ELI 2012 Conference - Featured Speakers

The annual ELI conference in Austin opened with a keynote address by Adrian Sannier from Pearson Publishing. It included this cheery quote from H.G. Wells, "Human history is more and more a desperate race between education and catastrophe."  Wells died in 1946 and as our speaker pointed out, we've been on the verge of a technological revolution for 50 years. So it would seem that while we've been preaching revolution we've been practicing status quo. The art of teaching in the classroom hasn't change for quite some time but there are signs of the disruption of the status quo from the bottom up as we see more and more access to expert information for free. There is a democratization of information that decentralizes and leverages expertise at the scale of the individual rather than in a classroom setting. The revolution is taking place all around us but it still hasn't taken place in the classroom. Faculty use LMS (learning management systems) but mainly for administrative purposes. This talk was a call (once again) for those of us in the technology field to drive innovation. Creative destruction has to happen at every level of the enterprise (ITS re-org anyone?). Are we still stuck because of the resistance to not challenging the status quo? As the discussion becomes more and more about the science of education and less about the art of education, it means that things are about to change. Some suggestions from our speaker include: community based research activity, new models of progress based collaboration and the discovery, and the creation and distribution of digital materials. Pearson Publishing has introduced Open Class (http://www.pearsonlearningsolutions.com/openclass/). What is OpenClass? Here's the info from the web page: "OpenClass is a dynamic, scalable, fully cloud-based solution that stimulates social learning and the exchange of content, coursework, and ideas — all from one integrated platform. Of course it has all the LMS functionality needed to manage courses, but that’s just the beginning. OpenClass actually advances education by using social technology to encourage collaboration and communication for students, faculty, institutions, and administrators around the world. OpenClass also features an idea exchange that will make it easy to find and share the latest teaching approaches, educational content, and curriculum."

As we begin to discuss the science of education we can turn toward studies in neuroscience. Janet Zadina, Prof. of Neuroscience at Tulane University (http://www.brainresearch.us/), gave a talk entitled "Multiple Pathways Model". Learning is a biological response to your environment. In the case of survival, learning is almost instantaneous. In other cases practice makes perfect. Because learning is the formation of new synapse and dendrite branches, you don't have the brain you were born with you have the brain you make. Zadina tells us that learning is not thinking. In order to help students learn we need to engage the frontal lobe, the place where the higher order of decision making occurs. You have to give the brain a hook, something that fires it. Then you provide meaning and real world application in order to wire it. Learning also requires a stress free environment. The human brain can't remember learned information in high stress moments. So the classroom should be an oasis. Some of the most important pathways (or modalities) involved in learning are:

  1. Speech and writing. Students need to form the articulatory pathway. This engages the brain in reassembling the information and will help to wire it. Using song is highly effective. I knew Schoolhouse Rock was awesome:
  2. Reward and survival. Because the brain is a natural pattern seeker, giving students the problem and allowing them to discover the solution will wire it in the brain.
  3. Engage the frontal lobe. New tasks require effort. Eventually (through practice) the effort won't require such a large cognitive load and the brain can shift to the learned pathways and use less effort. Until that happens, students cognitive load should be balanced by 10 minutes loading and a brief rest. The load can also be minimized by stopping distractions.

Rounding out the featured speakers we heard from S. Craig Watson from University of Texas on the digital divide. His article "Digital Divide: Navigating the Digital Edge" talks about how the digital divide challenges still exist despite the fact that black and Latino youth are more connected to networked media than ever before (http://theyoungandthedigital.com/2012/02/09/digital-divides-navigating-the-digital-edge/). What is the Digital Edge? It is a reference to a growing community of people who are challenged by low performing schools and economic challenges. Several years ago the divide was all about access but now, because of the ubiquitous use of mobile devices, the gap is about digital literacy rather than access. What is prevalent among students is interest driven participation - using digital media as a way to further engagement or learning. The kids are crafting their own learning ecology through YouTube tutorials, Google searches and social networking among like-minded individuals. Libraries are being set up in such a way to address this ecology of learning: an area to hang out, an area where kids might look around casually and areas where they can go further and dig deeper into a subject. The myth of digital natives is that they somehow already understand it all but, in reality, they still needs adults that can help them understand citizenship in their world. The traditional literacy needs to be in place so digital literacy can take place.

How does this inform my work as an instructional technologist at a university? First of all, my main focus is to assist the in dissemination of information about a particular subject to students. To that end we use lightweight tools: presentation tools, annotation tools, blogs, the creation of digital media (in all its forms), cloud-based resources, server-based resources, metadata, tagging, and crowd-sourcing options. By providing access to these materials, students have a small arsenal of tools and materials which will fire interest in their brains. Ideally we can build a framework where students can access materials in all its forms from various devices then reconstruct it in some fashion to help wire it through blogging, adding their own created and found digital materials and providing a forum for peer, faculty and mentor feedback.  The take away for me was not "this generation of learners will far surpass past generations because they are digital natives" but rather we have more options at our disposal to provide students with access to materials across a large number of devices then in previous years. It's still up to the faculty to provide meaning and context to those materials. Humans need other humans after all.