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New technology supporting informal learning

On his Half an Hour blog, Stephen Downes explores new technology and informal learning (in a paper for an upcoming conference in Portugal). He makes a statement that is important for instructional designers to consider: “Learning networks capture an essential element in learning today, the simple fact that we don’t know what we want to teach.” The difficulty, of course, is that much of our current education model embodies the opposite view. Through curriculum boards, advisory committees, and government initiated programs, education is cast as a method to teach what we know to be important. What happens when we face complex problems that do not yet have an answer? We don’t have to look very far down the corridors of higher education. The classroom is a model that communicates what is known; the lab, in contrast, is a model that explores what is not yet known. Learning in complex environments (or where existing knowledge is applied in new contexts) requires the educational enterprise to adopt exploratory approaches. From the classroom to the lab…


  1. What you see here as a “difficulty” I see as an opportunity.

    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Cindy wrote:

    In order to be open to truly exploratory approaches, we need to not be afraid to be wrong. We need to feel free to take risks and learn the unexpected – and value that unexpected learning as much as the achieving of planned and stated learning objectives. Obstacles? Instructors’ fear of student evaluations (and their effect on tenure and promotion decisions); students’ fears about how new innovations might affect their grades. What if we had a competency based system of assessment (for learners and faculty)? What if it was based on self/peer assessment, portfolios including ideas/works in progress as well as publications/ contributions to the wider community? Just a thought.

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  3. I don’t think that this situation–that we face complex problems for which we don’t yet have answers–is new at all. I imagine that Caesar, when he stood on the northern shores of Gaul and fixed his eyes on the white cliffs of Britannia, was faced with a complex problem for which he hadn’t yet the answers.

    Let’s remember that modern education is, well, modern; that is, it’s less than 200 years old. I think when we describe it as Gradgrind’s classroom and not a lab we are pointing to symptoms, not causes. If education is failing to meet the needs of the 21st century, we are really saying it’s failing to meet the needs of any century. We say that because we have forgotten that the goal of education remains forever the same: to cultivate our humanity, perhaps. It was a quintessentially human thing for Caesar to weigh his circumstances and make a judgment in the face of incomplete information. (And, by the way, that the modern flood of information amounts to the same thing. Overdetermined creates the same problem as undetermined.) So, when we say we are facing new challenges for which contemporary education is ill-equipped to meet, we are really saying–at last, I might add–that we are returning to very old challenges, having gone adrift for a while.

    Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink
  4. Ken Allan wrote:

    Kia ora George!

    I think we have to disentangle what is education and what is training when discussing the student in schools. I know – it’s an age old argument that one, training vs education. But it’s one that’s never been universally resolved, and perhaps it can’t be.

    If we look back on the perceived uselessness of the system that educated the boomers in preparing them for, say, Web 2.0, or the Internet for that matter, we can see in hindsight what went wrong. To suggest that we should address the same problem in our education systems today is tantamount to saying, “Hey, let’s crystal-ball gaze 10, 20, 40 years into the future and devine what we should ‘deliver’ to our students in 2010.” They couldn’t possibly do that 40 odd years ago and we can’t and shouldn’t attempt to do it today.

    But . . .

    Boomers can learn about the Internet, and Web2.0 come to that.

    I watch my kids, who are teenagers, play about with the technologies. We sit by each other at the PC and Facebook and Bebo and blog. But it’s not so long ago that we, as a family did not have a computer – 2002 to be precise – and I had to endure criticism from my work colleagues (teachers) that my children would be disadvantaged. Not! No more than I am.

    We must stop worrying the educators with the mythical idea that we have to present education to our students that ‘prepares them for the future’.

    Any good education will prepare students for the future. All that is required is that we make sure there are components that permit them to learn how to think and to learn how to learn in order to cover the ‘learning’ component of education (I’m not talking about politics or culture here; that’s another matter). That’s the education in learning I got and my fellow students with me – over 45 years ago.

    The current education in Science in New Zealand has been so severely criticised that it’s getting reviewed in just about all of its aspects – standards, curriculum, pedagogy – now! The astonishing thing is that New Zealand clocks number 2 in the world in Science education when the 15 year olds are put under the education microscope – second to Finland. And I wonder, on what basis are we changing it all around?

    When I tried to ascertain from the people who were pushing for all this change in the way we teach Science, I asked them just exactly what research evidence (or other data) pointed to what should be adjusted to fix the perceived problem. They could not answer. They even admitted that they didn’t know.

    All they could say was that there was a need for change.

    That’s scientific? That’s thinking towards the future?

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

    Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  5. Don Steup wrote:

    I for one am pleased to see that most of the responses I have read seem to indicate that although technology as it relates to education has most assuredly ‘changed the game’, but that the essentials are still the essentials. One of the responses stated that when Caesar stood staring across the channel at Britannian he too was faced with the impossible, the unknown. Each new age that dawns stares down the dry-throated, sweaty-palmed eyes of a society unprepared for the challenge ahead. We fail or we succeed and we move on to the next challenge.

    Regarding education and technology, Dr. David Thornburg urges educators to identify “What are you doing differently and what are you doing different?” Look to the existing technology and as some have proposed, improve what already exists and identify how information can be learned and shared in ways that it has never been done before. I agree that technology and its limitless uses are outpacing current education practices at all levels but this is not cause for alarm. Indeed, this is a wake up call to technology creators and educators to bridge the gap. If history teaches us anything it is that necessity is the mother of invention and clearly education and technology are forever linked. I am a teacher and I am amazed everyday how capable all of my students are at utilizing and innovating new and creative uses for our existing technologies. I have learned as much from them as they have from me. If the teacher is creating an appropriate learning environment, and I believe that this is happening more than it is not, then the classroom is the lab.

    Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

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  1. Unstable ground « Thinking Out Loud on Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 11:11 am

    [...]  Those learners are out in the field with experts and like-minded peers. And as Siemens recently noted:  The classroom is a model that communicates what is known; the lab, in contrast, is a model that [...]