Creating a Bright Future for All Kids through Digital Learning

Just 25 years ago, life was very different for US residents. Few people used e-mail, “the web” was about spiders, and “portable phones” generated more derision than envy. Schools had some Apple IIs, Macs, PCs, or labs, but no school had hundreds of kids with constant access. How things have changed. Now digital learning helps kids whenever, wherever—at least, some kids. In 2013, President Barack Obama launched ConnectED, challenging businesses to help get all US schools into digital learning with more devices, more connectivity, more digital content, and more training for teachers.
In late May 2014, the White House announced Esri’s contribution to ConnectED: ArcGIS Online organizational subscriptions for any K–12 school in the United States. With major support from Amazon Web Services, kids in any US school can make maps and analyze data using powerful, professional web-based GIS, connected anytime and anywhere—on a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Since the announcement, three main messages have reached me. First, “You actually expect this to have any impact?” Second, “Sign me up!” Third, “Really? A billion?”
Absolutely, we expect an impact. From Esri president Jack Dangermond on down, my colleagues at Esri are excited about how kids have already used ArcGIS Online, as seen at recent Esri conferences and schools across the country. When educators and education influencers see how powerful it is for kids doing projects, it has an impact.
Hence the “Sign me up!” message. Schools have already requested, received, and started working with ArcGIS Online. More important, GIS users and education leaders in every state have said, “I’m telling my friends and my local schools!” The GIS Certification Institute, in particular, is encouraging geographic information system professionals (GISP) to be GeoMentors for local schools. Educators can build capacity with ArcGIS Online easily, and students even more so. It is important not to set sights too high too quickly nor stay too low for too long (see model), but good teachers know this.
So we hope every school uses ArcGIS Online. But . . . a billion? Really? When asked, I have replied, “You tell me, what’s the dollar value of enticing kids to stay in school? Helping them build skills they will carry for a lifetime? Helping them see and think geographically and influence their friends and family to do the same? Helping them make sound decisions on the basis of a holistic view of a unique and complex situation? Supporting the work of millions of kids as they move into countless careers? And then, what’s the value of a community that does not get built in a disaster-prone area? Or a police force allocating critical resources where they are needed most? Or epidemiologists who can recognize transmission patterns sooner and ward off a pandemic? Or businesses that understand optimizing routes? Or a billion other situations large and small, across the land, and over the years?”
A word about projects. Education Week publishes an annual high school graduation analysis, looking at rates across the USA. Graduation rates are improving, but a huge issue remains. The magazine’s theme this year is “Motivation Matters.” Teachers everywhere report that using GIS motivates kids to engage more deeply in school, especially in projects. Projects are like educational Velcro. Wrestling with complex topics, using varied data in custom situations that are often deeply personal, students work on innumerable little puzzles—countless little hooks. GIS is science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and more—communication, collaboration, creativity, and countless topics. When kids use GIS to explore problems, they often show up in the room before school, reappear during lunch, and sometimes must be shooed out the door after the last bell. I’ve seen it in every kind of school with kids of all backgrounds, including technophobes, kids with various learning challenges, social butterflies, invisibles, and even those expected to have been mired in “senior slump.”
Kids today being taught like students were 25 years ago are dying of boredom, and worse. Let’s unleash the energy and creativity of youth on the big challenges of our communities, country, and planet. All kids today deserve this, not just “the haves.” Let’s help all schools, teachers, and kids become connected learners, with ArcGIS Online!

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