiative, 2010
Programme for International Student Assessment The High Cost of Low Educational Performance: The Long-Run Economic Impact of Improving PISA Outcomes, 2010

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