Archive for the ‘Informal Learning’ Category

baby DylanThis weekend, my 16 year-old daughter brought home a school project – a baby. It wasn’t a real baby. It was a plastic one. But it cried and burped and needed to be changed just like a real baby. Her exhaustion by the end of the weekend reminded me of what our lives were like when she first came into our world.

This weekend has been one of the richest learning experiences my daughter has had during school. Think of how she MIGHT have learned about parenting. She could have read an article. She might have done some research and a project. She might have interviewed an expert, like … er … maybe her dear ol’ ma. But nothing prepares you more than having to immerse yourself in the experience of being a parent by actually caring for a child and then stepping back to reflect on that experience. That’s been her weekend. It’s been a crash course in nighttime feedings and frequent diaper changes.

I wonder. How could we create learning experiences that are more like the way we learned to be parents? And what would that mean for how we view ourselves as educators?


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In September I went to Scotland for a family reunion. For a week, we lived in a castle that had been converted to a educational centre for school children. It was a fantastic place but there was only one computer in the castle connected to the internet. Unfortunately, the computer also had filtering software installed. The reunion was wonderful but, as I stood in line waiting along with the other dozen guests for my turn to check my email, I wondered about the ways we control technology for learners.

The internet is one of the most important ways I learn. I use it to stay in touch and participate in what’s happening in my field. I blog. I bookmark sites. I Facebook. I visit YouTube. I read feeds. I chat. I spend most of my time online using social software. That week, all the sites I use regularly to connect to my community and support my own learning were blocked. The internet turned into a completely useless place for me. It was like a car without an engine. Although I experience some blocking at work, I can’t imagine what it must be like for learners to experience this level of control.

ning blocked

Like a lot of other people, I wonder why we’re blocking instead of teaching. I wonder why we’re banning instead of finding constructive ways to use these tools to support learning. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d admit that security and privacy are less of a concern than our need to control. We don’t always see what learners see. We don’t take advantage of the fantastic teachable moments that learners sometimes give us through their use of technology, as scary or chaotic as they may seem sometimes.

I appreciate that it can be a challenge to teach while people are cruising Facebook. It can be especially frustrating when learners are chatting or text messaging on cell phones. I’ve taught in a classroom of email-checkers. I hate to say it but in a moment of total frustration I once threatened to flush a cell phone. (I’m so sorry!) But I was a lecturer. I was a stand-and-deliver teacher, and that approach just can’t compete with the connection and learning that happens online. Right now, there is no greater challenge to the traditional teacher-centered approach than the internet.

The great thing is we can all learn how to adapt. We can talk to people who are using technology effectively to engage learners. And, of course, there are some great resources online. Here are a few that I grabbed from my bookmarks:

Thanks for listening. I’m off my soapbox now. ūüôā

UPDATE: Another point of view comes from Samuel Freedman writing in the NY Times about the new class(room) war.¬† (I like the line “present but otherwise engaged”.)

(Photo, Ning – Blocked, by Alexander Hayes)

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William Kamkwamba is a teenager in Malawi who read a book about solar energy and built a windmill based on what he learned. The windmill generated enough power for two radios and two lights in his house. What an amazing guy. Chris Anderson interviewed him at TED.

William mentions in the video that his next ambition is to build a windmill to power an irrigation system for his village, but if you read his blog, it looks like he’s reaching a whole lot higher. He’s become a one-man development agency and he wants your help.

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The August/September issue of Innovate is up & it’s devoted¬†to experiential e-learning, or ee-learning.¬† Given the preference that a lot of learners have for experiential learning, this issue is especially welcome.¬†(You’ll need a free registration in order to see the full articles.)

Supporting experiential learning is especially tricky with technology, simply because most of us are accustomed to those long-winded didactic courses (*yawn*).¬† We just don’t have¬†experience designing … er …¬†experience.¬† We¬†don’t know how it works and or what it should look like.¬† These articles help.¬† They¬†cover a range of projects including ones where learner use games to change explore issues of identity and diversity to¬†projects where learners engage virtually in the experiences of experts and educators¬†who explore Nunavut by dogsled.¬† I love the opening paragraph of Aaron Doering’s article about Adventure Learning.¬†

It is March 5, 2004. I and my five colleagues from the Arctic Transect team have been traveling across the Canadian Arctic via dogsled since December 31, 2003. As we approach Baker Lake, Nunavut, we have not seen anyone else in 73 days. Across the horizon a jumping light can be seen as a snowmobile approaches us. I am on the front sled, so I stop the team and ski over to the individual dismounting his machine. I extend my arm and say, “My name is Aaron Doering. You have no idea how excited I am to meet you.” The Inuit Elder from Igloolik, Nunavut, replies, “I know who you are; I recognize your voice from the Internet.”

Aaron’s story¬†is¬†fairly dramatic but the same idea would work in connecting¬†electrical students to journeymen¬†working on-site¬†or pharmacy tech students to hospital pharmacists.¬†

How about you?  How are you integrating experiential learning into your teaching?  Any recommendations?

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In 1999 Sugata Mitra did a simple but amazing thing. He cut a hole in the wall that stood between the campus where he worked and a New Delhi slum. In the hole, he put a computer and connected it to the internet. Then he stood back and watched what children learned.

The results tell us a lot about how children learn on their own. In fact, from what I understand of Dr. Mitra’s talk, these children taught themselves the equivalent of a college-level introductory computer course — basic Windows functions, email, chat, browsing and how to download files — even though they had no instruction, no textbook and didn’t even speak English. All Dr. Mitra did was make the technology available and walk away.

It’s a great story. Here’s how Dr. Mitra tells it …

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In the lead up to this week’s National Media Education Conference, I was checking out Project NML. Project NML is funded by the MacArthur Foundation to look at how young people are using emerging technologies to learn informally, what skills they’re developing, and then to develop materials for teachers so that they can support that learning in school. MIT’s Henry Jenkins is the leading the project.

I have the feeling that this kind of information is going to become more and more valuable to people like me (I’m an instructional designer) over the next few years since many online courses are little more than migrations of classroom learning experiences. That doesn’t come close to how people learn “in the wild” online. The more we learn about informal learning with technology and use that information to create vibrant, participatory learning environments, the more effective online courses can be.

Ok, off my soapbox.

If you want a taste of the kind of work Project NML is doing, check out this 5-minute piece on videoblogging featuring Steve Garfield. The video would be a wonderful thing to show students to give them a sense of what (video)blogging is about. (I like the bit about trust.)

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