Engaged is Nice, but not Enough

What do Students Need to Succeed?

When students have 1:1 access to digital resources, the traditional role of the teacher as information source is “disintermediated.” This doesn’t mean that students never need a teacher, or that educators don’t have a critical role in 21st Century learning, but it acknowledges that a good portion of student learning will take place via 1:1 interactions with digital resources and environments. You may be an evangelist of self-empowered learning and think this is great or you may be a champion for the classic bodies of knowledge and cringe at the missed opportunities and misunderstandings that await unguided innocents. Both views are slightly beside the point: students will and do directly access the world’s wealth of information – whether we like it or not has no impact on the reality.

What we must do is analyze the situation to determine, “Okay, if this is the way it is, what will help students be successful?” I suggest three traits: self-initiative, critical thinking and an appetite for lifelong learning.

Self-initiative

Without self-initiative, no one’s really driving the cursor. Without larger goals and a little focus, the digital world is hardly more than the latest, greatest “timesuck.”  Conversely, those who take advantage of online opportunities have a purpose and put their interest into action.

Critical Thinking

The second necessary trait for disintermediated learning is critical thinking. In the early days of the Web, people quickly recognized the unreliable nature of what’s published when anyone can write and post a Web page. As examples, we highlighted sites on Martin Luther King, Jr. served by white supremacists and the imminent agricultural threat to the world’s Velcro crops. With the coming of Web 2.0 and an explosion of user-generated content, these Web 1 cautions look reassuringly obvious in a world of blogs, wikis and videos. Thus the ability to analyze and evaluate what we read, see and hear is essential. But another dimension of critical thinking is ultimately more important than deciphering veracity and reliability. This is the ability to learn. The aspect of critical thinking required here is the richer notion of “making meaning.”  It involves what many have termed “habits of mind,” “dispositions of thinking” or “dimensions of learning.”  Each of these robust contributions to pedagogy vary in the particulars, but share an appreciation that thinking is a complex activity that invokes an array of attributes. Critical thinking in the Digitial World is not a simple formula for “evaluating Web sites.”

Lifelong Learning

The third trait necessary to succeed in a 1:1 digital environment is an appetite for lifelong learning. As important as we feel our subjects and content areas are, the new reality is that students live in a 24/7 connected world where the only certainty is change. What we define as essential learning will go through infinite permutations over the next decades. If content doesn’t change due to new discoveries in the arts and sciences, the methods for engaging with the learning will certainly evolve as it has already from clunky online courses to slick personalized feeds. To be successful, our students need to be open to such opportunities, even welcome change as a means to rewarding and ongoing growth.

So self-initiative, critical thinking and lifelong learning are essential. Without the first, this richest library since the days of Alexandria is lost. Without the second, it’s meaningless. Without the third, there is no future. Students who lack the characteristics to be self-learners will blob along blithely into adulthood. Because we care about students and want to do our part, we ratchet-up our resolve and do what we do best. But here’s the problem. “Teaching” is useless in helping students become self-initiated, critical thinking, lifelong learners. Can you “teach” someone to take initiative? While we might teach some critical thinking strategies, the more complex and idiosyncratic aspects of making meaning don’t fit into a fifty-minute, five-step lesson plan. Finally, the desire to pursue learning for a lifetime isn’t an instructional event. Thus, the most important keys to student success in the digital era aren’t helped by what we do best. So what do we do? Fortunately our colleagues in university research centers have some answers that we’ll explore in the next chapter. But before that, to validate the traits that I’ve suggested students need to be successful, let’s look at what’s already happening…

The Web disrupts (20th Century) “Learning”

If you don’t believe we need a different approach to “teaching” given the richness of the Web and digital technologies, take a look at three ways the Web has already undermined a “teaching” approach to “learning.” If mass production is the model and information the piece that needs attaching, then it makes sense to determine success by measuring how much of the new information is ultimately attached or transferred. With something concrete like information, content or correct answers, we know exactly what we are looking for. From the earliest days of the Web, we could see three aspects inherent in this new medium that would undermine the notion that demonstrating possession of new information or right answers indicated learning. These are: facile plagiarism, spot knowledge and the information explosion.

