Connected Cohorts

In the information age, the decade that was the 90s had an underlying message “stay ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, or risk being left out of the loop.”

Offices created ‘cube farms’, where workers did ‘information age things’ in very small spaces. The ‘Cube Farm’ lead to an almost sub-culture, and life in the ‘cube’ still remains a substantial source of inspiration for parody websites.

The cube farm seemed to visually enforce the idea that the information age worker was hard wired to communication tools, and could work globally without ever moving a metre and a half from their desks.

What they didn’t tell the cubical worker in the 90s is that their job would moved to Asia and India where volume ‘information processing’ is conducted more profitably. The very act of being globally connected by technology means they should have mentioned that you needed to be ‘creative and innovative’ with technology – not just conversant.

Post 2002 saw an increasingly fragmented media landscape when people have a range of choices at their disposal gave rise to the idea that you don’t need to be an information worker, and in fact no one got left out the loop, simply that the barriers and costs of technology have come down to make it affordable to most of us in our society. Though of course, we do exclude lots of people.

Our connectedness allowed even those in cubical farms to reach out and connect with the world, via Facebook, MySpace, Digg etc., The effect of which is that offices have to a large degree rethought the cubical walls – and that if people actually talk to each other at work, then it’s actually not such a bad thing after all – because there are so many way in which they WILL do that anyway.

If we look at education today, there is much talk about Open Classrooms. This is actually a pre-information age idea from the 1970s, but has returned as a popular discourse.

The open-classroom movement originated in British public elementary schools after World War II. Open classrooms’ focus on students’ “learning by doing” and reflected the social, political, and cultural changes of the 1960s and early 1970s. An era which also saw the rise of a youth-oriented countercultures.

On one hand we have the ‘instructional classroom’, populated by passive learners and chalk and talk teachers. On the other, the teacher who recognizes that the read/write web opens up new opportunities using technology via inquiry based approaches.

In Open Classrooms teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small work groups. They helped students negotiate each of the reading, math, science, art, and other interest centers on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing.

For a range of reasons, mostly social and cultural, the Open Classroom had faded by the end of the 80s and education returned to more structured, test based summative learning approaches with specific curriculum detail.

There is little doubt that educational ‘trends’ come and go.

‘Open Classroom’ has a new connotation – it’s internet based.

The catalyst for the current discourse is the internet, the falling cost of ‘being connected’ and the hardware needed to do it – that began with the mass introduction of the home micro-computer in the 1990s. The idea that every innovation dreamed up by reformers inside and outside public schools makes its way into the nation’s classrooms is false. Education reflects so many cultural and social trends that at any point, there has always been debate as to which is the best model. The answer generally lies in ‘what is the best model at the time’.

I think that one critical technology has changed the how we use technology in learning – from ‘instructional based’ – where we information is often (but not always) “presented” to a learner (via lectures, textbooks, and testing) -or student-centered where knowledge is often (but not always) “discovered” by the learner (via individual and small-group work, projects blending different subjects, skills, inquiry and questioning).

That critical technology is TCP/IP – the element what was not present until the advent of the internet in the 1990s.

The New Open Classroom now is that connected to the read/write internet.

The classroom teacher who understands the value of allowing students to create, connect and share – is more relevant to their students – but only when they do that effectively and selectively.

The New Open Classroom may also be a virtual classroom – via Adobe Connect or Second Life. It also brings into play the ideas of Ray Oldenburg and creating ‘Third Spaces’ for learning.

These do not have to be ‘teacher lead classrooms’ – they can be discussion forums, Second Life Simulations, chat rooms, blogs, nings and wikis. They are online places that do not follow ‘instructional protocols’, but at the same time do not need radical building reform or pedagogical overhauls in ‘all education’. They might not even be created by teachers or lecturers but by students – but they do need to be understood, not rejected out of hand, based on the idea that they are too social, too liberal or not explicitly designed as ‘edu only’. A student who works well in these spaces needs to be accommodated – as it is a learning style like any other.

Best of Both Worlds

Perhaps we can have the best of both worlds. We have educators with a wealth of experience in instructional and inquiry based approaches to learning.

We have those who prefer single classrooms with single subjects, and other who enjoy team teaching with more holistic subject approaches.

Perhaps the approach is to recognize that students will benefit from the best of both worlds, and that TCP/IP based practice is the important link between them, not the differentiation.

I don’t think that it is beneficial or acceptable for students to have to learn predominantly by ‘listening’ or ‘copying’. Any teachers that think they have all the answers or that the text book is sufficient are clearly misunderstanding the power of Wikipedia or Google in delivering information on demand.

There are times where I want someone to show me, or tell me – I don’t want to jump through hoops to discover it.

Professional Development

To me a successful approach to professional development is not about about efficiently you manage your IT, or how many Web2.0 tools you can use in a project. It about knowing which approach is applicable. Blended, multi-modal approaches work best – and work to the strengths of the staff – you can’t take a teacher whos been used to ‘instructional’ approaches and tell them to now use ‘inquiry’ based, throw a few days training at them, and hope that will be anything other can totally confused, frustrated and under-skilled.

Blended Learning Approaches

I don’t see why a school should be a PBL school or a Regular School.

I don’t think that it is any harder to create a unit in a ‘regular classroom ‘ than it is a PBL classroom – and give students that opportunity to demonstrate their learning.

I don’t think all students benefit from PBL-only approaches any more that ‘Instructional Only’. But surely we don’t have to be absolute in our offerings.

Life is not absolute. There are times when people will tell them and they will need to remember it and times when they have to figure it out and come to their own conclusions due to confusing or missing knowledge. There is increasingly more accurate ‘facts’ available, and aslo increasing ‘rubbish. Students do need to know how to evaluate information –  but at times, the formula for the circumference of a circle is just that.

Forcing teachers and students to be ‘all for one and one for all’ – is blatantly oppositional to the socially-connected world we live in. It also marginalizes significant discourses such as where ‘virtual worlds’ and ‘game based’ learning will feature in student engagement in the next few years – the ‘what comes next’ plays a major role in what we should do now in building capacity.

The critical issue is that we provide quality, relevant learning experiences – that recognise the ease and benefits of extending those experiences though technology, and use a variety of ‘open classrooms’ to do it.

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