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Computing our way into the future?

March 4th, 2009

I’m just back from a conference in Rotorua—Learning@schools. It’s a CORE conference and there are heaps of people thinking about technology and learning and it’s got me thinking about what we mean about 21st century schools and how technology interacts with what we mean about that. The principal I was sitting next to on the flight home was reading a wide variety of tech magazines, and she and I got to talking about the way technology fosters 21st century learning but does not create that.

So I’ve been thinking about that interaction. Could you have a totally wired school with nothing that I might recognise as 21st century learning at all? I think that’s a clear yes.  You could use computers to drill facts and to be the medium for ordinary learning; that would be a very technologically-advanced school without any real 21st century ideas. I fear, in fact, that this is most of what we usually mean. “Works like a regular whiteboard!” trumpets one of the signs around an electronic whiteboard. “Bring fun into the classroom” says another ad. What is educational technology for and why does it buy us anything more than shiny toys? If we’re just using technology to have the same relationship to knowledge—but this time with a kind of video-game feel so that the kids won’t notice that they’re memorising spelling words—what have we done really? It seems to me you have all the electronic equipment in the world without ever doing a single 21st century thing.

So then my question becomes: can you have 21st century learning without a single thing that plugs in? I have wondered about the difference between 21st century schooling ideas and John Dewey’s ideas, for example. He, writing towards the beginning of the last century, certainly didn’t have his finger on the pulse of 21st century education. And yet there are so many of his ideas that carry on into our thinking about what a future-focused school looks like.  He emphasized the importance of educating children in real world experiences, connecting with the community, caring for the whole child. He was hands-on and based in a cycle of experience and reflection that would look quite familiar to us as modern learning theories. This leads me to wonder what part of 21st century schooling is really new and what part is actually just what we have thought of as progressive education for the last 80 years? Certainly we who think about 21st century ideas wouldn’t say they are the same as Dewey’s, would we? We would think there would have to be something, well, more 21st century about things, right?

This leads me to wonder: Could you have a school that had no access to computers or any connectedness and still think of that as 21st century education? I think that for me, the answer is No, but I’m not sure exactly. I guess it’s that to my mind 21st century education has to be connected to the web of information and interaction in some way, would have to be making sense of the world as it exists digitally as well as the world as it exists outside.  I guess it seems to me that the world is now bigger than just (just?!) the things we can touch and see and explore. Now the world includes the ideas and facts and stories and relationships and 21st century schooling needs to include them too. But I’m still confused about what technology adds to the possibility that people will be able to change their teaching to be more future-focused. I’m confused about how we can use 21st century technology to get closer to 21st century ways of thinking about knowledge and teaching—without creating video-game experiences that let students interact with older forms of skills and information in new ways. Do you have any ideas about that?

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  1. | #1

    Here is an interesting video on a project called “One laptop per child”. It is a project aimed at the third world and the video makes some interesting comments on education and technology.

  2. | #2

    Yes I agree that a lot of the 21st century rhetoric is essentially a synonym for good, progressive education that has been around for about 100 years. But I think you are right that a 21st century classroom can’t afford to be unplugged. The internet and the level of interconnectedness we experience are everyday phenomena that students need the skills to interpret. Perhaps what’s needed are technology classes a la Neil Postman. Ones which enable students to critically appraise the effects of technological changes on perception and action, and what he refers to as the “Faustian bargain”. A smart board, video camera, computer etc, always replaces something, for better or worse. Just like a blog too. Blogging is great with all sorts of advantages, but are there negative effects? Will the rush of a blog entry replace the more considered nature of books and articles or the private reflections of a teaching journal? But then of course there are the numerous examples of students participating democratically using blogs, video cameras and photographs. We need to avoid students and school administrations thinking that technology = progress. Chet Bowers has some interesting things to say here but unfortunately no Ulearn or ICT conference ever seems to have his and other culturally critical perspectives on technology. Just think where all the coltan is coming from which drive our laptops and ipods. Is 1st world 21st century education worth civil war in the Congo? But then, its through technology that we know about this in the first place and can do something about it…

  3. Layla
    | #3

    It’s all about the links – the interconnectedness- the possibility that you can go as deep as you want into your learning and that you will never find the end. It’s about the global conversations too that in themselves create connections that take you down the road of profound understanding. But the road is not linear. It meanders. Stops. Detours. And you meet people and rich ideas all along the way. Sometimes you emerge from the ether and paint, draw, discuss, write up your learning. Web 2.0. It’s like reading a great novel that you never want to finish – and the joy is, it WILL never finish.

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