TechTonic Forces for Change Reshape Learning Landscapes


[Editor’s note: This is the second in a new column series from the pragmatic visionaries at the Thornburg Center for Professional Development]

Leaders beware of that seemingly solid ground beneath your feet. While tectonic change usually takes place over millions of years, when enough pressure builds—it can be instantaneous. TechTonic changes are creating new learning landscapes right before our eyes.

Drawing from plate tectonics as a metaphor, the structures that support and underlie global learning (like land masses) are moving, colliding and reshaping learning landscapes every day. In TechTonics, the plates are global: cultural, economic, political, environmental “plates” all interact with technology, and are constantly in play. While these changes may not be evident inside the majority of our classrooms, they are prevalent everywhere else.

Forces have been building for decades. On the surface, little has changed. We still go to school (either to teach, or to learn, or both). We still follow a “one size fits all” curriculum, based on the time our seats are in chairs, instead of how the engagement of our hearts and minds leads us towards competencies and mastery.

In 1990, I worked as a systems analyst in an engineering company outside Philadelphia. For three months, I couldn’t find anyone to hire who knew how to think with their computer. While dozens of people (who ran rings around applications and wrote reams of code) showed up for interviews, I stopped them dead in their tracks by pointing to the screen and asking four simple words: what does it mean?

I then decided to become a computer teacher, since if I couldn’t hire the people we need, at least I could help to grow them.

Fast-forward fifteen years. As New Mexico’s State Educational Technology Director, I helped districts focus the investment of $12M annually so that outcomes for students more closely represent what both they and society need to thrive, not only in the future, but right now. The waves of hyper-focus on test-driven accountability had already begun the erosion of progress that excited so many educators about connecting their students with the world through the Internet. The absence of meaningful ways to talk about student growth in 21st-century skills, without falling into the trap of further de-contextualized testing, and without having any solid correlations that demonstrate students who develop 21st-century skills do better academically than those who do not, ultimately led to the situation we have today.

Today, we face a schizoid phenomenon resembling a tangent curve: as awareness and pronouncements about the critical importance of increasing student opportunities and performance in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) accelerate towards infinity, the resources and political will to make the required shifts in policies, priorities, and practices decrease towards zero.

What if we were to find ways to sidestep the educational reform culture wars (which seem focused on fixing blame for an underperforming system) and instead engineer a response that starts from the premise that the learning is done by the learner? Furthermore, applying what is known about how people learn (in ways that are not constrained by school schedules and staffing) may open avenues that have been proven successful but not widely used. What if blended learning—combining the best features of face-to-face and online practice—could be used to situate learning tasks that apply core content principles in real world contexts, and simultaneously document student mastery of both core content performance standards and digital age learning skills? That is TechTonic Change.

The goal of the Digital Learning Process is to provide a practical bridge that any educator can use to cross into the future of learning. By incorporating tasks that include questions designed to cause students to think in 21st-century ways and by providing a process for making this thinking visible for reflection by students and teachers, we make it possible to create and examine evidence of student thinking. As Helen Barrett has taught, Evidence = Artifacts + Reflection + Validation (see

In this case, standards-based inquiry-driven projects provide the opportunity to demonstrate the application of the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards in completing tasks. Teams of students document their planning and progress in implementing their plans, which provides the artifact. Online discussions among students and between teams, their mentors, and teachers provide the reflections. Students submit their best work for validation against the standards (academic and NETS).

Such a future rejects meaningless test scores (that are only designed to “sort, sift, and compare” for the benefit of adult agendas) in favor of useful information that learners own and use to chart their path to expanded life choices.


Ferdi Serim helps people become more effective in “real life” by incorporating the power of digital learning communities focused on talent development. He has worked in many venues: Board Member of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE); the New Mexico Public Education Department’s EdTech Director, Reading First Director, Program Manager for Literacy, Technology & Standards; Board Member of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), Innovate+Educate, and Education360; director of the Online Internet Institute (OII); Associate of the Thornburg Center for Professional Development (and jazz musician). Ferdi is the author of four books: Digital Learning: Strengthening and Assessing 21st Century Skills, now available from Jossey-Bass, as well as NetLearning: Why Teachers Use the Internet; From Computers to Community: Unlocking the Potentials of the Wired Classroom; Information Technology for Learning: No School Left Behind.

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