Is N4L in New Zealand Building the Ultimate Educational Sandbox?

What if every teacher and student in your school/district/county/state/country had access to a shared, fully searchable knowledge base of educational content, ideas, resources, curriculum, and links?  What if they could both access the knowledge base and contribute to it? What if they could follow and share with other users who have common interests, and report on the value of what they find? What if they could tweak, expand, synthesize, and export ideas across the boundaries of subject, and re-share those innovative uses with all the other interested users?

Is this the common educational “sand box” I have been preaching about and searching for for half a decade?  MIght this capability define an enormously powerful and impactful node on the growing cognitosphere?

imgresI had a 45 minute Google hangout with Chris South, Head of Dynamic Services at Network 4 Learning, a unique hybrid start-up in New Zealand that is piloting what may be a great leap forward in the era of educational transformation. N4L is an independently run company owned jointly by the New Zealand Ministries of Education and Finance.  I learned that schools in New Zealand ALL have autonomy to teach what and how they like, subject only to very broad guidelines of the government, but determined by their individual boards of trustees.  As Chris said, this creates a playing field ripe with enormous innovation potential as school communities meet local demands that span the spectrum from “traditional” to “fiercely independent”. Within this context, N4L has the authority and resources of a government entity, yet the agility and autonomy of a Silicon Valley start-up.

Just two years from its founding, Chris explains that N4L has two primary missions:

  •  To connect every state-registered school to a fast broadband system, giving 750,000 students and 80,000 adult teachers and administrators equitable access to connected learning.
  •  Discover and share great educational content amongst all interested teachers and students, to the extent they want to access it.  The goal, as Chris said, is NOT to turn 750K students and 80K adults into just consumers of common content; but rather to combine their creativity with that of companies, vendors, and the community to build, develop, and share what works.

The mechanics of this work are being piloted as we speak in The Pond, where the resources of government, vendors, companies, not-for-profits and knowledge bases of largely New Zealand centric educational content are brought together.  On the user side are teachers, students, administrators AND families, care-givers, parents, and guardians. As all of these groups develop the access and ability to contribute to, and help evolve, The Pond, Chris says that a large majority of the entire 4 million people in New Zealand will be sharing this knowledge node.

Now in a pilot phase, with full roll out later this calendar year, The Pond allows users to upload resources, content, links, and references using a simple but robust taxonomy of tags that makes it highly searchable and discoverable.  They have also built in social media functionality that (and if you have followed me you know I LOVE this) make The Pond self-evolving:

  •  “Learning Ideas” allow users to take any item, adjust or tweak or add to it (reminds of the “plussing” at Pixar that I just read about in David Burkus’ book “The Myths of Creativity”) to make it useable or relevant to another subject, theme, or grade level.
  • Users can “follow” each other based on their body of work or shared interests, just as we do on Facebook or Twitter, and allow commenting and discussion to take place.
  • Data mining to see what content is used widely…what is successful and what is not.

All of this has only been in real progress for less than a year, yet they anticipate full access across the country by 2015.  Students will have “pretty much the same access” as teachers, subject to controls put in place at individual school levels. And, Chris says, vendors are seeing what is added, and the new twists that teachers are adding to the knowledge base, and saying “We have stuff like that ready for you, but it was sitting on a shelf”, or “Wow, we had not thought of that; let’s get to it!”

Is this the model for a common sand box in which teachers and students can “play” to learn from each other; to not always re-invent the wheel; to share evolving content and best practices in real time rather than waiting for publishing cycles that are utterly out of phase with real change; to see and gain comfort with the rapidly evolving face of transformational learning?  Is this the educator’s sand box we need to make usable, great content highly accessible and fluidly evolutionary?  It is the best I have heard of. What about you? I am going to watch closely, and I am sure others will as well!

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