From the beginning of our existence, humans developed their own way of mastering their environment. We learned by interacting with our surroundings and we developed tools, learned to gather and to hunt, formed villages, grew crops, built shelters, and formed ever-more complex communities. Throughout early human history, learning meant survival. Our very existence depended on actively engaging our environment, often through trial and error to better understand what we could manipulate and what we could not. We did this through many generations long before the introduction of our current model of formalized education. For most of our history, we favored self-directed inquiry linked to what we considered relevant needs and interests. Humans are explorers that want to be at the center of the exploratory process.
"Our college campuses have new roles as faculty become facilitators and framers of learning activities that give students more opportunity to self-navigate"
As human kind gained a larger knowledge base; we created a growing pool of specialized expertise and established disciplines of study. At the start of the 13th century formalized higher education took root. Within these disciplines of study, we addressed a new need of imparting this knowledge by means of lecture. With the exception of active research in these unique fields of study, we began a shift toward educating more passive recipients of knowledge. We also lost some of the existential nature of learning that drove our ancestors to make critical connections that would ensure their survival and their ability to flourish. In the classroom, passive learning replaced much of the active and engaged learning of the past. What we gained during this time in specialized knowledge was unfortunately offset by our inability in the classroom to leverage the natural curiosity of our students to make connections on their own that might even expand the work of previous generations.
Today’s data stores, information resources, and educational tools readily accessible through pocket devices has empowered our students to return to their “learning roots” where self-navigation, problem solving and “just in time” learning yields new knowledge and a new understanding. This is clearly the next step in human evolution since we are no longer hindered by an instructor’s interpretation alone but can navigate content and resources across authors and disciplines to see things others might miss or to solve problems relevant to our generation. For the first time we have a new world to navigate albeit virtual.
Implications Run Deep
The implications for higher education run deep. Do we still need to pool smaller groups of experts, students, and knowledge resources in one physical location for effective learning? Can online learning and MOOC’s provide a more robust venue for active and engaged learning? Should we adopt a more open curriculum like Amherst College in order to allow students greater flexibility in navigating the learning process toward a specific need or purpose? How might we support an empowered generation of students that want more say in directing their unique learning journeys and wish to leverage their individual strengths and unique interests along the way?
Consider the implications of Wikipedia which has been shown to be as accurate and thorough as any of the leading encyclopedias yet the model employs contributions from the masses and not from a few credentialed experts. Possibly our instructional approach might need to be more learner centric and learner driven. Consider what has also happened in the health profession as patients now expect a dialogue with their doctor as they come to their appointment armed with sound knowledge of their condition as well as available treatment plans through reputable online sources. Are these doctors not adjusting to a different kind of patient-doctor relationship beyond the role of sole interpreter of medical knowledge?
It is curious that during this time of technological change, cognitive constructivism has gained traction as a learning theory. The Berkeley Graduate Division states that “Cognitivist teaching methods aim to assist students in assimilating new information to existing knowledge, and enabling them to make the appropriate modifications to their existing intellectual framework to accommodate that information”. They go on to indicate that knowledge is actively constructed and learning should be presented as a process of active discovery. Our approach to learning for most of human history now has a name and the technology revolution was the catalyst for this. In much of today’s educational literature, constructivism and technology go hand in hand.
In the end, it is not the software or the gadgets but the opportunity all of this technology brings to leverage our natural instinct to learn by doing.
Back to the Future
Now let’s get back to what we know best. Whether we are “flipping the classroom”, implementing library discovery labs, podcasting, using mobile apps for math tutoring, creating digital artifacts, promoting visual literacy, experimenting with MOOCS, engaged in blended learning, developing collaborative high-tech learning spaces, exploring adaptive learning systems, or configuring virtual science labs, we are handing over the reins to our students so they can learn through active engagement, collaboration and self-directed inquiry.
For the first time, we have new capabilities to fully explore knowledge obtained in past generations and to create new knowledge and understanding through the connections we make. In addition, our college campuses have new roles as faculty become facilitators and framers of learning activities that give students more opportunity to self-navigate. Learning is a journey that each student must own with some level of self-direction.
I believe there will still be residential colleges and universities into the future but probably not as many. Those that remain would have found a way to transform their institutions in ways that truly put students at the center of their learning experience. Technology has raised that bar.