Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco–three technology giants that last year vowed to increase their efforts aimed at global education reform–have banded together to develop the next generation of assessments: tests that measure 21st-century skills and provide a global framework for excellence.
At the Learning and Technology Forum in London earlier this month, the three companies unveiled plans to underwrite a multi-sector research project to develop new approaches, methods, and technologies for measuring the success of 21st-century teaching and learning efforts in classrooms around the world.
"As employers of tomorrow’s talent, we have a common interest in bringing together the power and reach of our companies to improve learning outcomes so students are equipped to succeed in a dynamic, technology-rich world," said Anoop Gupta, corporate vice president of education projects and the Unlimited Potential program at Microsoft. "But more generally, as members of the global economic and social community, it is in our long-term interest to support education reform that leads to widespread economic development and a more prosperous global society."
The three companies have a long history of supporting education initiatives and have worked together successfully in the past with other organizations to support education reform. For example, the firms developed the UNESCO ICT Competency Framework for Teachers and were the founding members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Education Initiative, which aims to transform education through public-private partnerships.
"We believe that collectively we can have a greater impact," said Gupta. "This collaboration is also a response to the needs of customers, particularly governments, as they seek greater efficiency, effectiveness, and–frankly–simplicity in their partner relationships."
Martina Roth, director of global education strategy for Intel’s Corporate Affairs Group, agreed that the collective efforts of the three companies are stronger than any individual firm alone.
"The link between successful educational systems and strong economies is indisputable. However, there is a disconnect between what goes on in schools now and what goes on in today’s workplace. By not ensuring that our children are equipped for the workplace, we are doing them a disservice and ultimately harming ourselves and our economies," Roth said.
Based on extensive research, Cisco, Microsoft, and Intel concluded that most education systems have not kept pace with the dramatic changes in the economy and the skill sets that are required for students to succeed. These skills include the ability to think critically and creatively, to work cooperatively, and to adapt to the evolving use of information and communications technology (ICT) in business and society.
Schools also need a consistent way to measure success in these areas, company officials said.
"The goal isn’t to assess ICT independently," explained Gupta, "but to incorporate ICT into measuring other skills that are invaluable in the 21st-century workplace. New assessments can provide information that students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policy makers need to catalyze and support systemic education reform."
The companies said there is no specific model that the project will be looking for. Rather, it will aim to inform school leaders of the characteristics of effective learning environments that can deliver 21st-century skills and assessments.
The three firms also announced the appointment of Australian academic Barry McGaw, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, as executive director of the project.
McGaw was previously the education director of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), where he was a key figure in the development of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the reading, mathematics, and scientific skills of 250,000 students from 32 countries.
"Part of the challenge in creating an assessment of 21st-century skills is that there is no universally accepted definition of what is meant when we talk about 21st-century skills," Gupta said.
One of the working groups that McGaw will direct is tasked with making a recommendation on a standardized set of 21st-century skills and their measurement, "taking advantage of work that already exists in this area," said Gupta. Senta Raizen, director of the National Center for Improving Science Education at WestEd, will be in charge of that group.
McGaw and his team of researchers, especially John Bransford and his working group on learning environments, also will look into innovative classroom practices globally and identify those practices that support 21st-century skills.
"The reason why students in innovative classrooms haven’t scored better than those in traditional classrooms is because the assessments were measuring the wrong skills," said Roth. "Therefore, the focus is [on changing assessments] to appropriately measure 21st-century skills, thus influencing teaching and learning, as well as curricula changes."
McGaw will oversee an executive committee, a project lead team, and up to 50 leading experts and innovators in academia and government.
"Reforming assessment is essential to enabling any systemic changes in education," said McGaw. "In PISA 2003, we took a step by adding an assessment of problem solving, but one limited to analogical reasoning. We hoped to add ICT competence in PISA 2006 but did not succeed. We all need to work together to advance assessment practice."
The initiative also is supported by the International Association of the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and its Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
To accelerate the project in time to influence the next versions of PISA (2012) and TIMSS (2011), the project will review successful classroom practices for the teaching and testing of 21st-century skills and draw implications for large-scale assessments.
"Cisco, Microsoft, and Intel understand that technology in and of itself will not … achieve the kind of global transformation necessary to bring education into the 21st century," said Cisco in a statement. "We believe technology has a key role to play in realizing the vision of a high-quality education for all, and we want to provide the resources to help make that vision a reality. The alliance is working with academic experts and the education community to provide the resources they require to make rapid progress on this issue. We encourage everyone from private companies to public organizations to parents and teachers to join together in this important effort."
The companies are actively encouraging other partners from schools, government ministries, assessment organizations, universities and education research institutions, foundations, and businesses to join in the effort.
"In many classrooms, the teachers teach what is measured," said Gupta. "By influencing international assessments, and working with countries to influence their policy and approaches to national assessment, we believe this project will have a direct and large-scale impact on what is taught and how it is taught in schools across the [world]. In this way, it is our hope that this project will help schools move to the style of learning environment that engages the current and future generation of students and delivers to students the skills and competencies they need for successful and prosperous lives in the 21st century."
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the Measuring 21st-century skills resource center. Graduates who enter the workplace with a solid grasp of 21st-century skills bring value to both the workplace and global marketplace. Go to: Measuring 21st-century skills
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