The Modern Learner: How Learning And Teaching Are Changing

modern-learner

Pedagogy – the art and science of teaching, the method and practice of teaching, an understanding of how humans learn best. This is what educators are interested in. Now, what has ICT got to do with that? For too long, ICT has been sold to us as an essential with little linking to why. How does it make us learn better? How does it relate to pedagogy?

When we talk about ICT, we need to move beyond the tools. I get sick of hearing one presentation after the other espousing the latest, greatest, shrunk down, sped up, oversized, undersized piece of plastic that supposedly will change education forever. It will not.

Education has never been about what pencils you have in your pencil case, it is about people – it is about understanding how we best learn, and evolving our practice to account for new thinkings in the area. I also get tired of hearing that ICT will make your lessons more engaging – it will not – I am sure they are already engaging and teachers all know that shiny bells in the corner only maintain engagement for a short time. What are you going to do then?

So why talk about ICT at all? The reason is that the way we learn as humans has fundamentally changed due to the digital world and as educators we need to be aware of that. Here are some of the more exciting developments in the current thinking about learning.

Social Learning

For too long in western education there has been an over-emphasis on the individual. We see children coming to us as empty vessels that need to be filled by us with whatever information (content) we think is important. This learning is done independent of others.

However, knowing (or knowledge) is about who you are, what you are doing, and it unfolds within a social environment – never independent from it. ICT allows for connections, communities of practice and social learning to occur like never before. How are schools prepared to deal with Social Networks (Facebook, Twitter etc.) and utilise them for a new approach to learning?

Constructivism/Experiential Learning

This is not a new theory. It has been around for over 100 years, but still many schools regard it as radical. We learn best through experience. The worst way to teach is to stand at the front of the class and pass on ‘content’ in a lecture style. If you think you can hold more information than the internet, well, keep teaching this way – if not, it is time to find new ways. This is not to say that explicit skills-based teaching is not at times necessary. But the internet holds many repositories of content and millions of examples of good explicit teaching. For example, see the Khan Academy, or just type your question into Google or ask YouTube and someone will have uploaded a video teaching you how to do it. If it is a simple explicit fact that needs to be ‘learnt’ in order to achieve a greater purpose, point the student to a place where they can find it (or better still, teach them the strategy to do it so you never have to point them again). This frees you up to provide far deeper experiences for your students to learn from. Gaming is one great way to develop experiential learning. Digital games such as SimCity or Civilisation, or a host of others, can be used to give the students an experience previously unavailable to them. For example, in SimCity they experience being a Mayor with all the responsibilities and consequences involved with decisions made. Use it to teach a Civics and Government Unit.

The axiom of experiential learning is “I can teach you about swimming or I can let you go for a swim”. Which one is the more powerful learning experience? ICT now provides us with potential experiences previously unavailable.

Connectivism

This is a relatively new theory that is entirely relevant to the digital age and, in particular, the internet. It claims that all knowledge is now residing in the online networks. Moving on from experiential learning, Connectivism claims that the world is now moving so fast that we can no longer experience all the things we need to in order to keep up. I am sure we can all relate to this feeling. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. “I store my knowledge in my friends,” is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people.

Connectivism is a theory that arises out of Complexity Science (the study of how networks operate) and also has a natural pathway to “Communities of Practice” a term first coined by Lave and Wenger. Knowledge is defined by the relationships and not within the network – not in the individual.

This theory is very relevant for the why and how we would use ICT. You can see evidence for it in social media, the use of NINGs, Wikis, blogs and many other devices that help students connect to whatever networks or community of practice they need to assist their learning. It is our job as educators to encourage participation in these networks. That includes publishing work, expressing opinions, asking the network questions, commenting, tagging information and sharing it to a networked group such as Diigo and so on. Active participation is the key.

But it goes further than just being able to connect to already established networks. Our students have the ability to create their own networks and, in fact, they are already doing this – have your students already built their own YouTube channels? They are being created around their own passions and points of interest. This is a great example of self-directed learning where the student is taking responsibility for their own learning. Within their own networks they are:

  1. self-managing the learning (self-organised)
  2. reflecting on their own thinking and learning, and reflecting and contributing to the learning of others. This is an example of students operating as teachers or as some have framed it “peer to peer learning”
  3. communicating and connecting with a much wider and more diverse range of opinions than is readily available in a traditional classroom setting.

Let me give you a couple of concrete examples where I have witnessed this type of learning.

I recently worked on a project using Minecraft as a tool to teach a science unit. The subject was centred on biodiversity and the premise was our world is ending because of unsustainable practices and we need to move to a different planet and build it from scratch. The new planet was to be built in Minecraft.

The Minecraft server we built for the school had 140 students in it and the project went for a term. We used a lot of the thinking behind Project Based Learning to develop the unit.

What we discovered was the intended learning outcomes based on VELS were covered in about two weeks. From that moment on, the project was almost entirely driven by the students and started to push to a much deeper understanding of science. The students set up their own management systems within the Minecraft pace (they built a bureaucracy) with districts that all linked to relevant aspects of what they determined were needed. The chosen districts were Agriculture, Industry, City and Culture, Recreation and Discovery and Education.

