Page last updated at 07:51 GMT, Tuesday, 19 August 2008 08:51 UK

US to back 21st century learning

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News Website, Silicon Valley

student at laptop
Students in today's schools were born into a digital world said the FAS

The US Congress has given the go-ahead for a new centre to explore ways advanced computer and communications technologies can improve learning.

The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies will focus on "bringing education into the 21st century."

Supporters said classrooms have failed to keep up with technology innovations.

"America's reputation as an international leader rests in the hands of our youth," said Sen. Chris Dodd.

"It should be among our top priorities to provide our students with the tools they need to maintain and build upon this standing."

The Senator was one of the original sponsors of a bill that proposed the setting up of the centre. Meanwhile Congressman John Yarmuth of Kentucky spearheaded the passage of the bill through the House and said its timing could not be more critical.

"American businesses know that they need a well-educated workforce to face growing competition from China, India and Europe."

The Federation of American Scientists said, "The creativity that developed extraordinary new information technologies has not focused on finding ways to make learning more compelling, more personal and more productive in our nation's schools.

commencement handshake
Education has not kept pace with technological advances said the FAS

"People assumed that the explosion of innovation in information tools in business and service industries would automatically move into classrooms."

That, the Federation said, has simply not happened.

The centre will support a 'first of its kind' comprehensive research and development programme aimed at improving all levels of learning from kindergarten to university and from government training to college.

Missed opportunity

"Education is falling further and further behind the rest of the economy and we have to rethink our basic approach to helping people learn," said Henry Kelly, the Federation's president.

The FAS said that learning scientists and educators have known for years that people learn faster if education can be personalised and if students are motivated by seeing how their knowledge can help them solve problems they care about.

Mr Kelly told the BBC that the new technologies the business world and the commercial world use everyday can help "deliver on this promise" but have so far failed to do so because the "vexing demands of educational software has not been economically viable."

"Today's generation is very comfortable with using tools like iPods and computers and gaming, but when they go into the classroom none of that is there and there is this sense of an opportunity we are just not grasping," explained Mr Kelly.

He said the centre will concentrate on understanding how to use technology to help everyone learn in a more effective and interesting way that makes that knowledge stick.

Uryas, 12, and Ivan, 12, research their news story.
The focus is on technology and learning, the first national research of its kind

The centre will award grants for research on a series of questions it will pose ranging from the "low hanging fruit variety" to deeper issues.

These include questions like taking technology that works well in an industry setting to the classroom and measuring its effectiveness.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Kelly posed the question, "If you could teach someone without limits or resources, how would you go about it and how would you measure it?

"It's the kind of thing learning science people dared not think about because it seemed too expensive to tackle."

That should all now change, he said.

Some $50m (27m) has been earmarked for the centre, which it is hoped will be up and running in a year's time.

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