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The Challenge to Education

April 21st, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Last year I took part in an excellent confernce in Darmstadt last year on “Interdisciplinary approaches to technology-enhanced learning.” Now they have asked me to contribute to a book based on my presentation on ‘Learning Environments, What happens in Practice?. I will post the book cpater in parts on the blog as I write it, in the hope of gaining feedback from readers.

The first section is entitled ‘The Challenge to Education”

Firstly it should be said that it is not technology per se that poses the challenge to education systems and institutions. It is rather the way technology is being used for communication and for everyday learning within the wider society.

Whilst institutions have largely maintained their monopoly and prestige as bodies awarding certification, one major impact of internet technologies has been to move access to learning and knowledge outside of institutional boundaries. The internet provides ready and usually free access to a wealth of books, papers, videos, blogs, scientific research, news and opinion. It also provides access to expertise in the form of networks of people. Conferences, seminars and workshops can increasingly be accessed online. Virtual worlds offer opportunities for simulations and experimentation.

Id course this begs the question of support for learning although there are increasing numbers of free online courses and communities and bulletin boards for help with problem solving. Schools and universities can no longer claim a monopoly as seats of learning or of knowledge. Such learning and knowledge now resides in distributed networks. Learning can take place in the home, in work or in the community as easily as within schools. Mobile devices also mean that learning can take place anywhere without access to a computer. Whilst previously learning was largely structured through a curriculum, context is now becoming an important aspect of learning.

Technology is also challenging traditional traditional expert contributed disciplinary knowledge as embodied in school curricula. Dave Cormier, (2008) says that the present speed of information based on new technologies has undermined traditional expert driven processes of knowledge development and dissemination. The explosion of freely available sources of information has helped drive rapid expansion in the accessibility of the canon and in the range of knowledge available to learners. We are being forced to re-examine what constitutes knowledge and are moving from expert developed and sanctioned knowledge to collaborative forms of knowledge construction. The English language Wikipedia website, a collaboratively developed knowledge base, had 3,264,557 pages in April, 2010 and over 12 million registered users.

The present north European schooling systems evolved from the needs of the industrial revolutions for a literate and numerate workforce. Schools were themselves modelled on the factory system with fixed starting and finishing times with standardised work tasks and quality systems. Students followed relatively rigid group learning programmes, often based on age and often banded into groups based on tests or examinations. Besides the acquisition of knowledge and skills needed by the economy, schools also acted as a means of selection, to determine those who might progress to higher levels of learning or employment requiring more complex skills and knowledge.

It is arguable whether such a schooling system meets the present day needs of the economy. In many countries there is publicly expressed concerns that schools are failing to deliver the skills and knowledge needed for employment, resorting in many countries in different reform measures. There is also a trend towards increasing the length of schooling and, in some countries, at attempting to increase the percentages of young people attending university.

However the schooling system has been developed above all on homogeneity. Indeed, in countries like the UK, reforms have attempted in increase that homogeneity through the imposition of a standardised national curriculum and regular Standardised Attainment Tests (SATs). Such a movement might be seen as in contradiction to the supposed needs for greater creativity, team work, problem solving, communication and self motivated continuous learning within enterprises today.

Furthermore, the homogeneity of schooling systems and curricula is in stark contrast to the wealth of different learning pathways available through the internet. Whilst the UK government has called for greater personalisation of learning, this is seen merely as different forms of access to a standardised curriculum. The internet offers the promise of Personal Learning Pathways, of personal and collaborative knowledge construction and meaning making through distributed communities.

The schooling system is based on outdated forms of organisation and on an expert derived and standardised canon of knowledge. As such it is increasingly dysfunctional in a society where knowledge is collaboratively developed through distributed networks.

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