This was based on their own research into biospheres and sustainable practices. All the building within the new planet had to be justified to their district and each district had to justify their work within the larger grouping. For example, the Industry district was responsible for providing energy. After researching, most decided on wind farms, except for one child who demanded that we go nuclear. His argument was based on solid research into nuclear power versus wind farms, the subsequent consequences, what nuclear power actually was (splitting an atom), the need for rapid energy (wind farms would take too long) and so on. These were all areas of science that we had not considered to teach and only arose because of a child’s personal interest being allowed to push to where he wanted to go. That child then vehemently argued his case and in the process gave us all some great learning about nuclear energy and the science behind it. However, he still failed to convince the group, and we ended up building wind farms. This is one of hundreds of stories which demonstrate the power of the network and of self-directed learning.

All the students’ research, discoveries, learnings and ideas were presented in a Wiki where each district and child had their own page. This meant that everyone could see everyone else’s learning and work – find appropriate groups to establish within the districts, around points of interest and feedback on each others work.

The teachers operating as guides within the Wiki space would post leading, open suggestions to keep the project on track and also operate as feedback providers into the learning of all the student’s pages – therefore naturally teachers could comment on anyone’s page (as could the students) not just the pages of those in their ‘class’.

The learning in the project had become personalised. The teacher’s role really changes in this environment from one of information transferrer to a co-learner and assister.

The network that was established by this unit was established and controlled by the students around a point of interest (science and gaming) and pushed the learning to places I had not previously witnessed in a classroom environment.

Blogging

Another project I worked on was all-school blogging using the networked learning/connectivist ideas as its base. We had a scaffolded program and by the time the children were all in Grade 5/6 they had their own individual passion-based blogs focussed on a point of interest. For example: Star Wars or superheros or literature. By blogging around a point of interest, you are allowing the child to connect with a huge network already existing in that space (the Star Wars network is particularly big and diverse). The child now has an authentic voice within the network. They can act as a conduit for information (either on his/her blog or by linking off to other relevant blogs), they can become an expert and they can better connect with other experts, they can share knowledge, they can learn from the network by asking questions, commenting on others blogs and receiving comments on their own blog to questions they have asked. They are now part of a conversation, which is what online publishing is all about.

No longer do we need to only ever publish ‘best work’, in fact a lot of online publishing is actually about publishing our failures in order to learn from the network. Our students already operate in this way and have no fear of it. They are not afraid to publish incomplete work like our generation might be. We (educators from my generation) only want to present as ‘all knowing’ – they (this current generation of students) are using publishing as a chance to actively learn.

I witnessed this while teaching a gamemaking unit. Almost all gaming platforms and game making platforms have very strong networks built up around them where interesting learning takes place. In the unit I was teaching, there was a young boy who struggled socially in every area of the school. He asked if he could create his game using Atmosfir (an online game making platform). I watched him with some interest as he was very active in the unit producing great work. As I watched him closely, I noticed that he had not been asking me for help, instead he was interacting with other online game makings. Further from this, he was publishing unfinished games to the Atmosfir network in order to seek advice and critique. The network would play his game and then via the message board or comment box feedback to him on how to improve it. I was astounded. Here is a child I thought was socially problematic, while in reality in his online space he was very socially active, taking advice and critique and also giving help and advice to others. He was not afraid to publish underdeveloped work and then take advice and criticism from the community and act on that advice whereas he would not readily accept these parameters in the day-to-day functioning of a school environment. He was actively participating in this online community, had incredibly deep interactions and his learning was remarkable – something which he does not demonstrate anywhere else in the ‘real world’ of the school.

In a recent reflection session, this same student asked the teacher if, under the question “what successes have you had”, he could write that he helped other kids. Here is evidence of a child who understands the concepts of online networks and participates in them to develop his learning, which would appear contrary to the evidence displayed in the ‘real world’.

Because of the positive feedback he then received from me and other staff on his successful online demonstration of participation and leadership, he started to transfer the skills into the classroom and playground. The child’s confidence grew as he was now operating as a teacher to other children around him and his behaviour was significantly modified.

Our students are already very active in the networked space and are using it extensively for their own informal learning. Why would we not use this as a tool within our own formal education spaces?

Education that embraces the use of ICT in this fashion challenges many of the current paradigms of western education, including:

  • standardised testing
  • curriculum grades
  • a linear concept of learning
  • teaching that reduces learning to a series of steps
  • learning intentions
  • isolation of the individual – we learn within the web of our understanding and the culture we live in
  • information transferral.

Instead it is:

  • dynamic
  • rich
  • relational
  • self-organised
  • existentially realised by the participants
  • connected
  • one where the teacher’s role changes from expert transmitter to co-learner
  • one where learners have responsibility, ownership of their learning and space for reflection
  • based in experience
  • highly creative.

This is what makes ICT so exciting, no longer are students locked in to the reductionist methods of education so prevalent in our education systems. Rather there is a whole diverse world for them to navigate, to collaborate with, to co-create with, and to learn how to communicate with. Use whatever tool you want but keep these principles in mind.

 

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Kynan Robinson

Kynan Robinson

National Manager - Software at New Era Education
Kynan Robinson is the Manager for Professional Development with New Era, and is a leading expert in ICT and education, working with schools around Australia and assisting them as they seek to better understand and implement contemporary pedagogies. Prior to this role, he was the leading teacher for eLearning, Creativity and Innovation at North Fitzroy Primary School, Melbourne, a beacon school in ICT focussing on digital gaming, blogging, and mobile devices. Kynan has also been awarded the ICTEV 2013 Outstanding Leader of the Year award, and has a PhD in Education. He is considered to be one of Australia’s preeminent thinkers in the area of ICT and education and has presented at numerous national and international conferences.


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