Next Generation Learning
Over the three days of the conference the Next Generation Learning theme produced a number of rich and often intense discussions. This summary looks at some of the key questions that emerged from the theme and the answers that were generated through a ‘knowledge café’-style discussion by around 200 delegates, who in turn asked more questions!
How can we learn from ourselves and build on everything that has been achieved in order to shape the next generation of learning?
Delegates suggested that we need to fall out of love with technology and in love with people (e.g. learners, peers, institutions). There is a need to focus on pedagogy rather than ‘jumping on the technology bandwagon’. We need to share the truth about what works and what does not work.
Is technology at last becoming invisible?
Technology is becoming invisible as we become more reliant on it. Yet when it breaks it becomes visible again and we become helpless when there is no physical backup. While students may consider technology to be invisible, lecturers may not. We need to adapt in order to meet the needs of the new generation of ‘digital natives’.
Is the role/use of physical space being changed by the way we are using virtual space?
It was agreed that we all want to use space (both physical and virtual) in new ways. We want to exploit new technologies like Web 2.0, but we are all struggling in different ways with legacies from previous generations.
Is the locus of control of learning (already) different and what should we do?
The locus of control appears to change but it is only a superficial change. There is a difference between control and structure; both teachers and learners want structure, but how much control do we have - learners will use what they want to use. Assessment appears to be a driver for control; the locus of control is determined by who controls the assessment. One suggestion was to allow students to choose an appropriate technology to seek out their own learning; lecturers would however need to ensure students are kept on-message and on-track.
Is there a plot to conform to constructivism? If not, what are our guiding philosophies?
There is no plot! Learning style is dependent on the students’ context. It was felt that constructivist-based teaching methods could be too restrictive and counter-productive. The constructivist paradigm appears to be driven by dominant technology – but it must be remembered that one size does not fit all.
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Next Generation Learners
This theme focused on the needs, interests and attributes of learners themselves. For many conference participants, the image of 'next generation learners' was of students attending university or college, of 'traditional' students aged perhaps 18 to 24, more or less direct from school. As a result, there was considerable attention to the digital fluency of so-called ‘millennials’ and their much-discussed comfort with technologies ('digital natives' versus 'digital immigrants'), with relatively little attention to the army of non-traditional or mature-aged learners; informal, non-formal and work-based learning; or the potential linkages between knowledge management and e-learning.
Within the overall theme, one recurrent issue was whether prolonged early exposure to electronic games bestowed an advantage on younger learners, and if so, whether it was a lasting or only a temporary effect. There was also considerable attention to learners' changing attitudes toward individual authorship; the point frequently being made that knowledge claims encountered in cyberspace are increasingly considered to be 'common knowledge' or 'fair game.' Clearly this has important implications for issues of plagiarism, originality and the documentation of sources which, in turn, emphasises the need for education around information literacy.
It was stressed at the final session that e-learning is still learning, and that we should not be beguiled by the 'e' label: the means by which people access information should not be confused with how they use or apply it. Similarly, it was emphasised that many educators and trainers are using technologies (web sites, blogs, wikis, forums, threaded discussions, mobile devices, etc) not necessarily because they solve enduring pedagogic problems but in the mistaken belief that this will appeal to 'next generation learners', who, it is assumed, can only learn when knowledge is presented in bite-sized nuggets.
Perhaps the most truly transformational effect of new technologies will prove to be their ability to place learners in touch with experts, with other learners, and with an unimaginably rich range of resources - many of which were never intended as teaching materials. It is this which is likely to change to face of learning transactions in the years ahead.
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Next Generation Technology
As expected, this year's Next Generation Technology theme was dominated by applications and technologies of the Net. The most popular focus was the social software applications -notably blogs, community building tools, and various profiling and collaboration tools. A few attempted to tie these emerging social and personal tools together (to talk about, but sadly not to demonstrate) emerging 'VLE killers' known as Personal Learning Environments.
The news of the Blackboard patent application and their legal challenge to Desire2Learn (see the ALT web site for more details) provided a lightening rod attracting a more general sense of dissatisfaction with VLEs and their capacity to support innovation (how quickly the mighty can fall!). I was pleased to see the emergence of second generation object repositories that focus on the communities of production and use as we get beyond fighting about how and by whom the objects should be tagged. Aside from a few way-out demonstrations of next generation technology (wearable computers, 3-D television, etc) we also saw evidence that some of the past generation technology is finally working - notably voice input and response. In summary, the Next Generation Technology theme validated Yogi Berra's perceptive observation that "the future ain't what it used to be". And it looks exciting as well!
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Next Generation Providers
One of the key issues for the Next Generation Providers is who will provide the technology? Are we moving to a situation where the institutions provide the infrastructure to deliver the learning materials, but the learners provide the technology on which to access those materials?
In terms of support, can existing e-learning support services deliver next generation e-learning? It would seem that in many cases there is not yet a link between e-learning approaches and institutional drivers. There is no consistency of support between similar-sized institutions; where one might employ 15 staff to support e-learning, another has only 2. In the majority of institutions VLEs are used for content delivery; the use of assessment or discussions is negligible. How will things change to meet the needs of the next generation learners?
Benchmarking is a key issue and was addressed by a number of the sessions, but can benchmarking really get us to where we need to be? There are a number of methodologies, but which ones should we use? Is the process more important than the output? The end result should be about what needs to change and how we can facilitate that, not about league tables.
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Thanks to Gilly Salmon, Philip Candy, Terry Anderson and Julie Voce for providing summaries of the conference themes.