Empowering Learners in the 21st Century

There is so much need, and so much potential, to bring innovation to the learning of our students. Several events over the past two weeks have left me charged with enthusiasm about what’s possible: a real upgrade for the education of all students.  From my trip to Mooresville, NC with President Obama last week to my experiences at the Reimagining Education: Empowering Learners in a Connected World conference in Washington, DC on May 28-29, I sense a groundswell of excitement and support for a new approach to learning that is better designed for our times.

Obama at Mooresville Middle School

President Barack Obama views student projects created on laptops during a tour at Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., June 6, 2013 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

We co-hosted the Reimagining Education conference with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation because we know that none of this will be accomplished by government alone.  Together, we convened teachers, leaders, academics, advocates and entrepreneurs from many different sectors to think about designing student and teacher learning experiences for today and, more importantly, for a future that we cannot even imagine. The result was a rich discussion and a series of concrete recommendations for new approaches that will better engage, inspire, and prepare students.

Critical to supporting our students’ success is making sure the latest technologies are available and integrated into their learning environments. In this digital age, with tools like open online courses, handheld tablets, and enhanced learning diagnostics, we have the capability to give each student a personalized learning experience tailored to their interests and needs, and the opportunity to give every teacher the advanced tools and training that they deserve.

That is why I was thrilled to join President Obama this past Thursday to announce our plan, called ConnectED, to equip our schools with 21st century technology. The President challenged the nation to work with us to meet the goal of providing high-speed broadband internet to 99% of students within five years. Countries around the world are outpacing us in providing high-speed Internet to their students and their investments are getting results. Through the ConnectED initiative, we can level the playing field and give our students the best chance to succeed in the global economy.

During President Obama’s visit to Mooresville, the words of Professor John Seely Brown resonated with me.  He kicked off the Reimaging Education conference by outlining a vision for a dynamic learning environment in which we “teach content, mentor skills, and cultivate dispositions.”  This means we must expand our idea of the classroom beyond daily lectures and homework assignments. Our students need to experiment, engage, and create in the areas they find truly exciting. Schools are a crucial part of that vision, and better access to technology and the worlds that technology puts at our fingertips, is an essential part of this work.

To accomplish this, we need mentors, employers and artists working together in new ways to get all of our students involved and interested in their own learning. This doesn’t mean diminishing the role of teachers. Nothing can replace the importance of having a great teacher working with students. This does mean redesigning the school environment and its connection to what takes place outside of school so that teachers are not limited by their classroom.   Often it is the limitations of the system and the technology that keep them from getting the access and the support that they need.

I often hear people say that students are dropping out because school is “too hard.” But I think it’s more often the opposite: they think it’s too easy and they do not see the relevance to their daily lives.

In the days since the summit and the President’s call for a modernization of E-rate and a better connected education system, several exciting commitments and projects have been announced that further support this approach of connecting learning to student’s passions and real world experiences.   The MacArthur Foundation’s upcoming Summer of Making and Connecting and the Department’s Connected Educator Month, scheduled for October, will provide limitless opportunities to engage students and teachers in their own learning.

The President and I are committed to this work in our budget proposal as well. Our high school redesign proposal—a plan introduced by President Obama at this year’s State of the Union—would establish a $300 million program to support innovative high school models that better link students to college and careers, providing the relevant experiences that our students want and need. The high schools supported by this program would prepare students for both college and the workforce—a preparation that is not an either/or proposition.

These are all steps in the right direction. We’re planting seeds that will bear fruit in the years to come, and we must act now. These changes are about whether we want to be leaders or laggards as a nation in achieving great futures for our students. In order to provide the best education in the world again, we must develop educational opportunities and resources that excite and prepare all of our students. Technology alone won’t solve this, but we also cannot succeed without it.

Teacher José Rodriguez, with whom I participated in a panel discussion at the Reimagining Education conference, best summarized the importance of this work when he said: “Many of my students asked me why I was absent the last two days. As I tried to explain to them my experience at Reimagining Education, I looked them all straight in the eye with excitement and said, ‘I went to their future. What I saw there was beautiful.’” Let’s make that future today’s reality.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.


  1. Giving children every chance to succeed in the changing world is very important and that all starts with the options and choices they have in school. Improving the technology available for children will allow them to get a headstart in their future. It all starts with a budget that can support these advancements and I agree it is important. It may be difficult to manage some of these changes but they can be done and they really need to be if we’re going to give our children a fighting chance against those in other countries.

  2. As a parent, I like technology; however, I’d prefer to make sure it enhances education rather than having my children spend too much time in front of a computer or tablet screen. Let’s not go overboard (and keep inBloom, Gates, and Microsoft away from my children!).

  3. I applaud the President’s initiative and his phrase about expecting wifi with a latte, but we do not have wifi in our schools certainly resonates. I would caution, however, that this action may be too late for public schools who have had to weather two significant blows:
    (1) Public schools throughout the country have not exercised the fundamental aspect of education–examining one’s own self. This precept goes to Socrates and is as critical to institutions as to individuals. This failure to self-examine has begun to eat away at the institution from within and if action is not swift, education as we have known it will die.
    (2) Legislatures across the country see education as a way to balance the states’ books. Thus there has been an outside pressure on education to do more with less. With changes in the American family structure, with change across our entire culture, and with changes in our students, the legislatures keep education and educators in a reactive mode instead of being proactive. One cannot help but believe that legislators seem to prefer funding prisons (funding is based on the failure rate of 3rd graders) instead of managing the costs on the front end.

    • Mr. Branson, I am not clear about your stance in Numbers 1 and 2; your comments do not make sense to me. Have you, do you or did you ever teach? I have taught in a school system with wifi capability and with a computer in the hands of each student. When you say “Public schools throughout the country have not exercised the fundamental aspect of education–examining one’s own self.” What do you mean? Utilizing wifi and technology is a way for all students to experience as well as explore outside the classroom such as science oceanography, other countries culture, visiting museums, building or engineering, etc. without leaving the classroom. There is a whole another world to be seen of course the teacher can and will monitor and stay within the ramifications of each school district’s curriculum.

      If you think “One cannot help but believe that legislators seem to prefer funding prisons (funding is based on the failure rate of 3rd graders) instead of managing the costs on the front end.” Then jump on the education wagon and help make a change. Turn a negative into a positive; take lemons and make lemonade. Help fight for change, education change and not remember when it use to be or what has happened then.

      • Good Point. A 2009 Iowa State University Study calculated the total cost to society in terms of dollars for just one murder at $17.5 million dollars. Take Philadelphia for example: In 2012 there were 331 murders for a total cost to society of over 5 billion dollars. The same city in the same year spent on 2.5 billion to educate its 149,000 students for one year. I understand this is not an apples to apples comparison, but its in the ballpark. Until we spend on the front end our communities will continue to spend far more on the back end. Money is not the only answer it is just part of the solution. The real answer lies in changing our communities. Schools cannot do this alone.

  4. I agree, we are in desperate need of reimagining education for the future. This includes higher education where I fear that universities are also far behind the curve in preparing for the future.

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