An Evening to Re-Imagine Learning in the 21st Century
Photo courtesy of Institute of Play.
5.24.10 | During his commencement address at Hampton University, President Obama lamented that young people are “coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter.”
He continued: “And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations—none of which I know how to work—information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.”
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein called the comments “a moment of calculated fogeyism,” but instead of being another anodyne commencement address comment (“wear sunblock!”; “floss!”), the president’s words prompted many members of the technology and education communities to express their disappointment. (Coming as it did from a president whose 2008 campaign relied heavily on social media, and whose personal attachment to his BlackBerry has been widely reported, his words must have stung all the more.)
On May 17, with the president’s comments still fresh in their minds—and probably their Twitter feeds—educators, parents and policy experts gathered at The New School in New York City for a panel discussion on Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century. Sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and the Pearson Foundation the event provided an opportunity for experts, to offer visions for the future of education and share promising moments—what the president might call “teachable moments”—from the present.
“This discussion is not only critical, but it comes at an inflection point,” Joel Klein, New York City’s chancellor of education, told the audience during his opening remarks.
Citing Quest to Learn (Q2L), the NYCiSchool and other recent innovative approaches to learning, Klein said he hopes New York City becomes like Silicon Valley “when it comes to innovation and instructional delivery.”
“The one sure way to make sure nothing happens is to do nothing,” he told the crowd.
A lively discussion followed, featuring Katie Salen, Q2L’s executive director of design, Diana Rhoten, director of the Knowledge Institutions and the Digital Media and Learning project, Caroline Payson, director of education for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and moderator Jamin Brophy-Warren, a technology writer and founder of “Kill Screen,” a magazine on video game theory and play.
Salen talked about her 8-month-old school, which she said was designed “from the ground up around digital media.” To maximize learning, Q2L links school and home spaces to the “informal spaces like lunch and gym,” as well as after-school spaces.
“We have to move beyond this notion of school as a container for learning,” Salen said, adding that kids pass through many different learning contexts every day.
During the question-and-answer session, one Q2L parent expressed concern that it’s not just the students who need to learn how to learn differently: “We’re finding that in our school, the kids are 100 percent into the program and they’re learning, [but] we don’t have as many parents as you describe who understand exactly what’s going on, and they’re threatened.”
“Our goal is to increase the relevancy of learning by meeting kids where their interests are and helping them identify, discover, trace and follow that interest,” said Rhoten. “The challenge for us constantly is: How do we increase the relevancy without just increasing the noise? You know, more information, more resources, more experiences? ‘More, more more,’ is not the answer.”
“How do we curate that opportunity space just right so that we’re meeting the kids’ interest with the right kinds of resources?” she asked. “That’s a big challenge and one that I feel like if we don’t reach, we’re failing them.”
In her closing remarks, Karen Cator, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology, spoke of the president’s wish to see U.S. college admission rates rise from about 39 percent to 60 percent.
“As you can imagine, we need to pull out all the stops, and we need to provide each and every opportunity for every student,” said Cator.
One way to do that, she suggested, may be using those darn iPads and Xboxes the president finds so confounding.
“Everything we’re talking about is not possible without technology for the most part,” she said. “Setting up social networks for students, tapping it to their interests, giving them the opportunities to publish, to wear and create things, and design and do all these things—it’s absolutely powered by technology.”
Maybe someone should text that to her boss.
NYC Institutions Collaborate on Digital Media Outside the Classroom
During the panel discussion, four computers were on display, loaded with learning games created by New Youth City Learning Network. Attendees could try out “A City of Neighborhoods,” which enables players to identify environmental challenges in their own backyards, and “Mannahatta: The Game,” a location-based mobile game that provides a historical view of Manhattan’s ecology dating back to the 17th century.
In an email exchange after the event, Rhoten talked more about New Youth City Learning Network, an education collective that includes Q2L, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Public Library, among other institutions. The Network uses digital tools such as mobile games and social networks to connect learning that happens in the classroom to kids’ worlds outside the school.
Too often, said Rhoten, students don’t get a chance to apply what they’re learning beyond the classroom. The Network, together with students, developed four games that foster kids’ understanding of ecology, data analysis and geography, and hones kids’ collaboration and critical thinking skills.
“Each of the four learning experiences we are piloting this summer have been designed with an eye toward how a student might connect these modules into a learning pathway,” Rhoten said.
In this case, that pathway starts with learning about their neighborhood’s ecological history via a mobile game. Then, in a second game as citizen scientists, the kids uncover contemporary environmental hazards. The process culminates with the students creating green solutions.
“This work couldn’t be done without institutions such as afterschool programs, libraries and museums to provide the resources,” Rhoten said.
The institutions provide wonderful opportunities for learning, she added, but together they can combine forces to create a more powerful impact, with children’s learning at the center. Digital media helps make that possible.
“Our work is not about enabling free-range learning,” said Rhoten. “It’s about co-designing structured autonomy that balances youth exploration with youth development expertise.”
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