The Evolution of Education: Empowering Learners To Think, Create, Share, and Do

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According to Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University, education is evolving "due in large part to emerging information and communications technologies." And that's got him excited.

"I am more excited about educational technology right now than at any other time in my career," said Dede, speaking at FETC 2009 in Orlando, FL last week. "And this talk is really about why I am so excited about what's happening now."

We live at a really interesting time in the evolution of education, he continued, referring to the extraordinary range of new media available to students and educators. "These technologies are doing three very important things at once:

  • They are causing a shift in the kinds of knowledge and skills the world values;
  • Driving the development of new methods of teaching and learning; and
  • Changing the basic characteristics of learners of every age."

Given that, he said, the question we have to ask ourselves is, "how do we handle the fact that at every level of education, what happens inside academic settings looks less like 21st century work and play than what happens outside of academic settings?"

It's a complex problem, Dede conceded, but not one without a solution. And that solution, he said, can be found in the power of Web 2.0.

Citing Wikipedia, Dede defined Web 2.0 as "collaboration, creativity, and sharing between users." Kids are excited about using the Internet, he said. They are excited about collaborating with their peers and sharing information. But, he warned, "even as digital life is emerging as collaboration, it is running the risk of becoming irrelevant to education," unless we as a community figure out how to direct the use of these technologies in ways that bring meaning to the classroom environment without diminishing their power and relevance in the real world.

According to Dede, that challenge can be met by utilizing a range of tools and technologies that kids are already using and, in many cases, already very skilled at. He broke those tools down into three--albeit loose--categories representing "ways of empowering people individually and collectively to:

  • Think
  • Create
  • Share and do."

Technologies That Promote Thought
Under the umbrella of technologies that promote individual and collective thought, Dede said he includes blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, online discussion forums, and wikis. All of these tools, he said, encourage creative thought through the generation and sharing of information. From simple text-based applications to audio and video to dynamic, long-term interactions, using the Web to "think together" can bring significant value to the education environment.

Examples cited by Dede included the blogs Clive on Learning, Literacy Is Priceless, XplanaZine, Bionic Teaching, and e-Clippings. Interesting Podcasts, he said, can be found at iTunes U, KidCast, and Sesame Street, while Zoho Writer and Socialtext were his picks for wiki creation.

Of course, Dede was quick to add, these tools aren't without their problems. From the validity and value of information to concerns for equal representation to the basic technological requirements for creation and distribution, the use of any of these tools, he said, needs to be considered in light of their potential downsides. "Thinking together can be powerful," he said. "But it can also be complicated."

Creative Tools
Moving into his second category of Web 2.0 tools, technologies that allow users to "create"--to take what's already out there and repurpose it for a range of alternative applications--include social bookmarking platforms, video and image sharing sites, writers' workshops and fan fiction sites, and media mashups.

Technologies of this flavor, he said, have very interesting implications for the 21st century classroom. They give students the potential to not only think as a group, but to take a wide variety of existing resources and manipulate them to create entirely new forms of communication.

Among the expansive list of tools available, Dede shared his preference for Delicious (social bookmarking), Viigo (information aggregation), Voicethread (audio commentary), Red Bubble (creative promotion), NaNoWriMo (writing workshop), Teacher Tube (video sharing), and Healthmap (public health mashup). All of these tools, he said, derive their value from the community itself. "Value rises," he insisted, "as the community grows."

Items to consider when exploring these tools for education include privacy issues, copy and intellectual property rights, as well as the potential for sheer information overload, Dede said.

'Sharing and Doing'
Dede's final category--sharing and doing--revolves around the potential of social networking and collaborative social change. The power of social networking, he argued, is that you get a lot of engagement with vastly different groups of people. The weakness, however, is that if it's overwhelmingly social there may not be a lot of intellectual sharing happening. "Sites like MySpace and Facebook," he said, represent the more social end of the spectrum, with platforms such as Ning providing a more focused, goal-oriented option.

Collaborative social change, he explained, is a movement to use technology to empower currently disenfranchised populations. Examples include Care2, Kiva, Idealist, Digital Divide Network, and Change.org, among many others. "Kids should be doing collaborative social change," he said, "as an integral part of their Web 2.0 education."

Considering the implications of engaging in social networking communities--most especially in the context of the educational environment--Dede remarked, "It is true that any time you're engaged in being a part of a community, you have to think carefully about what you're doing in front of that community and you have to think carefully about who is in that community. But," he continued, "that is a fundamental life skill," regardless of the context in which it's learned.

“Many of these things are not discrete entities.... They are more of a continuum with blurry lines and crossover implications,” Dede concluded. But the need to implement these tools in the classroom is clear. "Using what we teach now is not enough to change the world. We need to think differently to make a difference in the world,... and we need to teach the next generation of leaders how to use the tools available to make that change."

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.

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