There’s a thoughtful and important conversation going on over at Britannica Blog about how — or if — Web 2.0 will transform education, as well as the changing roles of student and teacher in our emerging digital age. The series of essays from boldface names in academia including Michael Wesch, Mark Bauerlein, Dan Willingham and David Cole is mercifully light on the smugness and pie-eyed utopianism that is typical of most writing on education technology.
“While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find,” writes Kansas State University cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch, ”nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another.”
We are enveloped in a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where the nature and dynamics of knowledge have shifted. We can acknowledge that most of our students have powerful devices on them that give them instant and constant access to this cloud (including almost any answer to almost any multiple choice question you can imagine). We can welcome laptops, cell phones, and iPods into our classrooms, not as distractions, but as powerful learning technologies. We can use them in ways that empower and engage students in real world problems and activities, leveraging the enormous potentials of the digital media environment that now surrounds us.
Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein, the author of The Dumbest Generation and a reknowned digital skeptic responds that “no generation has experienced so many techno-enhancements and produced so little intellectual progress. Still, in spite of these underwhelming numbers, pro-tech advocacy continues. The disappointing results come years after the initial launch, and so people forget the promises put forward about how technology would transform learning. But with school budgets tight and student writing in critical condition, we need more accountability in the initiatives and more hard skepticism about learning benefits. And we need a lot less fervor for tools and screens that have only existed for a few years and whose human consequences are yet to be determined.”
The genie has long since left the bottle argues Steve Hargadon, founder of the Classroom 2.0 social network. “What is abundantly clear is that no matter what our schools are currently doing, most of our students are already actively involved in this content creation and conversation outside of school.” University of Virginia psychology professor Dan Willingham, with his singular gift for separating the transformational from the merely trendy notes:
At the heart of Hargadon’s vision—and Michael Wesch’s—is the collaborative student project, and this idea has been prominent in American education since 1919, when William Kilpatrick published his classic essay, “The Project Method.” Kilpatrick and his followers would recognize most of Hargadon’s list of advantages for Web 2.0 learning: engagement, authenticity, participation, openness, collaboration, creativity, personal expression, discussion, asynchronous contribution, and critical thinking. Most or all of these advantages accrue not from Web 2.0 in particular, but from its collaborative nature, and from the fact that students have a significant voice in selecting and shaping the project.
“The question is really whether Web 2.0 makes the student project more likely to succeed than project-based learning did before Web 2.0,” Willingham writes.
The most persuasive point in the series so far arguably comes from Michael Horn, the Executive Director of Innosight Institute and co-author of the recent Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.
If we hope for computer-based or online learning to have a positive impact and fulfill its transformative promise at scale, we need to implement it in a counterintuitive way by deploying it disruptively — that is, by allowing it to compete against non-consumption, where the alternative is literally nothing at all. Once there, it will predictably improve, and at some point, it will become good enough to handle more complicated problems and supplant the old way of doing things. This is how all disruptive innovations transform their field.
Horn cites examples of education non-consumption advanced courses that many schools are unable to offer, small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer breadth, home-schooled students and those who can’t keep up with the regular schedule of school, and those who need tutoring, among others.
Deep in the comments section of one of the essays, Karin Chenoweth of the Education Trust offers a thoughtful coda to the entire conversation: “The last thing we need is a generation of students who are able to synchronize their dance moves with millions of other people on YouTube but still have no idea of their roles as citizens in the most powerful democracy in the world–or, for that matter, what a democracy is and how democracies differ from the other ways humans organize their societies.”