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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

Education 2.0

John Martino argues that if we don’t transform the classroom with the available technology, we risk it becoming irrelevant as a place to educate children.

Let’s start with a vignette. Imagine you are observing a surgical operation and a medical team is engaged in the process of inserting a stent into the heart of a patient. This is a complex procedure made possible by a myriad of medical advances over the past century. Into the midst of this scenario appears a time traveller from the late 19th century. This visitor is a doctor…not the doctor but a doctor. The visitor looks around the operating theatre attempting to comprehend what it is that he is observing. The visitor can vaguely work out some the things he is seeing…the surgical smocks look familiar, the face masks, some of the scalpels and of course the blood. However, that is the extent of his understanding. The most our visitor could contribute to the situation is perhaps to make some tea. Now let’s change the setting of our story. The setting is no longer in an operating theatre; it is now a classroom. In place of a time-travelling doctor, let’s make our protagonist a time-travelling school teacher.

Our visitor materialises in a classroom, looks around and almost immediately comprehends the setting and what is happening around him. The 21st century classroom is not so different to the one he just left in the 19th century. In many ways, schooling today is still teacher centred, it has a batch production approach to learning, it is exam driven and parochial. You might have heard the scenario described above in one form or another. The point I am making is that in many ways our classrooms have not changed that much from those of the late 19th century when mass schooling took off. The world on the other hand has not remained unchanged.

New times

Our current century is characterised by the emergence of innovations in micro-electronics, information and communication technologies and genetic engineering. Underpinning these innovations has been an exponential growth in our capacity to gather and process information. It is also defined by the expansion of globalisation into almost every facet of the economy and of society. Many writers have described these developments as signs that indicate the emergence of a new type of society. Manuel Castells was the first analyst to give it a name; in the late 1990s, he coined the phrase the ‘Information Society’ and more recently he has come to describe it as the ‘Network Society’. According to Castells and others, the industrial age has been and gone. Such a transformation has significant meaning for what we do with and in schools. This new society requires a new approach to teaching and learning.

Web 2.0: Tools for collaboration

Social software refers to the use of new technology to enhance and build connectedness between individuals and groups. Social software is also at the core of what has been referred to as Web 2.0. A central element within this type of technology is its openness and the ability for groups and individuals to adapt it to their specific needs. Social software can be described as a set of tools, which enhance our ability to communicate and to collaborate. These tools facilitate social connection and the exchange of information and also help to build an ecological framework (that is an open, complex, and adaptive system containing features which are dynamic and interdependent) within which knowledge creation and new forms of teaching and learning can emerge. Examples of Web 2.0 technologies, which enhance social connection, include:

  • blogs: personal web publishing systems
  • wikis: collaborative content management systems that allow any user to create or edit pages instantaneously
  • distributed classification systems: software that allows individual users to classify items by associating them with any number of keywords known as tags, which are then aggregated by the software for the benefit of the whole community
  • Rich Site Summary (RSS) feeds: a subscription system that alerts the user when new content is available, for example, in a blog, a wiki page, or a particular tag in a distributed classification system.

Sites such as MySpace, YouTube, Second Life and Flickr (to name but a few) help bolster this new open form of web interaction, communication and knowledge creation. Schools are yet to fully realise the far reaching potential these new tools have for how we teach and how our students learn. In particular the potential for bolstering teamwork and collaborative ‘peer’ production opens up the possibility of students constructing their own picture of the world and how it works through the use of wikis and other Web 2.0 technologies. If we focus on the use of a wiki in a classroom setting it provides us with a publishing tool which allows anyone to edit, change, delete any page or piece of text with complete freedom. Instead of relying on one teacher for introduction into a topic, a global collaboration on any issue is possible. The traditional textbook is replaced by a living document, which is online, accessible to everyone and which is constantly updated and open to peer review and editing.

New Learning?

Marc Prensky has coined a phrase to describe the existing dichotomy in schools between our students, ‘Digital Natives’, and most adults, the ‘Digital Immigrants’. It is this division which motivated a group of academics at Victoria University to pose the question: ‘But who will teach these Digital Natives?’ This has been the starting point for our attempt to bring Web 2.0 technology through a subject in our Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education called ‘New Learning’ into the mainstream teacher education curriculum.

An agreed definition of New Learning has yet to emerge in the literature, however, for our purposes we used the following definition as a starting point:

New Learning is a term that can be used to describe a range of learning outcomes, learning processes, educational and psychological theories. New Learning emphasises active rather than passive learning, collaboration rather than individualism and utilises advances in media and technology (e.g. social software) to enhance educational outcomes and experiences.

New Learning uses an inquiry approach to get student teachers to explore the development and implementation of new learning in different educational settings. We ask our student teachers to identify and document evidence of innovative pedagogical practices being utilised within schools and other settings. In particular our students examine and critique new curriculum developments such as the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) as well as notions of productive pedagogy, deep learning, multiliteracies, lifelong learning, new social technologies (podding, blogging, smart mobs, wikis and virtual learning environments) and emergent socio-cultural practices.

Students are asked to not only investigate how this technology is being used elsewhere, but they are also expected to use collaborative tools such as Google groups, a blog and a wiki to document their understanding of aspects of New Learning. The students are also asked to work as part of a multi-disciplinary team in the production of a VELs unit of work which incorporates elements of Web 2.0 technology. This task challenges the class to put into practice the range of pedagogical ideas and Web 2.0 technologies that they have encountered over the year. New Learning places the new social technologies firmly at the centre of what we do in the university classroom, and it is hoped that this will lead our graduates to do the same when they teach their own classes.

New Learning is our attempt to bridge the gap between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. It is clear that if we do not move beyond the safety zone of traditional modes of teaching then our schools face the possibility of being seen as irrelevant. Working with Web 2.0 and other forms of social software is not about ‘entertaining’ our students, or as Neil Postman puts it ‘amusing ourselves to death’.

Looking seriously at how these new forms of media and technology might be harnessed to enhance education is critical. The ability of young people to succeed in the emergent global Network society will depend on how competent they are in working with new technology; new media, social software and technologies yet to emerge. Our children are already moving on mass into this digital environment, to ignore this emerging trend would be doing them a disservice and would perpetuate Prensky’s digital divide.

References

Castells, M (2000). ‘Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society’ in British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 5–24.

Prensky, M (2001). ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’ in On the Horizon, Vol. 9, No. 5, pp. 1–6.

author picture John Martino coordinates the Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education in the School of Education, Victoria University.

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