Friday, August 15, 2008

Cyberlearning: a reflection

Thanks to Gerry McKiernan for alerting me to this report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Task Force on Cyberlearning in the USA.
Borgman, C. et al (2008) Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge: A 21st Century Agenda for the National Science Foundation. National Science Foundation.

They define cyberlearning as "learning that is mediated by networked computing and communications technologies." Because arts and humanities subjects are outside the scope of the NSF (which is a funding body in the USA) those disciplines are not addressed directly. There is also some focus on learning outside formal education, though, since they see great value in using the "cyberinfrastructure" for enabling such learning. I have not studied this report properly, but my two key comments so far would be that:

a) It is a useful document in summarising trends, and providing some interesting recommendations about collaborating to improve resources, strategy and practice;

b) Unfortunately it references almost exclusively literature about e-learning, neglecting the vast literature about learning and pedagogy in general which can inform teaching practice in whatever medium. This is a definite weakness, in my view, as it feeds the delusion that it is technology itself that "transforms" education, rather than the creative practice of good pedagogy in whatever medium is appropriate. I'm scarcely a technophobe educator since I use a range of e-learning and virtual tools/ environments (Second Life, WebCT, blogs, etc etc etc), but my ability to plan and facilitate a meaningful learning path, and to use cybertools when and if appropriate, is more important.

Now I realise that there are specific political and strategic reasons for this focus, in that funding may be guided by recommendadtions, and technology and information content are more obviously within the NSF remit. However, I still find it disappointing that it has an emphasis on technology and teaching as "content", neglecting equal considerations of how you facilitate good teaching and (equally difficult) good learning. It's not as if we haven't already seen the results of this technophile approach: i.e. technology being used in pedagogically poor way that isn't much help to learning.

Perhaps I'm just a cynical Brit, but I can't help responding to the scenario of a "high school student in the year 2015" (given in the introduction) by thinking that it is a bit naive. Installing the cyberlearning technology is less difficult enabling educators to incorporate it into an effective pedagogy and motivating students to engage with it meaningfully. e.g. it says that "At school, she [the high-schooler of 2015] and her classmates engage in creative problem-solving activities by manipulating simulations in a virtual laboratory or by downloading and analyzing visualizations of realtime data from remote sensors." hmmmmm - an alternative scenario is:

Learning facilitator (brightly): "and now we are going to create a wonderful collaborative 3D collage of the environmental impact of YOUR neighbourhood by downloading and anlysing these really funky visualisations and statistics and mashing them all together in a really cool way! And you'll get credit! Won't that be fun!"
High school student 1: rolls eyes
High school student 2: does mime of putting fingers down throat and being sick
High school student 3 (looks up from texting her friend): "We were supposed to have listened to that really dull podcast about this, weren't we"
High school student 4: "How MANY credits was that?"

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