The Faster Future of Learning

Jun 16, 2011

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As a teenager I read a science fiction book about a digital encyclopedia created in the future. It contained every scrap of information humanity had come up with. It made learning sound amazing since with a press of a button one would have everything ever written on a given subject. I was in love with the idea.

In the story, this was in the future, and yet, to a degree, here we are. The resources on the Internet don't represent everything known and it's not all in one system. But you can already access an incredible amount of information.

As technology has advanced there's been a steady stream of catch phrases in the education world like digital collaboration, virtual classrooms, web-based learning, and computer-based learning. One of the newest is mobile learning. But really- they're all variations on e-learning, the idea that teaching and learning can take place through an electronic device.

The idealized world of mobile learning has happy kids everywhere using mobile devices to learn things constantly. They're issued a device like an iPod Touch or Android tablet which they use in the classroom as a textbook and personal learning aid. Because it's electronic there can be other media built into the text. There can be simplified texts or more detailed examples depending on the speed of the individual student. Then after school, they continue learning with the device on the bus and at home. Happy administrators save money on textbooks and materials, since the virtual text for the devices will be cheap if not free. Smiling parents will watch their device-enabled child achieve great things.

While there may be some students that will fit into the dream of mobile learning, how many students do you know that would be walking around with an iPod Touch learning about physics, math, or history?

The fact is that successful students have always worked hard to achieve that success. Fifty years ago (and less!) that might have meant going to the library to get a bit more information or asking the teacher some more questions. And there have always been the students who have avoided going to the library no matter what. The difference between the past and the device-enabled present and future is speed. The student that wants to learn just has to press some buttons and they're off. The student that doesn't want to learn extends their hand the same distance and presses different buttons, and they're back to wasting time.

So here's a few pointers for you as you tuck a mobile device into your child's pocket expecting great things of them:

  1. Teach focus. Aside from the fact that they'll need it when they enter the workforce, your child needs to be able to focus on what they're learning to succeed. In the device-enabled classroom, their 'textbook' will also house their emails, IM and Facebook friends, Angry Birds, and... the entire Internet. I don't think anyone should expect that a child will keep learning on the bus or most of the time they're at home. But it's a life skill to be able to sit down to do something and actually do it.

  2. Teach skepticism. There's a lot of talk about the great content already available out there for students using mobile devices (although few are talking about device compatibility for that content). Unfortunately, lots of things online are incorrect, misleading, or intentionally deceptive. They say that history is written by the victor, but these days, it's written by anyone that wants to take a crack at it. Have you heard of Wikipedia? It's amazing and maybe the closest thing to the futuristic encyclopedia from that sci-fi story. But it's literally editable by anyone anywhere. So when I did a search for my own name a couple months back on Google, a Wikipedia entry for a British soccer player came up. At the end of the entry it mentioned that he's now a web developer at ContentWatch. I'm not a former British soccer player and he's not a current web developer at ContentWatch, but someone decided that we were the same person. I've since fixed it. The point is, information is plentiful online but so is opinion and error. Teach your kids to learn wisely.

  3. Teach good behavior. Whether you're teaching your children a moral code or some simple ethical behavior, make sure they understand what is and is not appropriate. Handing someone one of these devices, even with safeguards in place to enforce good behavior, is dangerous. You're opening up the world to your child and in a sense opening up your child to the world. One hundred years ago, a child's reality would be framed almost entirely by his or her parents. Now that is not the case. Cyber-bullying, identity theft, online predators are all threats that a mobile device makes more possible. Then there's pornography and other objectionable content- as available on those devices as the things we hope they will be learning about. Make sure they know what is right for those times when no one is watching them.

Enmeshed in the bright possibilities of learning in the future will be the continued need to teach attitudes and behaviors that will help learners be successful. That success will not be simply based on whether they have a learning device- success will still be up to the learner even though it will be easier and faster to learn than ever. It's definitely an exciting time.