Cutting out the middle man
Reform advocates have speculated for decades about how schooling will change in the future, and the emergence of "Web 2.0," the read/write web, has thrown fuel on this fire. Amidst all of the talk of lifelong learning, disintermediation, social networking and 21st century new media skills, few examples of different educational practice are visible. Recent examples from my own teaching offer glimpses at the future of learning.
And the students shall lead
I currently teach two sections of a course, Technology and Learning, in Pepperdine University's Online Master of Arts in Educational Technology Program (www.myomet.com). My students are mid-career professionals representing all levels of education, plus several people from corporate America. It is not uncommon for a cadre of twenty students to post more than 5,000 discussion entries over the course of a semester.
In prior years our classes were open to students and faculty who wished to "lurk" behind the scenes or join in on discussions. Regrettably, the asynchronous communication tool we are now forced to use does not allow students to collaborate across classes or even read another class's discussion. This makes teaching harder since information needs to be shared to one class at a time and students in "period 2" gain no benefit from an inspired exchange in "period 1."
Midway through the semester, I invented a way of penetrating the blackboard between classrooms by asking each class to identify the ten biggest ideas discussed in their class. Context, references and justification for selecting an idea were to be included in their final document. Transcripts of synchronous discussions, threaded discussions and primary sources shared online were the raw materials for this collaborative journey. That was the task, no further guidance was provided.
Class discussions about assigned texts, current events and technical matters continued as usual. I anticipated that the work would take three to five days. After more than a week I sent a message to all of my students asking if they were near completion of the class document. They apologized for not having kept me in the loop.
The students had not only created wikis on which to brainstorm, debate and edit the big ideas, but they had already shared the results with the other class and spent several days discussing what they learned.
This was all achieved without any intervention on the part of their teacher. I wasn't even privy. All I did was suggest the activity, and the students were able to learn, collaborate, represent their knowledge and share their conclusions without me.
What am I, chopped liver?
During this week's Tapped-In discussion (www.tappedin.org) a few students mentioned talking with my mentor Seymour Papert. Did they bump into him at a conference? No. One student e-mailed Dr. Papert and asked if they could interview him for an assignment in their learning theory course.
Despite two of their current professors having relationships with Papert dating back between 20 and 40 years, the students took the initiative to contact this expert. The result is primary source material that may be used to satisfy requirements in two different classes. The podcasts make a contribution to knowledge by making a rare interview with Papert available to anyone on the Internet. Not too shabby.
Getting to here
Neither example of student initiative is the result of a "magic teacher" armed with an impressive Rolodex or stalker-like tenacity. No elaborate lesson plans had been honed over many years. My students were empowered to learn and assume central responsibility for their own progress.
Although the products of my students' efforts were unanticipated, the quality of their work was not. The organization of students into cadres, the 24/7 access to each other and faculty, the focus on reflective practice over product, the careful selection of provocative texts and the expectation that all of their work be public contributes to the expectation of high standards without teacher dependency.