How do you provide students with a 21st Century learning experience when there's no internet - and no electricity? Here's how a university in Kenya helped a rural secondary school...
While I am convinced that technology combined with excellent instruction can allow the creation of new and powerful learning experiences for students, I am also convinced that "learning by computer" alone will never adequately prepare students for the complex challenges they will face as adults. Here's why...
Reason #1 - Learning is socially situated, and computer-mediated social interactions are a narrow approximation of human interaction
James Greeno (Stanford University) and numerous education researchers agree that learning is socially situated. The behaviorists of the 1920's were only partly right, it turns out. For example, learning to read a book is an important skill (behavior). But while reading a book by yourself engages your mind with the author's mind, it's only a one way street. Reading a book with others, and discussing it, then (in some cases) putting it to practice, brings the learning to new levels.
This is why I'm currently underwhelmed by current attempts to replace textbooks with electronic textbooks. While there is an obvious cost saving potential from eliminating the printing costs (and with open resources, the cost of content itself) and the backpack weight reductions are much appreciated, the exciting breakthrough will be when the electronic book does MORE than a printed book.
At Carnegie Mellon, Professor Ananda Gunawardena has shown what is possible through his "adaptive book" research. This electronic textbook system allows for the annotation of electronic text, but more importantly, the annotations are can be SHARED. Imagine margin notes that can be traded among study partners, and the ability download "expert commentaries" that can be revealed while reading. In essence, the textbook moves from a "solo learning experience" to becoming the foundation for shared conversation - and a new form of assessment.
Even so, sharing annotations is complementary to but not a substitute for live, scholarly discourse and debate.
Reason #2 - Enriching experiences help to develop the brain's capacity for intelligence and creativity
Marian Diamond, in her book, "Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child's Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions from Birth Through Adolescence" (1998), describes in their research how "enriching experiences" positively impact the brain's neurological capacity. At the risk of over-simplifying their work, the net result of enrichment is that the neuron's dendritic structure becomes more complex and capable - even with adults.
One could argue that ICT-mediated learning is, itself, enriching. Clearly this is true in as much as computers can provide experiences that complement many traditional classroom experiences. Having ready access to data collection and analysis tools, for example, allows students to ask deeper, what-if types of questions in real-time during an experiment or out in the field. But notice that in these two cases, the technology use is part of a larger instructional experience (the lab or the field).
Using computers to REPLACE enriching experiences will not accomplish the same purpose - your neurons will know the difference! Designing a 3D model of a house on a computer is one type of experience; using that design to build an actual scale model, then going on to building the full-scale object introduces a rich set of experiences that you cannot have with the computer alone. Going on a virtual field trip is nice when the real trip is impossible, but it can never be as enriching as the actual visit.
Let's give students the FULL set of experiences whenever we can so that their neurons will flourish to the fullest extent.
Reason #3 - Simulations only simulate reality
Simulations are wonderful - they can help us explore the edges of our ideas; they let us test our mathematical representations; they let us play "what if" scenarios quickly. But these are no substitute for the experience of grappling with the vagaries and variability of real-life. A simulated electronic circuit is great - to an extent. But so much more is learned when you then wire up the real components - and discover the variability of a solder joint, or that the component specs have a "range" of performance that can contribute to unexpected results. Error analysis takes on new significance - and problem solving skills rise to a new level.
Heaven help us if civil engineers design a bridge based only on simulations, and stop testing the strength of new materials. We should be similarly uneasy with a surgeon who has only learned from textbooks and simulated cadavers.
The bottom line: It's all about "and"
In the final analysis, students benefit the most from a combination of MANY types of experiences, and the best uses of technology for education is when it allows for the creation of new and powerful learning experiences that complement what great teachers are doing already.
Let's use the full power of technology to connect students to experts and mentors and each other, AND let them grapple with the challenge of real, face-to-face social engagement.
Let's use technology to engage students in complex, creative projects that would be difficult or impractical without the technology, AND let's treat these experiences as only a subset of the wide range of enriching experiences that students engage in.
Let's use the best simulations available to let our students explore, AND let's be sure they confront the variability of real life through hands-on, inquiry based experiences that are messy and unpredictable.
If we view education technology from this perspective, then the technology will help us realize the best possible outcomes for our students...
Jim Vanides, B.S.M.E, M.Ed.
HP Office of Global Social Innovation
For information about the HP Office of Global Social Innovations, visit www.hp.com/hpinfo/grants
The team at ISTE.org have convinced me that Second Life is a great venue for short "face"-to-"face" professional meetings when you can't travel to meet face-to-face. But lately I've been asking myself, "When is SL better than a classroom for students?" One answer seems to be "immersive simulations" that can't (or shouldn't!) be done in real life. Here's an example...
Using technology to duplicate what can be done without technology may be novel, but I'm losing patience with this view of ed-tech. HP grant recipients that are combining the best instructional approaches with the right technologies to create NEW types of powerful learning experiences are having far more success in showing measurable improvements in student academic outcomes. So what are the implications for the instructional use of Second Life? For me, this means using SL for learning activities that go beyond what you're already able to do. An obvious example is using SL to facilitate meeting "face"-to-"face" with other students or experts, even though you are unable to meet in person.
But I'm looking for examples of powerful learning experiences, not just "Hi, nice avatar you've got there..."
This brings me to a discussion I had with Dr. Liz Falconer at the University of the West of England. Dr. Falconer is the manager of their e-Learning Development Unit, which works with colleagues across the university to help with developments in curricula and delivery that use ICT. UWE is also the recipient of a 2007 HP Technology for Teaching grant. One area of research is Simulations in Higher Education, many of which are conducted in Second Life.
Dr. Falconer was kind enough to show me one of their latest simulations, designed to support the learning of students enrolled in a course focused on occupational hazards. These students need to learn how to evaluate work-place industrial accidents. Unfortunately, many graduates did not encounter real accidents until AFTER they graduated - at which point they met the daunting challenge of dealing with the uncertainties of real (and often tragic) life circumstances.
To better prepare these students, Dr. Falconer and her team worked with Second Life designers at Citrus Virtual to create a simulator engine that has been used to create a realistic warehouse accident.
Students press go, and watch bad things happen - just like in real-life. But unlike real-life, you can press rewind and watch it again, perhaps from a different angle, or after a debrief with your instructor and classmates. What was the root cause? What can be done to prevent accidents like this? What would you do if you were sent in to investigate such an accident? With simulations like this, suddenly these questions don't seem so academic.
This is definitely an experience that you cannot (and should not) replicate in real-life. If you would like to visit "e-Learning at UWE" (their Second Life Island), visit http://www.uwe.ac.uk/elearning/projects/projectSecondlife.shtml for more information.
Nice job, UWE!
Jim Vanides, B.S.M.E, M.Ed.
Worldwide Education Programs
HP Global Social Investment
For information about the HP Global Social Investments, visit www.hp.com/hpinfo/grants