It really is a fascinating time to be living and to be an Educator. Why? Because it's all changing. Quickly, too- '21st century skills', 'flat world', 'long tail', digital distribution', 'Google everything', 'wikis', 'mashups', 'twitter', 'learners as content creators', 'digital 'text'books'-these are all 'recent' inductees into the lexicon of Education professionals everywhere. They cause excitement for some, and confusion, frustration or resistance for others. Digesting it all and figuring out how students can benefit from any of it is a huge undertaking.
TOOLS OR GAME CHANGERS?
I will cut to the chase. New digital technologies are both Tools AND Paradigm Busters. If they were just tools, teachers everywhere could simply say, "No thanks, I'm not 'into' technology. I'll keep doing what I've been doing." One argument I have heard is that going digital (think online textbooks) will create shortcuts to reflection, knowledge and understanding. I have deep respect for this concern because they (reflection, knowledge and understanding) are the bedrock to all we do as Educators. But I have to ask: Why would going digital be considered a shortcut to any of these?
Take a moment to think about each of these:
- Think about a Textbook.
- Think about You Tube.
When you thought about a textbook chances are, you 'saw' a flat, unopened, thick, worn, book sitting on a desk in front of you. Nothing dynamic or interesting about it. There is no chance for interaction with a textbook. When you thought of You Tube, maybe you thought of a specific video you saw recently, or just had a palpable feeling of the potential things you could view there (redeeming or otherwise). At the very least, you realize there would be clicking, searching and viewing going on at You Tube based on your interests and inclinations.
Let me clarify a significant difference between the two: Textbooks are not primary source documents. They are amalgamations of second-hand information produced by "experts" and marketed by profit-oriented companies. You Tube, on the other hand, contains nothing but primary source material whether by kids, adults, teachers, musicians, amateurs or professionals. Which is more authentic? Which do think has more appeal to students aged 10-18?
It seems having interaction with dynamic, multimedia-rich information has the potential to plant the seeds to richer, deeper learning-if the online versions are themselves organized. That's the key. We can't just turn on computers and the internet and say, "OK, kids, have at it! Go learn about cellular biology (or trigonometry or contrapuntal analysis or parts of speech) ". It will take Educators from everywhere to compile and organize the digital resources and produce new kinds of 'textbooks' that include text but also photographs, interactive maps, documents, videos and primary sources of all kinds gathered for each and every topic of each and every Unit taught each year.
REFLECTION, KNOWLEDGE and UNDERSTANDING
What is the nature of Reflection?
By nature, reflection is something done 'after' (and sometimes during) exposure to some stimulus (event, book, new information, conversation, etc..). Teachers have forever guided the reflective moments and thoughts of students. Perhaps the new way of doing this starts with this: "Now, please turn off the computer monitor for a moment think about...." I'm not convinced that we will lose the ability to reflect because we read and absorb information from digital sources rather than books.
How do we gain Knowledge?
Typically, if we have learned a thing to the point that it resides in our memories for easy recall and/or the new information has changed us in some way, we believe have gained knowledge. If we (students) experience a concept in diverse ways (say a paragraph of text about the Parthenon, followed by Flickr photos taken by 'amateurs' of it, followed by a digital reproduction of a Parthenon metope). Contrast this with how you would have learned about the Parthenon in a traditional textbook. Have you learned more? Less? It's hard to believe that learning the digital way would yield less knowledge. (Incidentally, what using amateur photos does is store the idea in the mind of a student that Greece is a place she can physically travel to when she has the opportunity. It becomes more 'authentic'. She KNOWS it's still around and is a relic from the past.)
What does it mean to Understand something?
This has always been a perplexing, philosophical question. Does knowing something mean we understand it? Not necessarily. As an example: How can something such as a photon or electron be both a wave and a particle? Quantum physics proves it to be so. But do we understand why? What we do know about understanding comes about by sharing knowledge. Are there digital (online) places where people routinely share knowledge? Yes! they're called social networks and they can't be found in texbooks. Classes are, by design, social networks. By sharing information and knowledge offline and online, better understanding will result. But again, there is no loss of understanding using online networks. It's just a change in venue from the classroom.
THE POTENTIAL FOR DEEP LEARNING IN (OUR) DIGITAL FUTURE
Far from being the beginning of the end of reflection, knowledge and understanding, I believe we are on the brink of an Education Renaissance where deep learning will be routine precisely because of the digital availability of information once all of us realize that the digital tools represent something far greater- a total paradigm shift away from teachers (and textbooks) being the 'sage on the stage', once and for all. Teachers would benefit from understanding that their new role is to find, remix and make available the exact information that they want students to reflect on, to know and to understand. Tweet this!