Mar 07 2011

Education 2.0

The internet has certainly transformed the way humans create, communicate, and consume information. We are still on the steep part of the curve, in fact, and the world of information continues to go through rapid change and experimentation. This is being brought about partly by software applications and websites (such as WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, etc) that provide tools for communication. The transformation is also being driven by hardware advances – it is now routine for many people to carry around smartphones, which are essentially hand-held computers that provide anytime communication, access to the internet, and a variety of applications.

And yet it feels as if the promise of the internet has not yet adequately penetrated areas that were thought 10-20 years ago to be low-hanging fruit. This includes, in my opinion, education. By now I would have thought that computers would dominate primary education.Yet their footprint remains modest.

Thirty years ago while I was in high school and computers were still incredibly primitive, I thought I was given a glimpse at the future of education. One of our science teachers (who, of course, also ran the computer lab) was a savvy computer user, and incorporated some educational computer programs into our classwork. I specifically remember a program that taught chemical nomenclature. You could play with the program like a game, and you received immediate feedback and correction for all of your answers. After about an hour playing with this program I felt I had truly mastered at least the basics of nomenclature – far faster than if I had studied the same material from a book or received a lecture.

To the 1980 version of myself it would likely seem incredible that thirty years later computers have still not been thoroughly integrated into education. The software and hardware technology is more than adequate. So what’s the problem.

Before I go on, I am sure that most people reading this can provide numerous examples of how computers are being used in their education (at whatever level). I am aware of all this. I bought plenty of educational computer games for my children, and many of them were quite good. My younger daughter virtually learned how to read playing with internet-based reading programs. Many schools have computers in the classroom, have smart-boards instead of blackboards, and students are encouraged to use computers to do some of their school projects. There is increasing educational information on the internet, and at my medical school students are increasingly relying on podcasts instead of lectures, and get all their class notes online.

I am sure there are many more examples as well, and this is all good. It is just far far less than what we could potentially have by now.

I am reminded of this by a recent survey of computer use in primary education. Dr. Jon Altuna, in his PhD thesis, explores the many advantages of internet learning in primary education, but also explores the limits of its use:

Despite its educational possibilities the researcher warns that there are numerous factors that limit the incorporation of Internet into the teaching of the curricular subject in question. These involve aspects such as the time dedicated weekly, technological and computer facilities, accessibility and connection to Internet, the school curriculum and, above all, the knowledge, training and involvement of the teaching staff.

That is in line with my experience – computer and internet use is largely an afterthought. Schools do it because they know they should, but there is a certain lack of vision for how computer technology can really transform education. This is not to suggest that computers should take over the role of the teacher or displace all other teaching methods. There are some things teachers are optimal for, and other teaching tasks that are best done with physical hands-on experience. Sometimes cracking open a book is the best option.

But there are certain learning tasks for which computers are vastly superior – like providing instant feedback, keeping the difficulty at the optimal level for the individual, individualized pacing of learning, and maintaining active attention for long periods of time. Dr. Altuna also points out that internet learning allows students to explore more, become more active (rather than just passive) in their own learning process, and for student to learn from each other.

For education 2.0 to become a reality, the use of the internet and computer technology in primary education needs to become more than an afterthought – more than just an obligatory added layer, and more than just teaching students computer skills themselves. We need a massive effort to develop a digital infrastructure dedicated to computer and internet-based learning. We need schools and teachers to experiment more, to find what computers will do best, and what they are not good for. Primarily, I think we just need the development of dedicated programs and content for education. We need the equivalent of Facebook and Twitter for primary education – killer apps, the kind that are so effective that after their incorporation people will look back and wonder what they did before the application was available.

This will take dedicated resources. But as we look to take our educational system into the 21st century (at least our politicians say they want to do this) we need look no further than this vastly untapped resource. Education 2.0 is overdue.

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