Redefining School in the age of Web 2.0

“The situated nature of learning, remembering, and understanding is a central fact. It may appear obvious that human minds develop in social situations, and that they use the tools and representational media that culture provides to support, extend, and reorganize mental functioning. But cognitive theories of knowledge representation and educational practice, in school and in the workplace, have not been sufficiently responsive to questions about these relationships.” – Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in the Series Forward of Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.

“Due to deep changes in technology, demographics, business, the economy, and the world, we are entering a new age where people participate in the economy like never before. This new participation has reached a tipping point where new forms of mass collaboration are changing how goods and services are invented, produced, marketed , and distributed on a global basis. This change presents far-reaching opportunities for every company and for every person who gets connected.” – Don Tapscott in Chapter 1 of Wikinomics.

In my next few entries I want to present some ideas on how Web 2.O tools can help in the process of transforming our educational system into a place of fluid processes and innovation. Our current system is at its core, the same thing it was 100+ years ago. Then, this system was perfect. The calendar revolved around the crop seasons, the day around the agricultural chores at the beginning and ending of each day. The curriculum was well designed to develop more highly skilled farmers by focusing on basic reading, writing, and mathematic skills – all of which would allow them to take over and run the farm smoothly, effectively, efficiently.

Society then moved into an industrial phase and with a little tweaking, the educational process was better able to meet the needs of an assembly-lined economy. Nice neat rows, a rigid schedule, compartmentalized content, were highlighted to an even greater extent. It made sense. The graduates were going to need to have the ability to read, write, and do basic arithmetic, but they also needed to be trained in the idea of isolated individualism since on the assembly line they would need to be able to perform their particular piece of the larger task with no need for knowledge or understanding of what or how those before and after them performed their particular part if the process. There was no need to see the big picture.

We trained children to “do their own work,” “not to share answers,” and most importantly “not to talk”, but to listen to the teacher. I was in the classroom (virtual and online) for 23 years and the most profound and insightful comments in any class I taught, always came from my students. This wasn’t because I was inept or not sufficiently knowledgeable in my subject areas. The best insights came from my students because I allowed them to discuss the ideas, play with them in their collective heads before we discussed them. Teaching wasn’t, and should never be, focused on the dissemination of “knowledge” or “content.” Sure, I did know more about the subject then most students, but that doesn’t mean I was the one who always had the most interesting take on it.

Education was and is about isolation, about keeping your knowledge to yourself. That is the point of highlighting the quotes above – learning is a social act. I remember the first time I told my students that I thought keeping an answer or idea to yourself was akin to cheating. The astonished looks! I know there were a few who also thought they had just been given free license to check out their classmates tests when they were unsure of an answer – we took care of that immediately following my first statement. There is a positive aspect to doing some, very few though, things in isolation. A test can be an effective way for a student to test themselves – and only themselves – to see what they have learned and use this as a way to evaluate their own learning processes. Test should aid introspection, which requires an educator to rethink how they are then weighed in a “grading” process. However, as pointed out by Lave, Wenger, and Tapscott, learning happens in a social environment (I know that Tapscott doesn’t mention learning specific, but I trust the connection here works).

During my Masters work a professor put the following question to us, “Can you learn anything alone?” The ensuing discussion (all on line in a threaded discussion environment) was some of the most exciting and challenging I had ever been a part of. It changed my views drastically. I had previously been a strong proponent and practitioner of cooperative learning – but this particular class took me way beyond that point to the idea of collaborative learning. No longer did my students cooperate, the collaborated. There was a marked difference.

So, what does this have to do with Web 2.0 tools? A lot! The current atmosphere of the web is different than it was just a few short years ago. Previously it had been a place of knowledge explosion – or the availability of knowledge. Today it is quickly transforming into a place of innovation and collaboration – in other words, people are finding ways to use the space of the web and the information there to do something new. I have mentioned a number of times previously that the basic problems of education today revolve around the antiquated structures and nostalgic view of the system. The basic problem of the “Well, it was good enough for me” view of school is that while that may be true, school only helped the learner develop the skills necessary to solve the problems of the day. That has caught up with us and we can’t solve our current problems – yet we continue to educate children with the same tools, methods, and worse – the concept of education that was outdated decades ago. It is time for something new, a new idea of what school is based, focusing on what is happening in society today, how innovation happens, how learning happens, and most fundamentally developing a new way of educating children that is collaborative at its core.

I plan on looking at podcasting, wikis, social media, social networking, digital communities of practice, and other sharing/collaborative tools in terms of how they can help us re-conceptualize what school is all about. My next post will paint a picture of a different type of “day in the life of a college freshman.” My son, a freshman in high school, is headed there in three-and-a-half years (his goal, MIT), so I want to create a picture of how I would like to see it happen for him. From there I plan to take a Web 2.0 tool and feature it based on that picture and maybe with your comments and our collective mind we can paint a new picture of what education is and let the old model rest in peace.

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