New Trends, New Learning Opportunities

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New Trends, New Learning Opportunities

As we approach the new millenium, technology – and its use in schools – continues to evolve
© 1998 Gary S. Stager
Published in Upgrade, The Magazine of the Software Publisher’s Association

As the cost of computing decreases rapidly, children continue to enjoy increasing access to computers and the Internet . However, lower cost is not the only trend in learning with computers and communications technology. A few of the trends may seem quite obvious. Others are more provocative and will change the nature of teaching, learning and software development. The trends include:

  1. Lower cost hardware and software
  2. The locus of technological innovation shifting from school to home
  3. The Internet
  4. A sea-change from software predicated on passive instruction and entertainment to an expectation to use computers as vehicles for intellectual construction
  5. Miniaturization/Mobility

Many of these trends are interdependent and support one another. The overlap reinforces the changes taking place.

Lower cost hardware and software

Moore’s Law continues to hold and the educational promise of the Internet has caused millions of new computers to be purchased by families, while schools rush to “get wired.” There is an enormous demand for sub-$1,000 computers and the success of Apple’s iMac provide evidence of the increasing availability of low-cost, powerful, “Internet-ready” computers. The couple of years will see computers approach the price of a few pairs of Air Jordans.

This phenomena will cause more homes to own personal computers and allow for more telecommuting and learning outside of school than has been possible in the past. Schools will find that the level of access demanded by students, coupled with reduction in cost of computing will have a profound impact on the nature of teaching and learning. At the simplest level, ubiquitous computing will move computers out of specialized labs and in contact with every aspect of schooling.

Equity will improve as the cost of computer ownership drops. Several studies already conclude that socioeconomic status no longer determines a child’s level of computer literacy – at least the modest level desired by traditional school computing curricula.

Increased access to powerful, less expensive technology is also creating new ways of learning and expressing oneself. MIDI keyboards and software allow fifth graders to compose and perform original musicals while $50 drawing tablets and digital cameras provide children with new palettes for expressing their artistic talents. Such technology is welcome news in an age where art and music education is in serious jeopardy.

Challenges to the profitability of the software industry

One concern for software developers is the public’s demand for products with higher production values at lower prices. Many customers no longer perceive the value of software priced at $499, but they don’t understand why it costs forty-nine dollars when a home video of Titanic costs $9.95.

Whether due to high-volume licensing or the availability of increasingly powerful shareware/freeware on the web, the price of software increasingly approaches zero.

The home

Increasing access to powerful computers, expressive software and the Internet has shifted the locus of technological innovation from school to the home. There is no way for schools to catch-up. They are likely to have less powerful computers and connectivity than some of their students have at home. This presents educators with a challenge and opportunity to view the home more as a learning resource than a place where kids do trivial homework assignments and stop learning until they return to school.

While parents will continue to purchase software designed to drill their children in specific skills, kids are likely to ignore these tasks in favor of controlling the computer to achieve more personal and complex objectives. Just as shooting down math problems are less interesting to kids than “surfing or chatting,” making things to share with the world will consume more computer time.

The net

Much has been said about how the Internet offers learners of all ages with unprecedented access to information. This fact alone has revolutionized learning, however the greatest impact of the net lies in its ability to democratize publishing and expand opportunities for collaboration.

While schools assimilate the Internet by using it as a way to find discrete facts or deliver information to sometimes unwilling students, kids at home are beginning to use their personal computers to create web sites, collaborate in online communities of practice and express themselves in new ways. This should come as no surprise as schools struggle against the clock, irrational fear of Internet abduction and the institutional expense of providing students with sufficient access. The home provides learners with a level of freedom, contemplative time and computer access necessary to construct knowledge.

Even when schools begin to discuss online learning, the reflexive response is to scan everything they have ever used in a traditional classroom in preparation for “pouring the information down the pipe” and into the computer of the online students. A “push” mentality permeates the discussion, rather than viewing learning as the act of “pulling and shaping understanding” in the mind of each individual learner. You can lead a school to the I-Way, but you can’t make it think.

The Concord Consortium (http://www.concord.org) is dedicated to creating rich online environments for learning math and science by doing. Their collaborative projects include Haze-Span, a project in which children are collecting and analyzing important scientific data and sharing that data with interested scientists, and the Virtual High School in which students explore areas of mathematics and science in ways beyond the school curriculum.

Pepperdine University (http://gsep.pepperdine.edu/online/) is perhaps the first university to offer accredited online graduate programs in educational technology, based on constructionist principles of learning. Educators enrolled in the Pepperdine master’s and doctoral programs use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous technologies to build community and construct knowledge within a personal context. Guest speakers, faculty members and even other classes of students join discussions of powerful ideas in virtual settings in which every member of the community is a learner. Access to classmates and faculty members is available virtually around the clock. Pepperdine is working to invent the future of learning and teaching without relying on an old correspondence school model.

