For centuries, the educational system embraced a one-way, broadcast model of learning. The teacher transmitted information from the front of the classroom to students who were supposed to absorb it and repeat it on demand. But new technologies, particularly the networked computer, open the doors to a more interactive, customized student-centred model.
Off-loading repetitive or mundane tasks to computers frees up valuable teacher time for the one-on-one problem solving that can be so critical to children's development and acknowledges their talents.
Proper interactive software tailors the learning experience for each child, after evaluating his or her abilities, learning style, and social context. Some critics suggest that we are in danger of over-emphasizing the use of computers in schools rather than teaching the basics. This is not the case. Computers/basics is not an either/or proposition. Computers are the basics. Students don't study basics instead of computing; students study basics using computing technology.
And with the Internet, the computer has also become the student's most powerful ally in an unprecedented voyage of discovery and learning, with the teacher playing the critical role of co-pilot.
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The topic is salt-water fish. The teacher divides the Grade 6 class into teams, asking each to prepare a presentation on a fish of their choice covering history, breathing, propulsion, reproduction, diet, predators and cool facts. The students have access to the Web and are allowed to use any resources they want.
Two weeks later Melissa's group is up first. They have created a shark project home page with hot links for each of the topics. The presentation is projected onto a screen at the front of the class as the girls talk. They have video clips of different types of sharks and also a clip from Jacques Cousteau discussing the shark as an endangered species. They then go live to an aquarium in Australia. The class asks questions of the aquarium staff but most inquiries are directed at the project team. One of the big discussions is about the dangers posed by sharks versus the dangers to sharks posed by humans.
Such projects are becoming common in advanced schools. The teacher is less an instructional transmitter and more of a facilitator to social learning. By bringing the Net into the classroom, the teacher's role is enhanced - challenging students, creating context, providing wisdom and structuring the learning experience.
Increasingly, students construct their own knowledge. Unlike their parents, Melissa's group will actually remember what they learned about sharks because the topic now interests them. More important, they are acquiring collaborative, research, analytical, presentation and resourcing skills. They are learning how to learn.
In my youth, a person went to school, learned a competency or profession, and then moved on to a career. Education and work were separate. Today they are inextricably entwined. Individuals must reinvent their knowledge base repeatedly as they move from one career to the next. We have entered the era of lifelong learning, and almost all of it will be structured around the Internet.
Today's youth are ready for this challenge. They are the first generation to come of age in the digital era. They are typically more sophisticated in their use of this technology than their parents. Call them the Net Generation.
When they are online their minds are engaged. They are reading, analyzing, authenticating, contextualizing, sorting the digital wheat from the chaff, composing their thoughts, criticizing. My research tells me this is creating a generation of smart, media savvy, innovative, collaborative youngsters who learn through interacting. This generation is exceptionally curious, self-reliant, contrarian, focused, able to adapt, high in self-esteem, and has a global orientation.
In the digital economy, such skills are essential elements, just as necessary as reading and writing. The economy and society these kids are growing into is very different than that of their parents and grandparents. Their destination is different and so is the route they must take.