Bridging the School-Community Divide in Digital Learning

Michael Robbins at SXSWedu

ED’s Michael Robbins led a session on digital learning and collective impact in education at this year’s SXSWedu in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Instagram user chbrenchley.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at SXSWedu – a national education convening leading up to the South by Southwest festivals and conferences in Austin, TX. What began three years ago as a handful of education-focused sessions at SXSW Interactive has grown into an inspiring and informative gathering of over 4,000 participants from across the world.

Jeff Edmondson, the managing director of Strive, and I led a session on digital learning and collective impact in education – how technology can improve how schools, families, and communities collaborate to advance student engagement and learning. The power of technology to transform education was a major theme at SXSWedu, but the discussions in Austin underscored my concerns about how K-12 digital learning transitions are evolving.

Many conversations were intensely focused on technology to support school-based initiatives, but missing attention on how digital learning should connect students to their passions, peers, communities, and careers. We will miss essential opportunities to transform schools if transitions primarily create digital versions of traditional analog education processes – trading textbooks for tablets and paper files for databases.

At the other end of the spectrum were SXSWedu sessions on learning outside of schools, many of which approached schools as hurdles to be overcome instead of partners in learning. Frustrated by the slow pace of change, efforts like the maker movement and open badges have chosen to move ahead outside  K-12 institutions and bureaucracies. Despite significant advancements, most of these are on the sidelines of school district digital learning transitions, more likely to be the subject of TED talks than digital curricula or school turnaround plans.

Students and families are mostly left to themselves to connect the dots between school-based and non-school learning. The students most disadvantaged by these silos are ones already facing the greatest challenges inside and outside the classroom, and they could benefit the most from the digital learning that transcends the school-community divide. Partnerships between schools, families, and community-based organizations are an important way to bridge this divide, and ensure the success and sustainability of digital learning transitions.

I’ll be facilitating conversations to delve deeper into these issues as part of a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) that begins April 8 – advancing the Department’s efforts through Epic-ed to support digital learning transitions. Please join us for the MOOC to share your ideas on partnerships among schools, districts, teachers, community organizations, education technology companies, families, and others to ensure the digital learning revolution propels engagement and achievement for all students.

Michael Robbins is senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education


  1. I just read this post and discussion. I’ve been working in the area of secondary education and community participation for youth with disabilities for nearly three decades, and am currently on faculty at Cornell University. The imperative is clear: the requirements of the workplace are changing rapidly, and education will lose its relevance if we are not active partners with our families and community leaders. Youth with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. Persistent problems require persistent, engaged planning across all passionate partners, including all students. This is critical and timely work. I will explore your MOOC for opportunities to continue this dialogue. Thank you!

  2. In respose to Race to the Top money:
    What concessions were made for the Special education teachers not administering the Florida Alternate Assessment whose students have Specific Learning Disabilities or severe behavior problems? These students do make gains which cannot be measured by the FCAT. Since they are reading on a first grade level and being tested on a 3rd through 5th grade level or higher, has the district developed a test for those students so that we, as Special Education teachers, will also be rewarded for our hard work?
    It will be another year of watching teachers get rewarded for their FCAT scores, meanwhile the ESE teachers will get a pittance for dealing with immeasurable problems which we encounter daily from severe to mild disabilities and behavior issues.

  3. I also didn’t speak at SXSWEdu. Much to my regret, I didn’t even attend. Next year, I will. And if I were to have the chance to speak it would be about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    Meaningful digital learning is in its infancy – we are only a few years into developing and learning how to use digital tools. It is true that parents and communities have yet to see, in most cases, how digital learning lets students prepare not only for college but for careers and life in modern times. It is true that most tools and resources are still limited, not integrated, and pulling in different directions. It is true that no one has homogenized the beautiful outside-of-school communities of learning and practice into standards-aligned curriculum. It is true that practices that trust students to be responsible with technology and support them in living up to that trust are not yet widespread.


    Just because these emergent tools, practices, communities, and resources are flawed (young) doesn’t mean they are not useful – sometimes in brilliant ways. Every day, in pockets of excellence, educators are using them for their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses. I *like* that they are not yet teacher-proofed – this makes them powerful tools for the teachers, students, and parents that are blazing the trails of what modern learning should be.

    That said, these opportunities may not be for everyone yet. They require critical, reflective practice that takes advantage of what digital learning and community can provide for a given class in a given context at a given time – this is *hard*. They require vigilance – that their weaknesses aren’t exploited as
    – by replacing teaching with on-line lessons without using the freed up time for deeper in-person learning;
    – by exploiting student work and student data for profit without regard to privacy;
    – by using management software to increase control over students rather than grace them with increased autonomy, ownership, and self-driven mastery – the very things that drive the intrinsic motivation to learn that old-school approaches of “motivating” with carrots and sticks destroys. The very things that keep students on task without the need for adult micromanagement and control.

    Technology will not transform our schools. Teachers, students, parents, and communities will – by shifting to a culture that supports intrinsic motivation, personalized learning, and authentic work for students. Technology, however, is the catalyst and enabler that makes it possible for the first time for teachers and learners to transform their social and academic environments at scale.

  4. I recently did not have the opportunity to speak at SXSWedu, but if I were to speak it would have been more about the limitations of the power of technology to improve education. There is a divide that separates our schools from our communities, but that divide is due to a fundamental difference between what the community thinks the problems and the solutions are for our schools and reality.

    Technology can transform our schools, but it cannot improve them unless we understand what the real problems are then work actively to solve them.

    For example, students are immersed in technology, they live and breath it, and they do so because it connects them to their passions, their peers, and their community. To a teacher, those connections are a distraction to the potential for any kind of learning, much less digital learning. As someone who uses technology (primarily the internet) every day to learn and improve my teaching, I know the resources necessary already exist and students are not taking advantage of it. It is not a matter of access, it is a matter of guidance, direction, and motivation.

    If we could keep students on task when using technology for learning, we would have won at least half the battle. When students use technology, they expect – are conditioned – to use it for entertainment.

    Those learners that Mr. Robbins mentions who could benefit the most from digital learning are the same learners who have the least motivation and self discipline to be able to do so. Lets work on the problem of instilling motivation and discipline in our students before we start talking about transforming education.

    I could talk about my own efforts to bring the maker movement and technology projects into public schools, but I instead want to discuss the theme of partnerships that run through this article. Mr. Robbins presents these partnerships as a solution when my experience is that each of these entities (which includes areas not mentioned like policy, administration, and government) are pulling in different directions. Instead of bridging any divide, it gets widened into a chasm.

    Like I said, everyone thinks they know what the problems and the solutions are, and one of the illustrations about the limitations of the power of technology is that it is often used to reinforce mistaken and even destructive beliefs. If adults use technology this way, why would you think kids would be any different?

    No, the problems in our schools are social, and technology is not going to solve that problem by itself.

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