Why 21st Century Learning is No Good… Unless

This post is inspired by the comments by Mark who criticized 21 century learning and ed tech as hype on the blog linked below.  It started as a comment and then kind of grew, so I finished it here.

http://philly-teacher.blogspot.com/2010/05/politics-and-education.html
I think the very fact that I can read the blog linked above and write my own and Mark and Mary can post ideas and share links in the comments of Mary’s blog, shows some value to technology in communication and the world of ideas. If I find utility in this new medium I assume that my students will also benefit from this medium.

That being said, the key to making use of any medium is literacy. Books are great for learning, but if you can’t read critically and engage with the text then a book is just a time wasting vacuum (hence the complaint that book work is busy work by many students). Videos are great for learning, but if you don’t actively engage in the video, stop the video and ask questions, take notes, etc. then a video is just a hypnotizing device. When video first broke into education there was a hope it would revolutionize teaching and learning, and many people have tried to prove a “media effect”, ie the use a of a particular medium enhances learning even if all other things are equal. However, even though we know video is very powerful in our culture and has a profound ability to engage the human mind, we have yet to prove changing from books to video enhances education.

Why is that? I believe it is because we have not measured the information literacy of our students. In spite of being surrounded by video, they do not know how to effectively learn from it, and teachers do not know how to effectively teach with it. How many of us have taken a media studies class, a film studies class, an art or music analysis class, etc? The film studies class I took opened my eyes to how to approach interpreting a work of video. My wife and I taught an English class to smart 9th graders. One activity we did was to have them analyze images and video like books (style, themes, metaphor, symbolism, etc.). It was very hard for them to apply the critical thinking they used when using the written word to the new medium. So I assume that if I had studied their ability to learn via text or video the advantages of video as a medium over text (to engage multiple senses and directly represent objects instead of abstractly describing them) would have been countered by the practice students had with text and the inability of the mind to transfer a skill to a new medium. Compartmentalization of certain types of thinking is well documented as situated learning http://tip.psychology.org/lave.html and by any science teacher who asks students to do a simple math problem and finds that though they can solve quadratic equations when in math class, they can’t do simple algebra in the context of science.

Therefore many people who use new media in teaching and learning (whether it is video or web 2.0/21st century technology) will not get a huge benefit, because the kids don’t know how to learn via new media. The question then becomes, what to do? Ignore new media is one option, however I feel that is a local minimum (while the easiest best solution in the short term, not the best solution in the long term). What we have to do is teach kids how to learn and critically engage with video and social media (blogs, wikis, networks, games). Then they will use these tools effectively in school and their use of these tools will be enhanced outside of school as well.

Final anecdote, we are hiring and some of the interviews have happened via Skype. The HR director doesn’t like Skype interviews because it is harder to get a sense of the person. In my discussion about the value of Skype (saves time, money, hastle) the HR director referenced a movie “Up in the Air” about a man who flies around firing people. The movie portrays using Skype to fire people as a bad thing (apparently after being fired by Skype a person commits suicide). Therefore, the old way of doing things is best. My ironic response was, “I don’t watch videos, I only attend live theater because it is hard to get a sense of the actors when all I see is a flat screen”. Somehow we have come to accept the paltry video screen and tiny speakers as acceptable compared to live theater and music. I admit, live theater and music is great, but it is not how entertainment is done anymore and that isn’t a bad thing. I admit, education without technology is great, but it is not how education is done anymore. No one doubts that glowing rectangles are great for entertainment, but many people question their use in education. No one doubts that office software and email are crucial for the work a day world, but I don’t see a huge sense that we need to incorporate these skills into education. No one doubts that video has changed the way we run elections and connect with the world, but we still see school video projects as cute little asides. We need to teach the literacy of the modern world to students.

3 comments

  1. 0
    Colin ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Well I think that there is social learning and then there is computer based social learning. Group work is nothing new, however being able to share the written word with the entire world is a new thing. I have always been able to have face to face conversations with people I know and who are involved in my institution, but now I can network with a larger world. Managing that is a new skill and a new literacy. I agree that there are some signs of returning to earlier methods of sharing ideas (away from formal authoritative sources and towards crowds). So evaluating the different types of sources available is another major 21st century literacy.

  2. 0

    Do you think students are reaching into untapped areas with social learning that was less accessible before? While social learning is not new (think about the way Aristotle taught) it is different than the way most of us learned. Are we just re-discovering a better way?

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