Monthly Archives: October 2011

Defining Education Through Technology: What Are the Limits of Innovation?

by Hap Aziz

Taking a broad view of history, it becomes evident that technological advances over the years have, for better or for worse, found their way into the learning enterprise. For the generation of students now in the academic pipeline, computers and the Internet are a fixture in many classrooms, libraries, and media centers, not to mention a conduit between instructor and student from the home, during any time of day or night. It’s quite a difference from the experience of my generation when calculators were becoming more widespread and the use of film and television brought visual images and audio from all over the world into our schools.

Thinking about the relationship between technology and education, we see that technology basically does two things in the teaching and learning process:

  1. Technology facilitates learning.
  2. Technology defines the parameters within which learning takes place.

The first item is how we commonly see and understand technology to operate within the education landscape. The use of computers and the Internet to facilitate online or distance learning is an example of this facilitation of learning. However, it is the second item, the defining of the parameters within which learning takes place, which is of much greater significance.

If we look back far enough, we see that the learning enterprise in its current form is based on the development of a significant technological advance; that is, the invention of the phonetic alphabet. Prior to that invention, teaching and learning was a very personal activity between a teacher and a student or small number of students. The learning process often involved conversation, recitation, and memorization, but just as often it involved hands-on participation and activities that gave students experience with a particular set of skills. That type of experiential learning is possible when societies (and the numbers of students) are relatively small, and when the content to be mastered is more narrowly focused. In other words, it would be very difficult to educate our students like that today.

Because of the invention of the alphabet, societies and whole civilizations developed the ability to capture, store, and share information across both time and space. As a result, education was transformed over time into a process that first involved learning how to code and decode information (writing and reading!) before learning the actual content of interest. So the invention and implementation of the alphabet and eventually the book defined the parameters within which learning takes place all the way up to and including our modern age.

Consider that our current educational process requires the achievement of some level of competency in the coding and decoding process before subject matter mastery can occur. The first few years of schooling beginning in pre-school or kindergarten is focused on teaching children how to read and write. Unfortunately, this is not the way humans were designed to learn—through experiential learning combining both hands-on and conversational activities, and without the added complexity of having to a coding and decoding protocol as a prerequisite to subject matter instruction.

Interestingly, and perhaps appropriately, technology has brought us to another transformational inflection point in the learning enterprise that offers the possible promise of reducing our dependence on symbolic manipulation and providing the mechanism by which people can learn the way we were designed to learn. With the development of multimedia-enabled computers, game systems, and smart devices, we already see how learners are able to master new skill sets without knowing how to read or write. Witness a child of preschool age playing Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies to see how problem solving abilities are cultivated. The learning at this point is trivial, to be sure, but it is occurring, and nothing indicates that this type of activity cannot be leveraged in more significant ways.

There are hurdles to be overcome, of course. A robust infrastructure will need to be developed to support the technology across the educational system. Content for all subject matter areas will need to be redeveloped from the ground up. And before that can happen, an entirely new pedagogical framework will need to be created around course design and assessment of progress toward desired learning objectives.

As high as these hurdles may appear to be, the potential impact of this shift in the utilization of technology is extremely enticing, even upon a mere surface examination. As well as the alphabet and the coding and decoding process has served the education establishment for the past several centuries, it is becoming more apparent that it may represent more of an obstacle to effective learning, especially for the young learners of today. How we evaluate the pitfalls and potential of the new technologies to serve teaching and learning will determine whether or not the parameters within which learning takes place are opened wide.

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Four Takeaways from EDUCAUSE 2011 in Philadelphia

by Hap Aziz

The joy of EDUCAUSE is most often the most challenging thing about it as well; that is, much more transpires in the handful of conference days than can be possibly absorbed by any single attendee. This year, of course, was no different, and over the years of my own attendance, I’ve learned to look as much for overall trends as well as individual items of interest in the conference sessions and vendor exhibitions.

This year four particular topics stood out to me as being significant; I make no claims that these were the top four items of importance, but these certainly rank among the most significant in terms of trends within higher education. Additionally, these topics  are greatly important in the consumer sector, which would indicate both broad appeal and applicability in the marketplace and in the teaching and learning environment.

Intellectual Property and the Free Flow of Information

In his session “The Remixed University,” Hal Abelson of MIT made the case that open access and flow of information is essential to the learning mission across all higher education institutions. While apparent on its face, the ongoing consolidation over the past several years of academic publishers (along with the increasing costs for information subscription and use) is increasingly at odds with the whole concept of information accessibility. Intellectual property rights as currently administered stand in opposition to the model of information free-flow as enabled by the Internet. Abelson proposed a scenario of collective bargaining of faculty over the rights for their own academic work, thus affording more flexibility and creativity in sharing. This is a topic that does not look to be easily resolved in the near future, and there may be some short-term pain as the market for academic intellectual property finds its level.

The Mobilization of Academic Infrastructure

Even a casual look at the marketplace will show clearly the influence of mobile devices on consumer behavior and patterns of information production and consumption. As a result of the compelling nature of these consumer devices (smartphones and tablets), they have been introduced into the teaching and learning environment, and there is tremendous pressure to integrate them for a variety of uses in curriculum and instruction. However, these new devices are more than a replacement for outmoded technology and techniques, and the required redesign of educational processes as well as institutional infrastructure will be quite challenging, time consuming, and resource intensive. How quickly institutions are able to upgrade their processes and infrastructure will greatly determine how they will be perceived by current and future generations of students.

Social Media as a Tool for Learning Engagement

Beginning several years before the development and widespread use of smart mobile devices, but now inextricably tied with their expansion in marketplace numbers, social media tools and outlets are becoming an expectation within higher education among students as well as faculty (and other interested parties). The institutional uses have been peripheral to the teaching and learning endeavor at first, often related to marketing institutional presence and engaging students in extra-curricular activities. However, now social media is finding tremendous use in the facilitation of direct student engagement in the classroom. Faculty have adopted social media tools in their own courses, and vendors–new and established–are even now offering LMS solutions with integrated social media functionality. The trend is clear.

Data Transparency and Transportability

From institutions, organizations, product and services vendors, to the United States government, there were representatives making the case that data related to the teaching and learning endeavor needs to be open and transparent in order to leverage the true value, and the data needs to be standards-based across systems (non-vendor specific) and ultimately owned by the student rather than an institution. This concept speaks to the perfect storm of the above three takeaways: intellectual property, infrastructure mobilization, and social media. In order for the education industry to make best use of the range of data it gathers, that data cannot be restricted to institutional or product silos. There are several initiatives underway (such as data.ed.gov) to facilitate collaboration in the development of these open data standards. When students have complete ownership of their own academic data, they will have greater control and engagement in their academic career path.

Other Thoughts

Did you identify other areas at EDUCAUSE that deserve mention and consideration? Please feel free to share them here!

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Hap Discusses the Apple iPhone 4S on Fox 35 Orlando

by Hap Aziz

I was on Fox 35 Orlando on October 17th talking about the new Apple iPhone 4S. You can view the video clip below.

Apple iPhone: Should you rush to buy it?: MyFoxORLANDO.com

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An Accident of Technology

by Hap Aziz

The single most significant technological advancement in the history of education is also the single biggest hurdle to the positive transformation of education into the future.

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