Back in the bad old days, with limited transportation and communication, it was difficult to learn something if you were not physically near someone who could teach you. If I was a farmer, and I wanted to learn more about bookkeeping, but there wasn’t a bookkeeper in my village, I was plum out of luck. In order to counter this, the design of schools was centred on physical proximity. What we did was put a bunch of people who knew about stuff into one building, and we sent the children to that building in the hope that they would learn from those clever people. This design served us really well for a long time, but, as technology has improved, we now find ourselves in quite a different world. It’s a world of ubiquitous learning, where learning is available to us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, almost anywhere in the world.
As Tony Wagner says, ‘Knowledge is now a commodity; it’s free, like water or air.’ So, the system we built, that centred around efficiently moving information from one person’s head to another, where one person stood at the front of a room talking, and 50 people sat facing them, listening, writing it down, and trying to memorise that knowledge, needs to change. But, let’s be clear, knowing things will always be important. There will never be a time when ignorance will be an asset. Increasingly, the world values not simply the knowing of things, but what you can do with the things you know.
So, things like relatively low-cost computing devices, wireless internet, and 3 and 4G networks mean that we can overcome the tyranny of time and place. We no longer need to be in the same room as an expert, at a time convenient to both of us, for me to be able to learn from that expert. Think of something like the thousands of guitar tutorials on YouTube. If I want to learn from the best, I don’t need to travel to wherever they live, I just need a guitar and an internet connection. Even better, I can rewind that learning as many times as I need in order to go at my own pace, not the pace of most people in my class.
The challenge to schools is two-fold: open up our doors to bring the ubiquitous learning that exists out there inside our schools, and arrange what we do in our schools so students have access to what’s out there. One of the most exciting things about ubiquitous learning is the fact that we can now put learning back where it belongs: out in the community, next to the people who want it.
Let me give you an example. If I were walking to school and I notice that the river beside me is flooded and a different colour, in the bad old days I would have to find an expert and ask her what was going on. In a world of ubiquitous learning, if I’ve got a device and a 3G connection: I can pull up a Google Earth view of the landscape, see that the river actually drains from the foothills of the local mountain range, overlay that with data from the Metservice to find that there has been a weather system carrying a lot of rain from the west over the last few days, then search for a YouTube video to learn more about erosion and sedimentation in rivers. All this in the landscape while following an authentic question of my own asking.
The other part of ubiquitous learning that is a challenge for schools is this: If we have traditionally spent a lot of time lining students up in rows and having them face the front, but now no longer need to do that in order to get knowledge out to them, what do we do with that time? Does ubiquitous learning mean that we can offer an increasingly personalised pathway through learning for each individual? Does it mean that the teacher’s role becomes more of an activator than a facilitator, that we need to be building the dispositions of lifelong learning rather than ensuring the learning takes place? If the answer to these questions is yes, then we need to radically re-think how we arrange learning in schools.
And if we don’t, we run the risk of holding on to a lot of practices from the bad old days
CORE staff are using Bundlr to collate links to articles and information relating to Ubiquitous learning in a Bundlr collection. There is the option for you to choose to follow the growing collection over the next few months.