Tech and Learning: At Odds in School, in Sync Everywhere Else

The culture of current public school model can't be more different than the culture of technology, says Allan Collins, co-author of Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology.

In most public schools, every student learns the same things at the same time. The teacher is the content expert and controls what students learn. Testing is standardized and students learn by absorbing information about a variety of subjects.

Compare this to the culture of technology and Web 2.0. Students learn what they want, when they want. They have total control of their learning paths. They become experts in subjects they're interested in by using a world of resources to help them learn. And rather than learning by absorbing information, they learn by doing.

"There are big incompatibilities between the culture of school and the culture of technology," Collins said at the Cyberlearning for STEM Education conference today. "School will become less important as a venue for education. They’ll be with us, but when it comes to learning, a lot of people are learning what’s important to them outside school."

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Collins talked about some of the pitfalls he predicts will come about as a result of this chasm between in-school learning and informal, tech-driven learning.

"There will be real losses in equity," he said. "Access rates to smartphones with minorities is high, but the elites in our society are buying educational advantages like tutoring and all the technology they need. We need to address these equity issues."

The gains, however, won't be insignificant: more engagement in learners, total customization of what they learn, and more responsibility will completely change the current paradigm in education.

Consider all the innovations that have come about as a result of YouTube, Google, the World of Warcraft, and mobile phones -- just in the past few years. Have they had any impact on formal education, asked Richard Halverson, who co-authored Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology.

"No. They’re all banned from schools," he said. "This transformative power of technology has been used for consumer technologies. Schools didn’t stop evolving with technology, they went into a different direction. No Child Left Behind completely derailed the infrastructure in public schools."

Though technology transformed the administrative end of education infrastructure, it hasn't really made any impact in school-based learning.

"How malleable is the infrastructure that schools have developed to inform student learning?" Halverson asked. "Can we move from state standardized assessment to a formative process assessment? Is it flexible enough to support how we want to measure and support student learning?"

Compare social network sites like Fan Fiction, where people upload original stories and ask for reader comments and reviews. On the site, there are about 506,000 stories about Harry Potter right now. One particular story, Halverson said, received 624 reviews.

"Who's the audience for a student's homework?" Halverson asked. "Just the teacher. And we all know how hard it is to get students to comment on each others' homework."

Halverson imagined a scenario where kids used virtual tools that constructed peer communities that accounted for all variations of high school performance. "We need to think about how kids are organizing virtual experiences in which they do their work," he said.

We need to bring together the expertise of the game design world, which perfectly exemplifies the best practices of learning, with the expertise of assessment experts, he said.

"I think the question is will [these new technologies] penetrate the parts of school that are least able to change?" he asked.

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I interviewed both Collins and Halverson about their thoughts, and will post those videos in the next week or so. Lots of food for thought.

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