I just returned from the Education World Forum with its tied-in British Education Technology Trade (BETT)  show. This is an annual, London-based conference focusing on the use of technology for education, bringing together 63 ministers of education from across the world, along with educators, politicians, researchers, and lots of executives from firms producing some of the most innovative products and solutions on the use of technology in schools and school systems.
This event is supported by the British government, opened by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, along with the Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willets, as well as by the crown, represented by Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. The guest list this year included the CEOs of Promethean and Pearson, top executives from Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and leading representatives from UNESCO, Global Partnership for Education (GPE), Center for Universal Education, the Commonwealth, USAID, and the World Bank. Many education ministers and their teams came to London for this dual event with their own funding, attesting to the importance many hold for this event.
During the event I spoke with several ministers from various parts of the world. Several told me that one of the fastest growing challenges they see is the need to support the development of creativity, character, and collaborative behaviors in the youth. An area of concern and attention for many Ministers is the exponential rise in the use of social media. Education leaders, even in the poorer countries, are watching with intense interest as their children and youth are communicating creatively and connecting outside the school through mobile social collaboration apps, peer-to-peer media sharing, texting, gaming, and other technologically-enabled tools, but are disengaged in a schooling experience which is disarticulated with this virtual world of networked communities. They recognize that as the cost of mobile devices continues to fall and as wireless coverage grows to blanket nearly 100 percent of their countries, more and more of their young people are connecting with one another, as well as with content and meaning, in ways that teachers cannot understand or follow. It is obvious that unless educators figure out how to integrate collaboration and social networking into schooling and learning, students will follow a 21st century version of Timothy Leary's famous injunction to, "turn on, tune in, and drop out."
One more point became very clear to me from the conversations I had during the Education World Forum: Ministers and education leaders from developing and emerging countries desperately want to leapfrog out of their educational dilemmas with modern technology. Rather than working on improving the quality of education by slogging through incremental reforms built upon 20th century or even 19th century practice and norms, education leaders in developing and emerging economies want to take the proverbial giant leap forward by using new and innovative (though usually unevaluated) technologies.
One example of this type of leapfrogging is the simple idea of delivering textbooks, libraries, and other didactic media through tablets or mobile phones (overcoming two of the longest lasting education dilemmas - the persistently insurmountable costs and logistics of publishing, procuring and delivering books and libraries in a timely and cost-effective fashion). Another example is the use of computers or mobile devices to deliver real-time diagnostic learning assessments and feeding back analysis of the data from these tests to enable teachers to better tailor their instruction and support to individual student learning needs.
Finally, one of the most exciting developments I experienced at the EWF was the launch of Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills assessment program . ATC21S is a fascinating initiative that has been sponsored by Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft, with technical work led by Patrick Griffin, with Esther Care and Barry McGaw, among others, at the University of Melbourne, along with experts from Stanford, UC Berkeley, and other renowned institutions. These efforts are being supported by pilot countries Australia, Finland, Singapore, and the US, which have been recently joined by Costa Rica, the Netherlands, and Russia.
As I see it, this remarkable initiative appears to have succeeded in operationalizing what had been heretofore consigned to rhetoric, and has done so in a truly remarkable way. It has cracked the code on how to set standards for, and assess the acquisition of, 21st century skills. Measuring the so-called 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and teamwork, ICT competencies, and information literacy, in a rigorous and pragmatic way has been totally out of reach until now. The ATC21S initiative harnesses ICT tools to both present complex, multi-step, cognitively challenging problems to pairs of students in real time, and also to then assess how each and both of these students collaborate and solve these problems, even when separated from one another in different desks, rooms, or even countries.
The data generated from these assessments may one day even be in the "big data" category due to their depth, breadth, imagery, and completeness, since they appear to be tracking every step and decision taken, every instant and online communication exchanged, and every character typed. This is time-stamped and recorded digitally, for each participant in every pair, and in comparison with multiple pairs of students taking the same test at the same time.
Although this assessment program has only just completed the proof-of-concept stage, it is a harbinger of a wholly new approach to standards and assessment for the 21st century and may lead to schools that succeed in engaging the 21st century "turn on, tune in, and drop out" digitally native generation in exciting new ways to make learning for all a more achievable reality.