Innovations in Social Learning: From Print-based to Digital Environments

May 2, 2011

When a classmate introduced me to Michael Wesch’s 4.5-minute video The Machine Is Us/ing Us on YouTube a few years ago, I sat in stunned silence for quite a while. Because it introduced me to Web 2.0 in a uniquely visceral way. Showed me that the world had changed significantly while I had been asleep intellectually and socially. And because I knew I would be working through the thoughts inspired by that brief video for months, if not years, to come.

I had the same reaction two nights ago when I finally made the time to watch the online archived version of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100-minute Panel Discussion on Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century and immediately followed a link to see Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century,  the 50-minute PBS program which is at the heart of the Panel Discussion program.

To say that all trainer-teacher-learners should watch, think about, and discuss how the content of these two beautifully interwoven presentations is already affecting what we do is to underplay the significance of programs’ content.

Both presentations are forward-looking, as suggested by inclusion of John Dewey’s reminder that “If we teach today’s students as we did yesterday’s, we are robbing them of tomorrow.” And both shows document the growing impact of what Karen Cator, Director of the office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, calls the transition from print-based classroom learning to a digital learning environment in one of her contributions to Panel Discussion.

While the focus of both programs is on education for students not yet in college, the message for all of us is: if we don’t learn from how these students—members of our future workplace learning and performance audience—are learning and if we don’t effectively apply those social learning techniques to what we are offering our adult learners, we’re going to become obsolete as learning leaders.

Cator—just one of several first-rate and thoughtful Panel Discussion presenters—overtly reminds us that “We have an incredible opportunity to transform learning into a deeply social experience, one that can leverage mobile technologies, social networking, and digital content. We can leverage the long tail of interest and design education environments that include prior experience, outside-of-school experience, multiple languages, families, the community, all the places that students live and breathe…”

It’s a change many of us are noticing as we acknowledge and attempt to foster the growth of new onsite and online spaces in our lives—social learning centers (also referred to as learning environments). And both programs—the Panel Discussion and Learners of the 21st Century—provide plenty of encouragement for those efforts by showcasing five innovative programs and projects.

There’s Quest to Learn, a school for digital kids. The Digital Youth Network and its fabulous YOUMedia collaboration for teens with the Chicago Public Library. The Smithsonian Institute’s digital scavenger hunt. Middleton Alternative Senior High’s augmented reality project in Middleton, Wisconsin. And the Science Leadership Academy sponsored by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.

And there are the voices of the students themselves. Engaged. Confident. More articulate and innovative than many people twice or three times their age. And the sort of people all of us should very much look forward to working with very soon in our own workplaces and learning environments.


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