If you’ve been out of school for a long time you may only remember the good parts — growing up with your friends, school events, and those few inspirational teachers who pushed you to excel. The bad parts of school are just as memorable; fights, changing relationships, and failures. But the day-to-day lecture, note-taking and test-taking is still commonplace in many classrooms and easily forgotten since it doesn’t engage the learning imagination.
A teaching model that centres on student consumption, review, and then being tested on information is simple, but it’s also less effective than more challenging methods of teaching and learning. In their 2014 book Make It Stick, Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel describe how effective, long-term learning that is ready when needed requires that we practice active retrieval. Learners must make significant, personally active efforts to recall information and apply it to challenges.
Unfortunately, the lecture model is often perceived as easier than more active teaching approaches; if only because more teachers and students are used to it. But technology can help. For example, the flipped classroom model takes the passive information transfer accomplished through lectures and moves it online through digital recordings that students can watch on their own time, and at their own pace.
Video-based instruction may be created by the teachers themselves using simple webcams and mics, by a group of teachers working together to lighten the load, or may even come from the open web, through free and open videos from Kahn Academy, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and so on. By making one of their most rote activities, the lecture, reusable on the web, teachers can focus classroom time on hands-on, person-to-person learning activities.
In-class activities, too, can be aided by technology. For example, shared digital spaces can serve as a hub for student collaboration, whether that’s simply for note-taking or for cooperative authoring and editing. Teachers can poll students on challenging conceptual questions through their mobile phones, the results of which can be used to change the direction of class activities, or trigger student-to-student, reflection, discussion, and teaching.
Outside of the classroom, technology helps learning by doing what computers do best; automating processes and feedback that would typically require manual work. This is valuable when students need opportunities to repeatedly practice, and receive immediate feedback on that practice. Learning management systems, such as Canvas, provided by most colleges and universities are more than a hub for sharing files and student discussions; they can provide on-demand practice activities such as low- or no-stakes self-tests that trigger retrieval and reinforce or correct students’ understanding. Use of these learning platforms is gaining popularity in primary and secondary schools too, in part because they help connect parents with their children’s education, but also because they present a means of individualising instruction to foster better outcomes.
Part of what makes us human is our proclivity to learn. Up to a quarter of our lives are spent in formal education; schools, colleges, universities, trainings and so on. But this doesn’t mean we’re done with learning when school is over. Jay Cross, author of Informal Learning, suggests only a small percentage of our learning happens through formal schooling – around 20%. The rest of learning happens informally, here and there, on-the-job, and through our connections with an increasingly interconnected world.
We may be a little shy about sharing what and how we learn on the open web, but if you think about the practical, how-to information that you’ve likely frequently discovered on the web you’ll recognise that this is exactly what the educators are doing. The resulting online discussion, debate, and discovery of new information sources can extend our own personal learning networks, and establish our digital identity; a living, changing portfolio that may help us stand out for the real work we’ve done in a highly competitive world.
Carl Sagan wrote, “Our evolutionary lineage is marked by mastery of change. In our time, the pace is quickening.” Technology’s change on our lives and our culture both challenges traditional approaches to learning and creates new opportunities for active, lifelong learning. If we’re going to keep pace it’s increasingly important that we choose to leverage technology to establish learning practices and habits that are effective and efficient, both in school and in our own lives.
Jared Stein is VP Research and Education at Instructure, creators of the Canvas learning platform.