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by Anne Collier

One of the most remarkable things about the report of the Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet, I believe, is how in sync it is with students’ own view of what needs to happen in US education. Clearly, if a constitutional convention on students’ rights were held today, the various parties – students, educators, parents, policymakers – would have a good deal of common ground right out of the gate.

Just look at the Student Bill of Rights, developed by student activists (in middle school, high school and college), and the just-released Task Force report, “Learner at the Center of a Networked World.” [Disclosure: I had the privilege of serving on this task force.]

The preamble to the Student Bill of Rights states:

“We, the Students, feel education reform efforts have generally ignored our voice in the conversation to improve school, and that the solution ought to be inclusive and empowering for students, rather than dismissive and patronizing…. In order to form a more perfect education, we establish these Student Rights….”

The 10 rights that follow are freedom of expression; safety and wellbeing; due process (fair and just treatment and a right to appeal decisions); learner centered education; institutional agency (the right to influence decisions that affect them); control of their information and privacy; employability; civic participation (including the ability to solve real problems in academic work); fair assessment; and access to adequate technology.

Where Task Force & students agree

There are many points of resonance between that set of rights and the recommendations of the Task Force report, with its 26 action steps. All of it is based on five core principles for effective connected learning:

  • Student-centered: “Learners need to be at the center of new learning networks.” This is a direct correlation with the 4th Right of the Student Bill of Rights, “Learner Centered Education.” It’s the agency piece, calling for enabling students “to pursue their interests and find educational resources, experiences, and courses any time and any place,” as the Task Force report put it.
  • Equitable: “Every student should have access to learning networks” in and out of school. This principle resonates with the 4th and 10th Rights in the students’ bill (Due Process and Technology, respectively), as well as the Bill’s introduction, which states: “Every student shall be entitled all rights set forth in this Bill, without distinction or discrimination on account of race, color, gender, language, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or any other status of themselves or of their family.”
  • Interoperable: “Learning networks need to be interoperable,” with open standards and protocols for learning resources. This is a principle that grows out of a Task Force whose members represent business and government as well as education. It underlies a number of the students’ stated rights, especially No. 6, “The Right to Control and Access One’s Information.”
  • Literacy-based: “Learners should have the literacies necessary to utilize media as well as safeguard themselves in the digital age” (the agency and competency piece) – a principle that supports Rights Nos. 2, 6 and 7: Safety & Wellbeing, Employability and Civic Participation.
  • Safe & trusted: “Students should have safe and trusted environments for learning.” Of course this principle supports the students’ Right to Safety, Security, Aid, and Healthy Living,” online as well as offline.

Safety takes many forms; there’s actually a taxonomy of safety. In a document we ConnectSafely folk published in 2009 called “Online Safety 3.0,” we laid out the taxonomy in terms of freedoms: physical safety (freedom from physical harm), psychological safety (freedom from cruelty, harassment, and exposure to potentially harmful content), reputational and legal safety (freedom from unwanted social, academic, professional, and legal consequences), and identity, property and community safety (freedom from theft of or harm to identity, property, networks and communities, both digital and physical). [Please feel free to suggest edits or build on this in comments.]

Trusted environments need to trust students

The emotional/psychological safety that is so needed for learning to happen is also the type of online safety that mitigates the most common risk children encounter online: harassment and social cruelty (see the report of the first task force I sat on). In his TEDx talk, student activist Erik Martin referred to how much he was able both to learn and heal emotionally (after lengthy hospitalization) in the supportive, judgment-free environment of a World of Warcraft guild, which he ended up leading. Under its Right to Safety & Wellbeing, the Student Bill of Rights requires that “institutions must create and maintain a learning environment which ensures mental and physical health and wellness.” Erik’s guild, with members of all ages, did that better than his school did.

Trust, one of the most prominent themes throughout the Task Force’s year of discussions and report, is indispensable to learning, safety and efficacy in a connected world. Whether in schools, communities or countries, it isn’t created by rules and policies imposed from the top. It develops more from the inside out. Communities can create the conditions for trust to develop – which is why the Task Force called for “safe, trusted environments for learning” – but environments will never truly be trusted by their participants if the participants aren’t afforded trust themselves (see this about a Connecticut school sending a clear message of trust to its students). The framers of the Student Bill of Rights confirm that in their Right No. 5 (“the right to influence decisions which affect students”).

A student constitutional convention?

So this Task Force member has one recommendation to add: As a next step, work with students in our collective nationwide efforts to effect change in education. The framers of the Student Bill of Rights refer to educators and other adults as “veteran learners.” It just may be time for veteran learners, students – all parties to the discussion about connected learning – to convene a Constitutional Convention for Students’ Rights and Connected Learning. I have a strong feeling students will want to participate!
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