At higher education’s biggest IT conference, Sugata Mitra described how small children can inspire the future of learning.
“Children, given access to the internet in groups, can learn anything by themselves,” said the the Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication, and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.
Mitra recalled lessons from his famous “ hole in the wall” experiments, through which he observed how children in impoverished communities taught themselves to use computers. For many years, “I was asking, ‘Who was teaching them?’ What I should’ve asked was: What was teaching them?”
Children in groups, he observed, can develop an understanding greater than that of any individual. This collective “hive mind” was the teacher. He described the collective ability to learn without direct guidance as an example of “emergent behavior in a self-organizing system.”
To demonstrate the principle, he asked the audience to clap together. “Who decided on the frequency? Who decided on the volume?” The answer: nobody.
At a conference where educators and entrepreneurs seemed enraptured by the possibility of personalized and adaptive learning technology, Mitra offered this warning: “The problem we have in our system is that we think we can tell the learner where to go.” Pointing to a picture of a traditional classroom, he later added: “We’ve been preparing children for employers who have been dead for 100 years.”
He concluded his keynote with a calling for learning to be designed around three principles:
- a curriculum of questions, not facts;
- a pedagogy that encourages collaboration and use of the internet; and
- an assessment system that looks for productivity over process and method
Mitra’s talk was a slight detour for a day packed with sessions about adaptive technology, cybersecurity concerns, and how higher-ed institutions can create a more diverse and inclusive community. Here’s what else we saw on Day 2.
MANY TOO MANY: What is the internet doing to us? According to Timothy Chester, vice president for information technology at the University of Georgia, the web makes it easier for us to connect to each other than to information “gatekeepers” like governments, mass media, religious sectors—and higher education.
Chester, who won the Educause 2016 Community Leadership Award, says that the overwhelming amount of information available at our fingertips causes humans to react in two ways: shut down or follow the crowd. “People simply follow the voice that is the loudest,” he said, pointing to the current U.S. presidential election and the rise of the Arab Spring as examples. Chester told faculty that, like mass media organizations and governments, they are no longer gatekeepers of information but rather stewards and facilitators that help students make sense of the information around them.
DIVERSITY IS HARD. TRY HARDER: The Golden Rule isn’t good enough for how faculty and staff should respect their colleagues, says Deborah Stanley-McAulay, chief diversity officer at Yale University. Instead she’s pushing the “Platinum Rule,” or, treat others the way they want to be treated. Yale, at the center of student activism about race, also faces challenges in improving diversity among its employees.
Stanley-McAulay believes it’s a problem that the majority of managers won’t even utter the words black, white, LGBT and queer for fear they’ll sound offensive. Gregory Nelson, founder and CEO of ThotWave who joined Stanley-McAulay on a panel about diversity, verifies the point: “The risks are incredibly high when it comes to failing in diversity conversations. As a white man I can’t take that risk.” Stanley-McAulay says Yale is working to create a culture of mutual respect among its staff by eliminating unconscious bias in its recruiting practices and hosting conversations where faculty and staff can ask each other “risky” questions about their backgrounds.
PROSE > GRAPHS: “Timely access to actionable information can help instructors and students be more effective,” says David Wiley, Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning. “But neither instructors nor students are data scientists, learning scientists, instructional designers or behavioral economists.” A guiding principle behind the company’s approach to data is “prose, not graphs.” Rather than display a barrage of data and graphs and assuming that faculty and students can decipher them, the tool attempts to explain in plain language what what and why they know or don’t know something. Among the things that Lumen’s tool, Waymaker, does: automatically send emails personalized for students that explain the topics and skills they may need to brush up on.
NEW ‘TOP 10 IT ISSUES’ MIGHT SOUND FAMILIAR: Educause unveiled its annual list of the top 10 issues according to campus IT leaders, and at first we thought we were looking at last year’s rankings. The No. 1 is the same as in 2015—IT security—and many others are reruns. That shouldn’t be a surprise, says Susan Grajek, vice president for data, research, and analytics for the association. “Of course it doesn’t change from year to year,” she says. “If something is huge and challenging and new, it doesn’t get one and done. These things are things that take three to five to seven years just to reach some kind of mature state, and maybe not even a stable state.”
And Grajek stresses that some things have changed. Three issues are “brand spanking new,” she notes, including “strategic leadership.” The group will publish the list in January as part of a report, though the association shared a preview on its Twitter feed.
SAVE THE LIBRARY? WHAT ABOUT THE LIBRARY SAVING CAMPUS: On Monday the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a preliminary report on “The Future of Libraries.”Chris Bourg, the institute’s Director of Libraries, assured a session here that reports of the death of libraries are greatly exaggerated. In fact, she argues, “we may need libraries to save us.” The report’s vision: "MIT Libraries must become a global library for a global university.”
THERE’S NOT ONE ‘RIGHT’ WAY TO USE AN LMS. THERE ARE FIVE: Blackboard sits on perhaps the biggest trove of data about how professors use learning management systems. The company’s director of learning and analytics and research, John Whitmer, recently led an analysis of aggregate data from 70,000 courses from 927 colleges and found that they fall into five patterns: “Supplemental” courses simply offer a basic repository of static content, like the syllabus. “Complementary” courses have richer materials and steady announcements. “Social” courses focus on discussion forums. “Evaluative” ones quiz and test students throughout the term. And “Holistic” offerings—just two percent of those in the sample—do it all. Didn’t instructional designers already know this intuitively? Whitmer thinks the data makes these categories clearer. The study could also be seen as a more optimistic spin on the fact that many courses make little use of the LMS, however, since the majority of courses in the study fall in the “Supplemental” category.
DO YOU SPEAK VISUAL? Students are consuming visual content all the time, but they’re not learning how to create it, say Emory Mark Craig, director of e-learning and instructional technology at the College of New Rochelle, and Maya Georgieva, associate director in the center for innovation at New York University. “Every minute today we take as many photographs as in the entire nineteenth century. For the most part we’re not teaching visual literacy,” Craig says. The duo has created Digital Bodies, an independent resource on new media including virtual reality, augmented reality and wearables and their impact on education. The idea is to help universities better teach students the “language of the visual.”