Today’s students are used to highly social experiences. Outside class, they connect with global communities to socialise and have fun; but also to learn, share and grow. But when they sit in the classroom, they tend to have a far narrower experience because today’s classroom is still largely built on a 19th century model of education.
The traditional approach has a heavy focus on content, covering requisite materials and producing standardised outcomes to meet state and federal requirements. Some teachers, however, are exploring a new approach with the ‘flipped’ classroom, where the content is reviewed outside of class, allowing for more active and vigorous discovery and exploration in class.
The flipped approach is seeing rapid adoption in the K-12 and tertiary sectors, not just because it takes better advantage of valuable class time, but also because of an increasing range of high quality free educational resources that support this approach. Institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale University are making their entire courseware available and, in the K-12 space, sites like Khan Academy and TED provide valuable snippets that explore difficult concepts in easily accessible ways.
Far from diminishing the role of the teacher, these approaches reinforce how essential it is to have an expert guide. Students still need advice on how to identify the most pertinent and well-designed resources, to be guided on their learning journeys, and for a teacher to oversee the development of a healthy learning community where students learn from their peers in the classroom and beyond.
These approaches are well established in research; when students help each other learn, the entire class performs better. This improved performance has been validated in institutions from MIT to the University of British Columbia to Monash University. Where students develop an understanding themselves, using the language of their peers, it sticks deeper – leading to stronger performance in exams. And because students are playing an active role in the experience, they feel more engaged, so attendance and participation improve.
Even more powerful outcomes are possible with emerging technologies that allow students to collaborate visually and explore questions in open-ended ways. These ‘affordances’ provide new opportunities to teachers and students in the way they explore content and learn together. However, in moving from analogue technologies to digital ones, we have lost some of our previous affordances. Research indicates that ‘haptic’ experiences have a real impact on learning. We need to ask (and understand) how much should we focus on digital literacy if the technology is actually making us lose analogue skills that are critical to effective learning.
For example, studying with paper still has some benefits over completing equivalent tasks on a computer (because of the capacity to annotate, highlight and link concepts visually). Similarly, writing has clear cognitive benefits in learning that are not replicated through typing. For these kinds of reasons, Monash University has been encouraging teachers to adopt ink-based educational approaches. The high-quality inking experience of a Tablet PC is similar to writing on paper, and allows teachers to make complex annotations with sophisticated diagrams or mathematical equations.
One of the constraints of the modern classroom is content-heavy PowerPoint presentations. The content of a class used to be a dynamic experience, with whiteboards or blackboards, allowing teachers to create and explore in response to student understanding or enquiry. Prepared slides can restrict the teacher’s ability to dynamically adjust the approach or content but with a tablet PC, teachers get the best of both worlds – the richness of a PowerPoint slide deck with the dynamism of a whiteboard.
The benefits extend far beyond teacher flexibility. Research from Monash University shows that tablet-based teaching also leads to superior performance on exams. Why? Because the teacher is helping to ‘scaffold’ the learning experience. They signal key information, annotating and extending the presentation in ways that allow students to take part in the learning experience.
At Monash, we want to use the power of technology in effective ways. Sometimes technology can be distracting or limiting, but applied successfully, with a strong educational focus, technology can help to transform education. So, how can we create a truly transformational classroom with these new affordances?
From peer instruction research, we know that social approaches work effectively. This also reflects the needs of a global workplace and the realities of collaborative community, entertainment and commerce. However, many group-based approaches leave students feeling frustrated rather than energised and empowered. Too often, groups are mismatched in terms of skill and commitment levels. Some students want to excel; others are happy to pass. Some students want to be challenged with advanced materials, others are struggling with fundamental concepts.
In the best groups, these problems are also opportunities: advanced students can support the learning process of weaker students. But how can we foster
the development of healthy, well-matched collaborative groups? Let’s turn to the world of online gaming, where groups can form at short notice and quickly cohere to perform complex tasks: World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORG), a virtual world where 20 million people from around the real world join together to conquer near-impossible quests. New players are led by other players (and the system) through a range of missions that develop their skills to the level where they can usefully participate in team activities. Groups are then formed based on players’ skills and experience.
A crucial factor in the successful performance of a group is the roles that players take on. Teams require interdependent functions (attack, defence and repair). A team cannot succeed without all members contributing in their roles. If the defender decides not to play that night, the attackers will be wiped out. If the repairer decides to go to bed early, the defender will be wiped out – followed by the attackers – and if the attackers give up, the enemy will never be defeated. The only way for the team to succeed is if all members play their roles to the full extent of their abilities.
What if we translated this high performing team approach into the classroom? If each student took on a role where they are strong and confident, this would allow them to feel valued and respected for their performance, knowing that they individually contributed an essential component of the team’s success. Occasionally, they may also need to take on other roles to balance their development and extend their skills.
This approach leverages Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’, ensuring that students are stretched to the full extent of their abilities rather than being under-challenged or overwhelmed. The positive momentum of a strength fully applied also leads to greater satisfaction and more appetite for the task and the learning journey still ahead.
However, we need systems that facilitate the formation of high performing groups where each team member plays an essential role. What might these systems look like? One such approach is StackExchange, where, together, people can learn anything, from programming to philosophy. PeerWise is another such system, where students form questions and answers together, with badges and leader boards recognising their participation and performance in the community.
These approaches don’t quite incorporate the live classroom so, building on its award winning ‘MeTL’ collaborative classroom software, Monash University is developing an enhanced environment for collaboration that encourages group-based work and recognises individual, group and class-based performance.
In MeTL, students can share their teachers’ presentations, observe their annotations and add their own. They can also see their peers’ annotations and explore content and concepts together. They can respond to teacher prompts for multiple-choice questions or screen submissions. Soon, they will be able to explore each stage of the learning experience with their peers in a ‘learning analytics’ supported environment.
Learning analytics are a key emerging trend in education, allowing educators to move the focus from end-of-term assessments to in-the-journey real-time insight and feedback. Students will be able to review their own performance and adjust it to ensure they achieve their desired outcome. Teachers can review the class at individual and group levels, either to intervene or to review and adjust their style to better reflect that classes’ needs.
As a side benefit, students come to class with a more intrinsic appetite for learning: ‘what I need to know to extend my knowledge’ rather than the largely extrinsic approach of most classes (‘whatever the teacher wants to say’ or ‘how can I pass the exam’). This changes the classroom dynamics and makes the student a more active agent in the experience, even before introducing the group work elements.
Ultimately, this is the ownership we want to engender. We want students who are leaders of their own learning experience, who have the opportunity to understand their level of skill and how to push it to its limits and beyond. If we can develop technology that facilitates this kind of vibrant community, we will truly have technology that accelerates education – and a transformed classroom where learning is the focus for all students regardless of their abilities or technology preferences.