Future NZ: Schools - beyond the digital horizon

By Professor Mark Brown

The once prestigious Encyclopaedia Britannica stopped publishing its print edition last year. In just 15 years Google and Wikipedia had taken over its role as a source of academic knowledge.

A study published in the scientific journal Nature claims information in Wikipedia is just as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is now estimated that if Wikipedia were made into a book, it would be over two million pages long and take over 120 years to read.

The rapid growth of Wikipedia is a useful metaphor for how the future often lives in the past. On the one hand it illustrates how, in the digital age, academic knowledge is no longer restricted to formal educational settings.

On the other hand, the idea that a comprehensive encyclopaedia provides a valuable source of academic knowledge remains - albeit now in a more accessible digital format. What also remains is the concern that students will simply copy information without any real thinking.

Some people ask is new digital technology really making our children smarter? Should we restrict access to technology in the classroom so real thinking can take place? There's a long history of concerns about the role of technology in education and I think can we can expect similar moral panics in the future.

This is because new technology does not easily mesh with traditional classrooms and many parents expect their children to be well prepared in 'the basics'. We still require students to read textbooks, sit in large lecture theatres and take examinations to demonstrate their individually acquired knowledge.

This begs the question will schools really change? Will our 19th century teaching practices continue to survive, despite modern 21st century learning networks? The answer to these questions really depends on the choices we make about our preferred future.

If technology is to transform our education system, then it must be made accessible to all, regardless of a student's geographic location or socio-economic background. Without a deliberate decision to promote digital inclusion there will be a growing and inherently unjust gap between the haves and the have-nots.

But there is no doubt that the new digital world has the potential to flip the classroom around - to move from the traditional 'talk and chalk' where students learn by listening to a teacher to a more socially interactive and engaging process where students take charge of their own learning.

Traditional models of education are already being challenged - who could have predicted the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from some of the world's elite universities even ten years ago? The MOOC movement may end up being the education system's iTunes, leading to a transformation in the way education is delivered.

Technology creates the ability to be much more flexible in the way classes are conducted and students are grouped. In the future we may decide to group students quite differently with a more diverse range of age, skill and knowledge levels. Our classrooms may become innovation hubs where small groups of students work together on real-world problems where they share their solutions with a global audience.

We have the opportunity to give students more control over their learning, proceeding at their own pace, but also learning more through sharing and teaching each other. A class would not be defined as a group of students in a physical room - a classroom might just be a virtual place where you go to connect online with fellow classmates throughout the country or the world.

Trends like unschooling and home schooling may become more mainstream as it becomes easier to connect with others away from a traditional classroom, with teachers taking on the role of a knowledgeable facilitator to enhance shared learning experiences.

School learning will certainly be less of an island, with the classroom more seamlessly connected to home and other spaces to encourage authentic problem solving and collaboration. The division between formal and informal learning will be less defined.

This will require more flexible curricula, and we will perhaps see the national curriculum adopt a more global dimension. This could be an extension of systems like the International Baccalaureate and would allow students to move onto tertiary study at a global institution of their choice. However, face-to-face time in physical classrooms is likely to still play an important role in maintaining New Zealand's unique culture and heritage.

These changes will not be universally welcomed and they are by no means inevitable. Whether schooling should focus on knowledge or skills is already hotly debated and, so far, our formal education system has remained remarkably resilient to technological changes.

Many educators, for example, dismiss MOOCs as just another passing fad. I prefer to think of them in terms of Amara's Law: 'We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.'

Looking to the next 50 years, rather than accepting educational change as glacial, our future depends on deciding what type of education system and technology we require to serve the needs of New Zealand's future citizens.

Professor Mark Brown is the director of the National Centre for Teaching and Learning at Massey University.

- NZ Herald

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