Exponential Plagiarism

For the current purpose, it’s obvious that the Web facilitates plagiarism: new information or correct answers no longer necessarily come from within the student, but could have just as easily been retrieved for the teacher without altering any synapses in the minds of the learner. New industries have been built attempting to detect plagiarism, and while sophisticated data mining and analysis is fundamental to the Digital Age, using the power of technology to prop up a decidedly limited vision of “knowledge” is a waste of time and effort. As educators we should invest our professional expertise in revisiting our goals for learning and devising tasks that require more than copy/paste keystrokes to complete.  We’ve had the Web for about two decades – what was that earlier remark about human institutions being slow to change?

Spot Knowledge

The second way the Web undermines a “learning as the recitation of answers” view is what James Fallows calls “spot knowledge.”  This highlights a positive attribute of the Web where, a decade after inception, enough people have posted every different kind of knowledge that, to quote the Urban Dictionary, we can “access unanticipated areas of knowledge quickly and efficiently.”  Thus, unlike the problem with plagiarism, spot knowledge doesn’t challenge how we check for achievement of learning, but calls into question the very nature of what we’re asking students to do. Learning is a cognitively taxing endeavor. Whether you look to Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation, Bloom’s taxonomy or later theorists’ construction of meaning, all emphasize that developing new knowledge is hard work. Given the degree of difficulty – and the relative ease of accessing spot knowledge – don’t we owe it to our students to be very careful and selective about what information actually needs to reside in the minds of learners and which can live just as happily “out sourced” or available “on-demand?”  On days when cynicism gets the better of me, I relax in appreciation of the “Forgetting Curve,” the century-old understanding that reveals that without repetition or reinforcement of what is newly learned, we forget 80% of it. On less cynical days I appreciate just how important it is for us to choose wisely and teach effectively so that the remaining 20% is significant and worth remembering. Regardless, it’s the rare curriculum initiative that recognizes the reality of easily accessed spot knowledge and instead we see vested interests continue to heap-up the content of already bloated syllabi and curricula.

Information Explosion

The third way the Web undermines current assembly line concepts of learning relates to the two previous, but presents a different challenge. Yes, a basic information acquisition approach invites plagiarism. And Spot knowledge calls into question the appropriateness of asking students to commit large amounts of easily accessed information to memory. But, thirdly, the very explosion of information that makes plagiarism easy and spot knowledge accessible also highlights an essential skill this new environment requires and we would be remiss if we didn’t address. The need to sort and make sense of this explosion also points us in a better direction for using the Web to support classroom-based learning. When so much information is so readily available, accessing it is nowhere near as important as doing something with it once you’ve found it. Thus rather than repeat back little bits that are easy to cheat on and just as easy to forget (or find when you might happen to need them), making something from this wealth of information and adding it to a growing body of knowledge that is personally meaningful and useful becomes not only a good idea, but essential. Essential that is, if we are to help students do something worthwhile with this new default of 1:1 digital access.

The Web Requires Real “Learning”

This section started with the assertion that successful learning in a rich digital environment requires self-initiative, critical thinking and an appetite for lifelong learning. Having just seen how plagiarism, spot knowledge and the information explosion are (not) being dealt with in most classrooms and curricula, notice how the three line-up.  If students today, in our 20th Century schools had positive self-initiative, plagiarism wouldn’t be an issue.  Certainly acts of plagiarism may tap into self-initiative, but this is to circumvent uninspiring and extrinsically motivated tasks.  Similarly, spot knowledge becomes the raw data for critical thinking if we cared to alter our assignments.  Finally, in a world where accessing exploding information is like “sipping from a firehose,” the best option for managing the overflow is as a lifelong learner whose interests shape the data as needed.  Even though developing students with these positive traits has always been worthwhile, it looks like it took the Web throwing a wrench into the Assembly Line to make it necessary.

A sad fact is that while schools can make the curriculum adjustments to support such cognitive development, they play an active and tragic role endangering students’ mental health.  We explore this serious threat in the next chapter.

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