Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Responses to Questions on Technology and Schools

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 03, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, September 3, 2010.

Responses to a questionnaire for a Spanish News Agency.

1. How are the new technologies revolutionizing education, especially at schools?

This is a very large question with no simple answer. It depends very much what technologies are being discussed and what school system is being discussed. As well, the impact of new technologies outside schools is having a pervasive impact within schools.

If I had to generalize (which I really hate to do, because there are always inherent inaccuracies) I would venture to say that new technologies are making schools more open. By that, what I mean is that the barrier between school and non-school has become much more permeable. What happens inside school has become much more public, and what happens outside school has had a greater impact in school.

2. In your opinion, which of the new teaching tools have produced more positive results or had a bigger impact on teaching?

This again is a very general question and depends very much on what we mean by 'positive results'. A lot of people think 'positive results' mean 'better test scores', for example, and I'm not sure that any technologies produce better test scores, nor do I think better test scores are very worth pursuing. Generally by 'positive results' people mean something like 'more learning', but learning is not merely (or at all) cumulative, and far more important is a sort of learning that is balanced, adaptive, and conducive to a good life.

In that regard, the technologies most conducive to a good life are probably those that allow individuals to be expressive and creative. This is where the most learning occurs, and more importantly, where the best learning occurs. Expression and creativity presuppose a community or audience, and so social creativity probably produces the greatest benefits, whether they be open source software contribution sites, artistic sites like Deviant Art or Flickr, blogging and discussion sites, or repositories like YouTube or SlideShare.

Are these 'teaching tools'? Your evaluation may vary. But they are certainly 'learningf tools', which in my view is more important.

3. Has active and visual-based learning and teaching proved to improve the learning level of students at schools?

This question suggests two different sorts of contrasts. On the one hand, it may be looking to define the difference in result between different schools of pedagogy, contrasting more traditional transmission-based and instructivist pedagogies with contemporary approaches such as discovery learning or constructivism. On the other hand, it may be seeking to differentiate between different learning styles, contrasting text-based or language-based (audio or oral) learning styles with visual or kinaesthetic learning styles.

By 'learning level', by contrast, I take the question to be referring to grades received by students, or test results, or some such evaluation.

The difficulty here is that different systems of student assessment measure for different types of learning. A typical testing regime, for example, may presuppose that learning just is text-based or language-based knowledge – the ability to recite formulas, names, dates, places, and perhaps poems. Materials based in visual learning styles or constructivist pedagogies will do little to improve such test results. But rather than conclude that these materials did not improve learning at all (which is sadly all too common) we may want to conclude that the testing was inappropriate for the sort of learning being attempted.

For this real, I prefer not to evaluate the effectiveness of learning technologies based on test results. The lessons learned might never appear on the test, yet may be far more important than anything that was tested. The ultimate evaluation of any system of learning is the quality of life enjoyed, all other things being equal, by the learner.

Do "active and visual-based learning and teaching" improve a person's quality of life? Sometimes. And sometimes not. Is there a useful generalization we can make about them? No. Does this mean they are irrelevant in the individual context? Also no. For people who prefer active and visual-based learning and teaching, these are critical. For others, who prefer oral or text-based learning, content transmission, or direct instruction, active and visual-based learning and teaching may actually produce worse results. That's why, in the end, what is most important is *personal* learning.

4. How can teaching materials be more effective by using new technologies?

It is most important, I think, to move beyond a conception of 'teaching materials'. We typically think of new technologies as inert, like a book or an exercise guide. They may be things that are used or consumed by learners, but they are essentially static, products, things that can be created ahead of time, stored on a shelf, and applied as necessary.

This view is not an appropriate representation of new learning technologies. The best learning technologies are immersive. They create an environment in which a student learns. This environment may be a game or a simulation, or it may be a workplace, and arena or a social network. The idea is that the learner is placed within the environment, and then learns by interacting with entities and objects within the environment.

This creates a requirement of a dynamic, fine-grained and very reactive ecosystem of learning systems, communications, resources and supports. Instead of trying to design an entire system ahead of time, it is better to define a minimal framework and then let students, authors and automated processes fill out the details. This means that learning providers, instead of creating texts and workbooks ahead of time, work within this immersive environment and fashion resources and communications on an as needed basis, acting as models or examples for other participants within the ecosystem rather than providers of context learners are expected to memorize.

5. What is your vision of the school of the future?

I once created a diagram to answer this question.

The answer is: not a school at all.

The end point of new education technologies is that society as a whole becomes the 'immersive environment' I was talking about in the previous question.

What new technologies will enable is the possibility of taking education outside the school, to have children and young adults learn by participating in the functioning of social functions – everything from taking weather reports to creating community maps to documenting community history and more.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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