The Next Step for Technology and Education, and a Step for the Betterment of Our World
There are two trends within education today that may seem to be competing with each other. On the one hand, people are asking how can we educate children in more collaborative ways, teaching them the interactive, interpersonal, and collaborative skills that will be required to solve the world’s current and future problems? Essentially, how can we make education more social? On the other hand, people are also asking how can we better tailor education to fit the needs of every student to allow each student to reach his or her full potential? Essentially, how can we make education more individualized? The use of technology is often considered as a way to achieve more personalized education, but this is often seen as a danger for the goal of more social education. However, technology can—and should—actually support both of these pursuits, and with the innovative use of technology, these two seemingly competing ideals for education—making it more social and making it more individualized—actually can become synergistic, working together to improve education as a whole.
Research on online learning environments has demonstrated how technology can, perhaps surprisingly, improve the social aspect of learning, which is widely considered essential to education. Although one might expect online learning environments to suffer on this front due to the lack of in-person dialogue, work by education researcher Karen Swan has actually found that, “Online education seems particularly well constructed to support such social learning because of the unique nature of asynchronous course discussions,” because these discussions in online learning environments are largely “more equitable and more democratic than traditional classroom discourse.” Showing how the use of technology in education can simultaneously make it more social and more personalized remains a separate challenge, but a case study conducted by public policy researcher Susan Headden focuses on a charter school in Los Angeles that demonstrates this phenomenon. This school has embraced a hybrid model of education known as “blended learning,” which is comprised of traditional in-person instruction, peer-to-peer tutoring in small groups, and online instruction. Amazingly, the use of technology in this hybrid model has allowed the instruction that each child receives to be much more aligned with his or her needs, while at the same time enhancing the social dynamics of the classroom, in the form of more active learning, increased engagement, and better student-to-student and teacher-to-student interactions.
Given that technology is capable of addressing the trend towards more social education and the trend towards more individualized education, the next questions must concern how we can extend this further: how can we now use these improvements in education, made possible by technology, to in turn make society better? The answer, I believe, lies in making education more interconnected across cultural boundaries, which would foreseeably lead to increased empathy and respect throughout the global community. And for this second-level goal in education reform, technology again will be key. To achieve the goal of using education and technology to enhance global unity, I propose an expansive network of cross-cultural school partnerships, where schools all over the world would have ‘partner schools’ in other parts of the world.
The concept of cross-cultural school partnership has intrigued others before me. The University of North Carolina’s Center for International Understanding, noticing the need for global awareness and effective cross-cultural communication skills, has initiated hundreds of school-to-school partnerships between elementary, middle, and high schools in North Carolina and schools in Asia, Latin America, and Europe, with the laudable idea that, “Learning with – and not just about – students in other countries helps provide young people in North Carolina with important 21st Century skills like working in multi-national teams across cultures. International School Partnerships help build global competence and broaden students’ perspectives.” In Australia, the Global School Partners organization partners schools in Australia with schools in developing countries to “enable students from across the globe to connect, share and learn with one another.” The benefits of cross-cultural schools partnerships, which are advocated by these programs in their mission statements, have been validated by research, such as the work done by education researcher Amy Cox-Petersen, who argues in her book Educational Partnerships: Connecting Schools, Families and the Community that effective educational partnerships “involve a bond of trust, communication, and respect from all parties”—qualities that we could use more of throughout our global community.
What I am proposing, though, is a network of cross-cultural school partnerships that is far more expansive than anything that currently exists. Having a partner school in a different part of the world would become the norm, not the exception, and interaction between partners would become an integral part of schools’ operations, rather than an occasional, and potentially superficial, novelty. Technology could help build and substantiate this network of partnerships. We could use big data, in the form of sophisticated analytics and compatibility algorithms, to generate matches of compatible schools, and technology such as online learning environments, telecommunication, and video communication could help create efficacious interactions between partner schools. In addition, we could devise incentives for nations and individual schools to partake in this network, and mandates could require that certain amounts of time be spent interacting with one’s partner school.
This network of cross-cultural school partnership would obviously face some issues, most notably the difficulties of language barriers and of international coordination. Over time, though, improvements in language translation technology, and possibly better holograph technology, could help overcome such issues and expand the network even further. In addition, the establishment of a supranational body or taskforce in charge of implementing and overseeing the network of partnerships would help deal with the issues of coordination between countries.
What will this network mean for the average person of the future? It will mean that technology not only will make education more social and more personalized, but it also will make education more conducive to global unity. Ultimately, this network will make it so that the infusion of technology into education will enable students to (1) learn according to their own needs and thus maximize their potential, (2) still benefit from the unique advantages of the social element of education, and, importantly, (3) learn in ways that break down arbitrary and occasionally contentious barriers in our global community in a grassroots way that leads to a positively reinforcing cycle of respect and empathy across our interconnected world.
 Karen Swan, “Learning Effectiveness Online: What the Research Tells Us,” in Elements of Quality Online Education, Practice and Direction, ed. John Bourne & Janet C. Moore (Needham, MA: Sloane Center for Online Education, 2003), 13.
 Susan Headden, “The Promise of Personalized Learning: Blending the human touch with technological firepower,” Education Next 13, no. 4 (2013): 15, accessed May 2, 2016, http://educationnext.org/the-promise-of-personalized-learning/.
 “International School Partnerships,” The Center for International Understanding, The University of North Carolina, accessed May 2, 2016, http://ciu.northcarolina.edu/what-we-do/future-leaders-2/denmark-school-partnerships/.
 “Global School Partners: What We Do,” Global School Partners, accessed May 2, 2016, http://www.globalschoolpartners.org.au/what-we-do/.
 Amy Cox-Petersen, Educational Partnerships: Connecting Schools, Families and the Community (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010), 11.