Learning in the i-generation

16 October 2014
16 Oct 2014
West Lafayette, IN
8 mins

AThe past seven years has each even a notable one for the technology industry. Each year brings with it a technological leap, an innovative design style, or a healthy dose of plain old technological improvements. New paradigms such as smartphones, mobile apps, online video, wearable technology, and the Internet of Things push the limits of our society forward. And each year, as technology sprints forward ever faster, one of the aspects of our society that struggle to keep up with the accelerating pace of innovation is education. Specifically, public education. Today I’d like to look into why that might be, and how we may hope to develop a system that better embraces innovation rather than tradition for tradition’s sake. But first, we need to establish that public education is lagging behi nd in adopting technology.

Don’t get me wrong, the public education, and the education sector in general, has been investing some valiant effort and an inordinate amount of money into innovation in the field. The United States education sector spends more money per student than any other system of education in the world, and a large chunk of that goes into developing new resources and methods of helping students learn. And yet, It is not far too uncommon to see schools with iPads or Chromebooks that aren’t used to their full potential. We find that while some teachers may individually use internet resources to their desire, students are also very tightly restricted on what type of technology they may or may not use in and out of classrooms to help them learn. Ban on mobile phones and tablets is almost a given in any school, despite many teachers still allowing the use of such electronics during classes for instruction. What if I learn better taking notes electronically, because I type faster than I can ever write? What if I want to record a certain part of a lecture to watch later, because it was too much information at once? The list of benefits hampered by the ban of mobile electronics use in classrooms goes on and on. But rather than complaining, I have a *reason to suggest for why the current system of public education is having a difficult time adjusting to the pace of technology.

The fact is, society resists change. Regardless of whether or not it makes complete sense and whether or not it’s a major or a minor one, the society by its nature tends not to deviate too much from the status quo. Hence, despite the introduction of new learning paradigms and entirely new forms of communicating that’s been introduced in the last decades, public education in the United States** has not went thorough any shifts in how it collectively thinks about learning and education. Therein lies the core of the problem: public education systems have attempted to force-fit technology into nonsensical and limiting niches in order to preserve the old, traditional vision of how learning should happen. In other words, our current system attempts to keep how learning happens at school, while using electronics as mere tools to make it easier to do what always has been since two hundred years ago. But that’s the wrong approach. If, instead of using software such as Microsoft Office, we merely replaced mechanical typewriters with gradually faster, more accurate typewriters, that may appear at first sight to be an improvement, but in actuality, this kind of conservative thinking prevents truly revolutionary changes from taking place. If, instead of using electronic light bulbs, we all kept to candle lights while developing chemicals that burned more bright with more endurance, that may appear to be an improvement, when in reality there is a radically batter alternative. I believe this is what’s happening with our education market. Despite the unfathomable amount of resources available to anyone and everyone with just an access to a $100 smartphone, the public education system is choosing not to take full advantage of it because it feels better staying in the illusion of a safe bubble we call tradition.

Part of the reason why the education industry seems so opposed to adopting technology fully is because of a ridiculous preconceived notion that technology and learning are somehow diametrical opposites of one another, and that one cannot succeed while the other does as well. There are notable exceptions to this in how some online services are used. Teachers often choose to use services such as TurnItIn*** or WebAssign to more effectively obtain feedback on students’ work, for example. But the other side of the spectrum is much more common, in simple examples such as a global (meaning no exceptions, not “relating to the planet”) ban on personal mobile electronics use during school hours. Imagine, for a moment, a hypothetical school in which students freely use their smartphones and laptops during class as easily as pencil and paper to take notes (or not). But in addition, they’re able to do things they aren’t able to with just pencil and paper, like research or look things up on the fly, set reminders for later in the day or week on upcoming due dates, and take notes using video, pictures, audio, or other rich media. And then, suppose some policymaker or principal suddenly banned electronics use during school hours, for fear that students will be distracted with electronics in class. Sure, maybe some students won’t be able to drift off to Facebook once in a while, but there’s also a large harm associated with not having all of these innovative tools at our fingertips when the students are actively learning. “But,” you say, “how can you stop people from just playing games or not paying attention in class?” To that, I say, “yeah. Just like how, right now, without electronics, students pass notes to each other, doodle on paper oblivious to the lecture, do another class’s homework, or stop paying attention?” My point is, these things that we so fear of happening when we grant students more freedom and more responsibility are already happening right now. The only reason these are downplayed is because there are unspoken rules stopping students from passing notes in class, not paying attention, and talking to friends in class. And those same rules apply when students are granted more tools to use. Do you honestly think, given the freedom to use electronics, a student will take out their phone at the start of class and play games and watch videos on their phone while everyone else listens? I don’t think so. There is an element of social pressure that prevents that from happening. If we are so afraid of students’ inability to be responsible for their actions in class, why not take away their books, for fear they’ll read that instead of paying attention? Why not take away mechanical pencils, too, in case they start messing with it to fix a broken lead? Why not ban pencils altogether, in case students are doodling mindlessly**** in class without concentrating? Again, my point is that these harms that we associate with use of electronic devices are the same harms that exist in schools today, that we just don’t recognize as easily because they are already there.

William Somerset Maugham, a renowned English novelist of the 20th century, writes in his book The Summing Up, “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer.” He asserts that while traditions define communities and identify individuals, they are by no means limits to what is possible in the future. On the contrary, he argues that we should recognize the faults in the way of thinking that has been passed down to us, evaluate it, and, when they seem out of date, revise it for the present and for the future. In many ways, we as a society have done a rather banged-up job of following that advice. But education is a critical area that we continue to fail to innovate in a meaningful way, not because of short funds, and not because of lack of support, but because people feel “good enough” with the status quo that they don’t see the benefits that may come with a radical change in thinking about learning. The risks that we associate with allowing students the freedom to use technology in classrooms are the same risks that we take when we grant students responsibility with pencils and papers, and sit them next to each other as they work on assignments. It’s just been over glorified. I think by seeing the faults in our tradition and revising it, creating a paradigm shift in how we picture learning in the Internet Era, we can advance rapidly from a high-speed typewriter to a sleek laptop, and that’s no small difference.

* Totally unscientific, somewhat objective, and entirely reasonable

** And other parts of the world vaguely following the U.S.’s model of education, like South Korea

*** To which I am entirely and very strongly opposed

**** Now, I call this “creating art”, but call it what you will.

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