The Conceptual Classroom

As we’re all still pondering ways to adapt, embrace, make peace with or otherwise incorporate technology into courses,  much is being written about the tech-savvy younger generation coming up. Notice I didn’t say “technology into the classroom.” Teaching and learning spills beyond the classroom walls even for the most casual user of Blackboard, and courses have carried the expectation of work done outside the classroom since before the advent of the LMS.

A recent article “A Is for App: How Smartphones, Handheld Computers Sparked an Education Revolution” by Anya Kamenetz in Fast Company magazine cites several examples of this youngest generation using iPhones and other mobile devices with a degree of comfort and familiarity that seem almost uncanny.  As the article points out, however, they’re naturals or, digital natives, a term used by Marc Prensky in his article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” (2001). These children (overly staged photos aside) have never known a world without cell phones and iPods and laptops. Even if their parents or the children themselves don’t own one (who doesn’t have at least a cell phone these days?), then there are other people around them that do. This is the case in developing countries as well, albeit to a far lesser extent.

Mobile phones have transformed communications, especially in the developing world, more swiftly than anyone could have imagined. The prospect of doing the same for education—putting best-of-breed learning software in kids’ hands anytime, anywhere—is tantalizing.

The article strongly emphasizes the educational value of mobile devices and spends a lot of paragraphs talking about the success of the TeacherMate, created by a former lawyer from Illinois named Seth Weinberger. The TeacherMate was primarily used in a relatively small group of Chicago schools but, thanks to the backing of a few big names including the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, they were distributed across 14 states by Fall 2009. Despite the success of the device (or maybe because of it), Weinberger can see a day when its software is ported to other things like iPods and Android devices.

With all the discussion about TeacherMate and other programs (Ex.: Pocket School and OLE Nepal) it’s easy to lose focus of the underlying theme of the article. That theme states unequivocally that a lot of learning happens outside of classroom walls and that children are very good at teaching themselves. Technology, particularly technology with internet access, ups the ante. Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments proved this more than once. In his TED talk about the experiments Mitra noted, “Children in groups can self-instruct themselves to use computers and the internet.” The act of planting a lone, unattended computer kiosk in poor and isolated areas surprised even those participating in the experiments by demonstrating that collaborative and student-directed learning could (and did, repeatedly) evolve on their own.

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So, what does it all mean for the future of higher ed? What does it mean for McDaniel College and other small campuses like it? I look out my window as I type this to see a young woman sitting in the grass with a laptop. It’s not unusual to walk into the Maggie lab and see half the students with earbuds dangling past their chins. The other half are texting on their phones even as they type and click on the iMacs in front of them. This is now. What will it be like when the digital natives like the ones referenced in Ms. Kamenetz’s article get here? What kind of learning environment will they be expecting? Even as we move ahead with expanding wireless coverage, revamping lab spaces and classroom tech, I realize those are only a piece of the whole. It’s not so much the physical environment, but the cultural mindset that goes with living the technology, as well as, the flexibility of the instructor/student relationship that matter. Will Richardson, contributing author to the book 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn puts it this way:

In this global community, we are at once all teachers and learners—changing roles as required, contributing, collaborating, and maybe even working together to re-create the world, regardless of where we are at any given moment.

Fascinating stuff. I look forward to seeing how we here at McDaniel evolve to meet the challenges ahead. 21st century learners? We welcome you.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeats

2 thoughts on “The Conceptual Classroom

  1. Hello,
    I think this article has honed in on one of my worries as a adjunct instructor. What will the “digital native” student expect in the classroom? What continuing education offerings will Mcdaniel offer to its teaching staff to assist us in keeping up with the digital age? I would like to see more offered in training, beginner and advanced use what is available to us. It feels sometimes as if we have access to the best and brightest of technolgies and only use a minimum of what is available due to lack of knowledge.
    Lynette

    • Lynette, you’ve brought up a good point. InTech offers a variety of training opportunities for faculty through workshops, faculty institutes and other programs, but meeting the needs of all the faculty is a challenge. Scheduling is one of the biggest hurdles. What’s a good time to plan workshops, for example, that will suit the schedules of most people? A combination of face-to-face and online workshops is one possible solution. If you have some other ideas I’d love to hear them!

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