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“The South African classroom of the future” – a workshop at CSIR

I recently spoke at a workshop with the title “The South African classroom of the future” at CSIR, Meraka institute in Pretoria. In my presentation “Tools for the classroom of the tomorrow” I discussed the following 4 questions:

  • What are technology tools for learning?
  • How do technology tools benefit the classroom of today?
  • What are the requirements for the design of tools for the classroom of tomorrow?
  • What are the key technologies for the classroom of tomorrow?

In  this blog post I will deal with the first 2 questions.

What are technology tools for learning?

Technology has dominated human life and learning before the 21st century. This may sound banal, but I believe that it is important to note that we are not – all of a sudden – trying to introduce technology to learning. In fact learning technology has been around since the Antique and earlier when Greek, Babylonian or Chinese scholars used sophisticated demonstration tools to explain their often complex scientific findings to their students.

An example of such a learning tool is the Armillary Sphere, an astronomical tool, which has been used for demonstration and observation alike. A set of concentric rings made from wood or brass with the Earth represented at its center, the Armillary Sphere captures and demonstrates the movements of planets stars and sun across the night sky. Ptolemy described the detailed function of these soccer ball sized models and their design in his seminal book “Almagest” around 150 AD.  I find it noteworthy that technology, similar in principle to the Armillary Sphere, is still used in today’s classrooms in school labs or geography classes, e.g. Newton’s balls or a terrestrial globe. It is undisputed that 3-dimensional, tangible, mechanical, hands-on-learning tools are effective learning tools.

Armillary Sphere

Armillary Sphere

However, the most ground-breaking learning technology was the invention of book print some 550 years ago. The printing of text books did not only improve the overall quality of learning through standardization, it made learning material available to a much bigger group of learners. Subsequently, the most elementary learning goal became the ability to read and write. This would enable students to tap into any written form of learning content available independently from a teacher, who probably was still called “Master” at the time.  But also processing content, through annotation, quotes and subsequently the publishing of new content, which used to be restricted to few wise scholars, opened up to an ever growing circle of literates. How scared for their jobs must teachers have been when learning content became freely available in book form!

How do technology tools benefit the classroom of today?

In the age of ICT and photo-realistic computer simulation, learning tools have become more sophisticated, more precise and more effective. However, it seems that the principle of learning technology in the classrooms of today has not changed dramatically. The blackboard turned into a whiteboard and later into an interactive whiteboard; the Armillary Sphere turned into planetarium software simulation. But: Most of the old and new technologies have one common goal which hasn’t changed. The goal is the demonstration and distribution of learning content.

Many educators still look at ICT as a technology giving access to a “Mega book”, a gigantic library which is in principle similar to the offerings of a printed book library. Instead, ICT should be regarded as giving access to the “Meta book”, an interlinked dynamic information and communication super structure, which is in constant change partly through the direction of professional and non-professionals, and more and more taken over through the direction of automated systems and algorithms. It may not be a proven fact that these inconsistent hypermedia and communication structures are beneficial for learning; however it is quite obvious that access to the benefits of this massive “information generator” requires a new form of literacy. This is commonly referred to as computer or media-literacy, but should more precisely be called Hypermedia literacy. The International Society for Technology in Education claimed in 2008 that: “Integrating technology into instruction can help students learn 21st century skills in addition to core academic subjects, which are essential but no longer sufficient for success in life and work.” One of these skills is mastering an abundance of information, by being able to synthesize multiple media streams simultaneously, adapt to constantly changing user interfaces, filter and distil and republish content. Another important skill is communication and cooperation online, e.g. master instant publishing services like Twitter or Facebook which support the creation of collaborative “information patchworks”. It is undisputed that education cannot turn its back on ICT as it gives access to important knowledge sources in job and everyday life. “Technology increases access to education, virtual communities, and expertise” (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008). But has ICT really revolutionized the learning process as many believe? How will technology benefit education in the future?

In the next post I will discuss design requirements for future learning tools and identify key technologies for the classroom of the future.