Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Myth #3: The Digital Classroom is a Playground

8 Myths About Digital Learning

In today's m-digital landscape, certainly in a 1:1 or technologically supported setting, the learning experience too often is, like that described in this description of the Dragon Go! iPhone app:

You say….
“Cowboys & Aliens showtimes” – Dragon Go! delivers you directly to Fandango featuring movie trailers, showtimes and ticket purchasing for your local theaters. The Dragon CarouselTM also enables you to see what people are saying about the movie on Twitter and flick over to Wikipedia to learn more about the graphic novel the movie is based on."

David Warlick labels this a  learning-literacy playground.  Libraries and schools, he suggests, need to take note - and then change the way they do business.

I love the metaphor of self-directed internet use as play.  But think about the promo above.  Think about your last visit to a children's playground. The erratic, flicking nature of the play experience is the same in both instances.  Like Katniss Everdeen, the learner/child is driven by a pattern of respond-and-move on, and on, and on.  Engaging, yes, but eventually exhausting.  Where is the learning here?  Recesses are not learning time for a reason.

That said, I agree that social learning is in the playground domain and not to be dismissed by educators. The value of the social media playground and the necessity for young people to learn how to negotiate this playground safely and wisely is not to be questioned.  Mobile devices - any computer - engage students in this type of play.

But the digital playground as a learning experience is a Myth. A qualified myth.  Play can result in academic learning. It can result in learning how to solve complex problems and how to independently apply guesses to solutions.  But that is not what digital playground means.

In fact, David Warlick misspeaks himself when he uses the term playground. What he alludes to is a paradigm shift away from place-based and fixed-object-based learning and into digital spaces where learning elements and their interconnections are multitudinous, constantly changing, constantly updating, unprescribed, unbounded, and - because of this - deep with question-making and problem-solving.

It's not play - it's hard work that happens in a digital workroom.  With work comes learning.

This is the promise of the digital world for education.

The problem is that human beings, including digital natives, are place-based and fixed-object based.  We like straight-forward prescriptions, boundaries, predictability, tried-and-true. Educational use of digital tools has adapted to these needs.  In this digital age, answers quickly become viral (tweeted follow-the-leader). Questions are quickly forgotten, if they are even asked.  Five good activities build a playground; five hits end a search.

For the most part, therefore, teachers and students - learners all - do not take advantage of the opportunities available to them to access the multiplicity of threads that inspire creative questioning and deep learning - digital or otherwise.  They impose upon themselves - upon their students - limits that make the learning trajectory shorter and, unfortunately, more linear.

This is not a new phenomenon. Socrates warned about the stagnation of creative thinking when facts and thoughts were committed to books (read one source). The internet as it is used in most k-12 classrooms is simply a  new form of the book. This approach is easy.  It is also the traditional model of learning and teaching.  Moreover, digital tools are remarkably like workbooks, and about as interactive if you look critically (Myth #4).

The reality of the digital world is that good answers can be found easily (no matter what the librarians advise), but good questions are hard work.  These take iteration of thought, pattern-seeking, cross-checking, evaluating, consulting (asking, listening, replying) and a lot of literate access to texts of various kinds (images, video, fiction, information, charts, tweets, opinion, games, news...). 

Who has time for that?  Not most teachers.  Not today's students.

Says who?

There is time - lots of it.  But it is already crowded with the questions for which prescribed answers need to be found.  It is already crowded with seat-time, even in the m-classroom. 

The new and truly digital workroom is full of possibilities, of virtual threads forming a play space for learning. But will our students do anything with this in terms of learning? Or will they do what most are doing today - just play?  I personally don't fault kids - or study hall monitors - for digital play, but  turning a desire for pleasure into a desire to learn because it is pleasurable should be the focus of today's schools.

One of the most innovative dream-to-reality educators I know of, Nick Stoneman at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota, has it right.  He is building physical spaces where his students can play - create, dream, explore, build, move, share, collaborate.  There are top-of-the-line digital tools, but also top-of-the-line physical tools.  And above all there is time to access the boundless worlds - external and internal - that are the playgrounds of the mind.  Learning time will be created out of "seat time" by using a blended learning model, one that maximizes the impact and importance of face-to-face time while placing the work of learning play in the hands of the students.  It is a model that will work.

The digital classroom needs to not be a classroom at all - then it can truly become a learning playground. This is really David Warlick's message.  But the availability of iPads and other digital tools alone will not guarantee this.  It will first take a renewed commitment on the part of educators that learning must be, to paraphrase Seymour Pappert years ago, hard fun.

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