"new futures for learning in the digital age"
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Name: Carol Strohecker
Title: Future models of ICT - enabled learning: What are the Implications for Schools?
Date: Monday, 17 May 2004.
Time: 16.15 –17.15
Equipping schools with computers and broadband doesn't guarantee generation of a technologically literate citizenry. Of course it is essential that we to provide this access for young people, but we can't stop there. We need to do more: we need to develop and put into practice new models of use as well.

This is a difficult challenge. It is difficult because it requires people who understand at the same time the technologies, the children, and the educational systems in which they come together. We are now well into the Information Age, yet such people are still hard to find. And when we find them, we tend not to support them in ways that would sustain their best practices, which they know and which research has demonstrated over and over again to be effective.

Why don't we? Because we would have to acknowledge that the process of changing schools in ways that make best uses of technologies is deeply transformational. It takes time and ongoing investment. It requires additional cost allocations, beyond purchasing and installing equipment, to investing in teacher development, online services, redesigns of building architectures, and collaborations with industry.

And because if we are truly honest, we have to admit that such change could undermine our assumptions about learning itself - what it is, how different people do it, what is important to know, and how knowledge in one domain can support the growth of knowledge in other domains. The mere presence of computers does not accomplish the epistemological reformulations that we need in order to develop inclusive, economically viable 21st-century societies.

Central to this problem is the reality that while computers can lead to new, exciting possibilities in education, they can also be used to perpetuate educational practices that are considered poor by today's standards: computers can dress up and even make more efficient transmissive models such as delivery of instruction and drill-oriented software based on old and worn out subject areas.

Research and practice during recent decades have demonstrated that such models are less effective than approaches which encourage active, constructive, individualised involvement with materials and ideas - ideas that join knowledge domains rather than keeping them separate. These approaches can support prolonged, deep engagement with subject matter and ultimately more lasting learning. But taken seriously, these approaches require rethinking familiar structures for curricula and learning environments.

Places where people can meaningfully construct things in the world, along with the ideas in their minds, must allow free movement and open access to materials and other people. Everyone involved - students and teachers alike - needs time for immersion in projects rather than shifting from one externally designated set of ideas to another, according to externally set periods of time.

So notions of control change - who controls space and movement, who controls access to materials, who controls time and who controls the very ideas with which people are working. Properly used, computers can enable access to ways of thinking that are truly powerful.

What are these ways of thinking? Not keyboarding skills, nor mastery of spreadsheets and word processors - but rather, engagement with the essence of computation itself. With specially designed but readily available computational materials even young children can make robotic constructions - things that move, things that sense aspects of their environment and feed the information back to the system, affecting further operations. These children are playing not just with colourful bits of plastic and not just with the narrative ideas that frame what their little robots do, but with generally important ideas such as variability and feedback.

Such ideas are the building blocks of systems that are complex because they have large numbers of parts and because the relations among those parts tend to change from one moment to the next. Understanding these building-block ideas is empowering, as the structure of so much of our world is multivariate and dynamic. We see this complexity in a wide range of everyday phenomena: weather systems, traffic flows, economic trends, families and organisations, to name just a few.

The beauty of an education focused on developing understandings of dynamic systems through engaging the protean nature of computational materials is that it enables comprehension of properties that underlie and govern many aspects of our lives. Through particular focus on personally meaningful projects, children and adults can create for themselves a very generalizable kind of knowledge.

We have an opportunity to frame and support the education of new generations who understand the bases of their complex world and who feel empowered to grapple productively with these rudiments, whatever their manifestations may be. Let us not miss this opportunity.
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