As I research innovation in education, the most common theme, naturally, is the integration of technology in the education process, although different people have varying opinions on the nature of this integration. I have read articles that claim that technology platforms will completely transform the education system, that tech-enabled learning is the only means to reach the millions of underserved children across the world. Others seem to believe that the traditional education system, especially the institutions of higher learning, is about to die, if not already in the throes of death. Others still have a less extreme view, and talk about how technology will necessarily need to be incorporated into our pedagogic methods, but that some form of traditional institutions will continue to exist.
This morning, I came across an excellent short film on the Future of Learning, developed by Ericsson as a part of the Networked Society series. In it are interviews with Seth Godin, Sugata Mitra, Stephen Heppell, Jose Ferreira, Daphne Keller and other leading educationists around the world. What is obvious, they say, is that the internet and the access to information that it enables, have changed the face of learning forever.
The video talks about the history of education and its roots in a militaristic and industrialist society, where standardization was valued and necessary. These societies needed students who were the same – they desired identical workers and identical consumers. But this form of pedagogy has lost its relevance and is no longer appropriate within our new post-industrial, knowledge-centered economy. Moreover, the notion of schools and teachers as repositories of knowledge has also changed – while information was previously pretty much synonymous with schooling, that is not necessarily the case any longer, since with the internet, information is everywhere and no longer needs to be resident in any one physical or cognitive locus.
This is the key point here â€“ how the internet has opened up information to everyone and has irreversibly changed the way we communicate our ideas with the world. And this then means that there will be a fundamental shift in the role a teacher plays â€“ it seems that they could become more like guides, rather than holders of information. As Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, says, â€œKnowing something is probably an obsolete idea. You donâ€™t actually need to know anything, you can find out at the point you need to know it. Itâ€™s the teacherâ€™s job to point young minds towards the right kinds of questions. The teacher doesnâ€™t need to give any answers, the answers are everywhere.â€
This idea of teachers being guides, where instructors will focus not on giving students pre-packaged information, but rather help them develop thinking and problem-solving skills, is for me at the crux of the value that technology will add to the learning process. The academics interviewed for the film talk about this idea at length – how education no longer needs to rely on the knowledge that the teacher holds, since being connected suddenly changes everything – it changes the basis on which anyone, anywhere in the world, can make a contribution. That said, there is still a need for teachers to help put this information in context, for them to guide and direct their students to ask the right questions, and to seek the right kind of information amidst the wealth of (often incorrect) information that exists on the internet.
The video also delved into the many new online learning platforms like Coursera, Knewton and others, where courses may be tailored to students and taught by professors from leading universities including Stanford, University of Chicago, Harvard and others. These websites now allow students from all over the world to gain access to quality education without the restrictions or demands of an institutional framework. They can access course materials at their own pleasure, complete coursework or not, and choose to be a part of the course for credit or simply because they happen to be interested.
However, when asked the question of whether these online platforms would take over, and that the traditional school or university would cease to exist, the experts didn’t seem to agree. Rather, they talked about how online learning has the merit of being able to bring quality education to people who have never had access to this information, but that the kind of serendipitous learning that physical, face-to-face interaction can enable is invaluable, and currently has no virtual substitute and cannot, therefore, be replaced.
This begs many more questions, however, of how these institutions must now mold their teachings to align with the current learning scenario. How can our programs be made more meaningful, more personal, more tailored to students’ interests and talents? What do schools now need to do with their curricula, and how should teachers now modify their roles to better accommodate their students?