Mamamedia (http://www.mamamedia.com) is a unique Internet start-up designed to provide children with a safe, creative and intellectually stimulating place on the web. Mamamedia extends the traditional notion of the 3-Rs, by adding the three Xs, “Exploration, Expression and Exchange” as the design philosophy of their site. Mamamedia founder Idit Harel’s goal is to “sell learning to kids” in an environment they will wish to return to over and over again. Anything children can use may also be collected, created or manipulated by the child. The future development of the net has to not only include faster bit delivery, but greater opportunities for users to construct things online.

Educast (http://www.educast.com/) provides educators with a free screensaver that is updated with timely news, views, resources and teaching ideas based on a push technology similar to Point-Cast. The system is optimized to make the best of slow or infrequent net connections.

Every Internet user is depending on software and hardware engineers to increase bandwidth and more intuitive tools for web publishing. Web design still requires too much “monkey work” and “two percent” of users understand the process of uploading a page to a web server.

Learners of all ages have the unprecedented opportunity to not only “look things up,” but use the Internet to publish their ideas in all sorts of ways – from dancing poetry, special-interest groups and TV/radio broadcasts. The web is full of places where you can publish your work for free and powerful tools for expressing your ideas. As the courts and educators are discovering, school know longer has sole jurisdiction over what goes on in a kids’ bedroom, personal computer or head. For an increasing number of kids, “high-tech means my tech.” (Idit Harel)

From passive to constructive computing

Recent research demonstrates that computer use is most effective for learning when students use it to “problem solve.” Inside and outside of school, the thing computers do best is provide learners with an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self expression. Children need better, more open-ended, computationally rich tools than their parents in order to sustain their interest and leverage the potential of computers for making connections between powerful ideas.

Five year-olds ought to be able to see themselves as software developers by using MicroWorlds to design a video game. Children should be able to collect data, perform experiments and discuss their conclusions with other children and experts. Kids who build and program LEGO robots may use physics, measurement, feedback and perhaps even calculus in a meaningful context. Seymour Papert and others point out that children who have had such deep learning experiences will demand much more of school.

Miniaturization and mobility

Computers are not only getting cheaper and more powerful, they are getting smaller. I have enjoyed working with Australian schools in which every child has a laptop for more than eight years. Approximately 50,000 Australian children have had personal laptop computers and the number of American school districts embracing truly personal computing is growing as well. The Australian pioneers viewed laptops as a way to make learning more personal and as a catalyst with which teachers could rethink the nature of teaching and learning. The ability to use the computer as your own portable laboratory and studio has had a tremendous impact on the social, cognitive and artistic development of children. Learning can not only occur anytime and anywhere, but new deeper forms of learning have become possible.

Students with laptops need two essentially two pieces of software, an integrated package for doing work and environment for messing about with powerful ideas and learning. This is why so many schools use ClarisWorks or Office for writing, calculating and publishing and MicroWorlds (http://www.microworlds.com) for designing interactive multimedia projects that may be run over the web. The software requirements for laptop schools include: being open-ended, non-grade specific, inexpensive and have a life-span of at least three years. Developers need to begin thinking about how they will distribute and license software to schools in which every student has a personal laptop.

High schools have been embracing low-cost graphing calculators for several years. These devices cost less than one hundred dollars and have been used to help students visualize mathematics that was previously abstract. A new innovation, calculator-based labs (CBL), allows students to connect scientific probes to the graphing calculator and collect experimental data. This data may then be analyzed and shared in ways never before possible. These probes place students in the center of their own learning and enriches mathematics education by making tangible connections to science.

Nicholas Negroponte once joked that we need to “melt crayolas down into Crays.” He meant that toys would become more and more computationally rich. The recent Tamagotchi craze offered creative teachers with a tool for connecting student toys to curriculum topics like: senses, life-cycle, probability and artificial life. New twelve dollar HotWheels cars have computers in them capable of measuring velocity and distance traveled. Perhaps the most exciting new product is the LEGO Mindstorms programmable brick set that allows children to construct autonomous robots of their own design.

These trends provide parents, educators, developers and children to enter into a new discussion of the nature of learning. If we trust the natural learning inclinations of children, provide them with rich open-ended tools and don’t do too much to get in their way, we will witness an explosion of learning in the very near future.

Gary S. Stager is a contributing editor for Curriculum Administrator Magazine and editor-in-chief of Logo Exchange. He has consulted with LEGO, Disney, LCSI, Compaq, Tom Snyder Productions, Netschools, Universal Studios and Microsoft. Gary is an adjunct professor of education at Pepperdine University, a frequent speaker at conferences and has spent the past seventeen years helping educators around the world find constructive ways to use computers to enhance the learning process. Gary may be reached at http://www.stager.org.

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