Technology turbocharges a new educational philosophy

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In this article I add a couple of points to my ongoing analysis of the new educational philosophy that is becoming apparent to me, and then I describe how technology makes this superior experience more frequently available to more people.

A new educational philosophy for large classes

In this article I proposed that the way to provide a great education at a lower cost is based on the concept of community:

Students have to feel they are part of a supportive and available educational community — as both givers and receivers of that support — as they strive toward personally relevant goals.

I have previously emphasized some concepts underlying this philosophy:

  • Project-based learning is one key
  • Students as both learners and teachers
  • The student must have some motivation for learning and participating.
  • One of a a professor’s key areas to focus on, especially during the first phases of a semester, should be toward building connections with the students and among the students.

There is a sense in which none of this is new — I myself participated in just such an experience in my classes at Furman University. I had many very small classes (less than 15 students; some less than 10) and formed close connections with students and professors. We worked on significant projects, we were expected to take responsibility for our own learning, and we frequently taught other students both in class and out.

What is new here is that this philosophy is to be extended to much larger groups of students. The never-ending hours of the sage on the stage delivering a PowerPoint lecture to a large, uninterested, an uninvolved audience is to be forever banished to our memories (and hopefully forgotten soon after that). Recent changes in attitudes and technologies have given hope to those people who want to reinvent education.

Competence and gamification

In my previous discussions, I have forgotten two additional points that I am adding here:

  • Competency-based focus
  • Gamification of learning

In this first point, the idea is that education should no longer strictly be about pitting the students against each other and seeing who does better. Increasingly, the goal is to get students to achieve a level of competency. Professors have always known that our measures of “goodness” are inexact. We hope they are generally correlated with knowledge in a specified field, but we know that applying decimal points to the measures we use is putting too fine of a point on it. In many instances we should acknowledge this reality and simply certify that a student has reached a satisfactory level of competency.

Note that this switch is not solely of interest to students and faculty. It will require some cooperation from other constituencies who value the ranking that we do within our classes. Think about organizations who hire our graduates and graduate schools who enroll them. What would they think about seeing a large number of “competent” check-marks on a graduate’s diploma? How and when would they determine which of our graduates were our best students? Should we care? (My guess: Yes, we should, at least in the short run.)

For the second point, the gamification of the learning process in a sense explicitly recognizes what every student who gets good grades knows: If you want to get a good grade, then figure out what the professor wants, and do more of that. Gamifying a class makes what the professor wants fairly clear or, at least, determinable in a shorter time frame. Feedback, by definition, comes quickly and directly. “Did I get a trophy/points/badge?” If so, the student did well; if not, then he/she needs to do something else. This gamification can support the move toward building a process that leads towards competency; it can support the process of completing a project; it can support students in their roles as student and teacher; it can provide some extrinsic motivation where the intrinsic motivation might be lacking. In short, gamification is can be a powerful tool in this move towards the new philosophy of education.

Photo used under (CC BY-NC 2.0). Photo by ThomasHawk at

Technology makes all of this more frequent and feasible

With the development of and focus on new educational technologies, as well as with the successes of classes delivered by Udacity, there is real hope that the new educational philosophy can take hold at a large scale. Technology extends the capabilities and influence of professors and students. They can both reach farther; they can both create far more things (both real and virtual) than they ever could before. Simply: they are empowered to teach and learn in new ways.

Technology also supports different communication patterns. Traditionally, students have been assumed to be learning when the professor is delivering material to them. Students talking to the professor? That is either an “interruption” or a “question”. And let’s just ignore the “students talking with other students” part. Both of these were not what learning was about. But now? We recognize that some of the most important interactions occur when students are talking with other students or when students lead the professor to consider something in a different light. Students are highly qualified to teach other students; they generally have very good insight into how these other students are thinking and what types of problems they might be having; they can communicate in the other student’s language directly to the problem that they are having. Use technology to support and rewards this type of communication. Improved learning could be the result.

If these other communication patterns are so important, then why have they been relegated to the sidelines? Why, indeed. Probably because they were done outside the limelight, away from the arenas in which the “serious learning” was, in theory, taking place. With technology, and with the recognition of the importance of this other communication, the hope is that we can now capture, support, measure, and reward it so that it gets more frequent and more meaningful.

We must also remember that everybody’s different. And we differ in different dimensions. The power of technology allows us to track, and learn about, and respond to each of our students differently. It allows us to move away from the lock-step madness with which we have been infected. We can think “what does this student want?”, “what does this student need?”, and “what is the most appropriate thing for this student to be doing?” These are questions that we couldn’t allow ourselves to think when teaching large classes. It would lead to too much work, and it would be seen as being “unfair” or giving “preferential” treatment. With developing educational technology, the hope is that every student might receive this “preferential” treatment and that it might become the norm rather than the very rare exception.

Wrap up

As Sir Ken Robinson says, let people do something they are good at and that they are passionate about, and good things will follow. Using educational technology in the right way seems to empower faculty to create a learning environment that allows students to do just this. It allows us to teach more students in this way. It empowers students to teach other students. It empowers the professor to think about personalizing the educational process for the student. All of these changes should make it clear that it is not the new technology that is creating all of the excitement in education circles — it is the changes that it enables that has people talking about a revolution in education.

To a large part, it is up to us to act, to try things out, and to learn in the best possible situation. With that as a goal, why shouldn’t we give it a try?

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