No school like the old school
Schools are complicated places, they not only mirror society’s obstacles and challenges but also represent our collective hopes for youth, education and knowledge. Teaching is to an extend an individual enterprise in that many teachers adopt a style of teaching suitable to their personality, interests and age. Many experience the growing attention for new media practices in education as another tyranny of the new, alongside with the general managerial urge to continually reform. With teachers and middle management resistant to being told what to do on one side and hardware manufacturers and didactic experts pushing the envelope for change and adaptation on the other, any attempt to chart new developments regarding the function of new media in education, is indeed a daunting enterprise.
There truly is no school like the old school. When studying the theoretical foundations of effective information transfer over the course of the twentieth century alone, the approaches range from behaviorist habit formation to learning as a natural subconscious process to learning through mere suggestion and relaxation. Shifts in attitude towards learning depended on more than just changes in fashionable academic interest and were also informed by local politics and conditions. However variable this notion of the old school might be, there is an overarching image of what traditional education looks like. First of all, at most schools in the Netherlands teaching is carried out according to a classical school concept. Students are taught in separate age groups, receive marks and are subjected to what is called frontal teaching. Secondly, despite acknowledgement of the changing intensity with which students process (mediated) stimuli, and despite notice of their multitasking abilities, no formal attempt has been made to utilize the digital natives‘ newly acquired skills or recognize their handicaps. On the contrary, teachers and parents complain about their seemingly contrasting short attention span and zombielike devotion to screens.
So how to teach digital natives? I already argued for using different interfaces in an earlier post on this blog, but as one of my colleague teachers remarked, replacing “can I have your attention please?” with the on/off switch on a PC or beamer isn’t necessarily going to lead to a more effective learning environment. How do we distinguish between engaging digital natives and hypnotizing them by adding more screens to their lives?
The use of technology in teaching makes no sense if it’s just because we think that technology is cool. It’s easy to understand how we get to this place. The thinking goes like this: It’s fun and cool to blog; lots of people are doing it; we know that kids get some information from blogs; therefore, blogging must have a place in our schools. This orientation is a mistake. We should figure out, instead, how the use of technologies can support our pedagogical goals. Blogging might or might not, be part of the approach we end up taking. The right way to look at it is to ask whether blogging can meet a need that we have in our teaching. We need to determine what our goals are, as teachers and parents, and then figure out how technology can help us, and our kids, to reach those goals.
Let me give a simple example of how to frame a typical web 2.0 application in class in order to resolve conflicts between stated goals on the one hand and the “urge” for computer assisted learning on the other.
In language class, the use of a Wiki can be an efficient way to facilitate language acquisition and utilize digital natives’ skills. It can also be a complete waste of time, depending on whether the teacher takes an informed approach to this tool. This informed approach naturally starts with a theoretical outlook on learning and continues with ways of assessing digitally created content. Using webcams and broadband conversation software like Skype a language teacher could facilitate a conference call between a Tokyo and Amsterdam based secondary school to start working on a shared Wiki on, for example, an upcoming student exchange. Creating pairs across numerous time zones, late Tokyo afternoons could be spent getting to know each other, discussing progress and explaining recent changes to various contributions. The meaningful and unrehearsed context of the spoken dialogue is the co-creation of a Wiki, non verbal communication, register and intonation practiced through using webcams and headsets.
Apart from the obvious communicative value of a lesson like this in language class students are also working towards a more versatile but unanticipated mode of computer assisted learning. A mode in which digital natives can create, collaborate and publish whilst participating in a new network of fellow students. These latter forms of learning, the side effects of a certain project based organization of school tasks using new media, might exactly be what teachers, parents and policy makers should pay attention to when observing digital natives. Other than reframing teaching theory into new digital environments, analyzing these new spaces and what they can teach, but also what they have already taught students, is in its own a valuable exercise. An exercise that will help us understand not only the Digital Natives better, but also an exercise in carefully dissecting those digital environments. For example, to participate in an international effort to create digital information means that students will be asked to familiarize themselves with working through different time zones. Learning how to plan conference calls, how to work with international standards and symbols and how to overcome intercultural differences for the sake of collaboration, are learning aims nowhere yet to be found in the current core objectives for secondary education.
 From the chapter “learner” in: Gasser, Urs, John Palfrey. Born Digital, Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
 As of 2010, a number of secondary schools in Amsterdam will partake in a 1GBps glass fiber network pilot. Information available (in Dutch) at: http://www.boa-amsterdam.nl.