We live in a world of rapid economic and technological change. Digital technologies permeate every aspect of our lives, affecting how we communicate, find and provide information, build relationships, trade and purchase goods and, critically, how we learn and teach. Increasingly, individuals bring to higher education rich experiences gained from a technologically enhanced world. Younger learners grow up using mobile devices, games consoles and other electronic equipment for communication and entertainment. Mature learners, meanwhile, are increasingly likely to have internet access at home and to use technology at work.
Government and employers look to formal education and training to make a significant contribution to individualsâ€Ÿ learning in this complex technological and economic world. At a personal level, the capacity of individuals to respond and adapt to change depends on their ability to learn throughout their lives.
Learning in a Digital Age explores ways in which technology can help higher education institutions meet the challenge of lifelong and work-based learning. Learning in a Digital Age is designed for individuals in further and higher education who have an interest in lifelong learning: academic staff, lecturers, tutors, learning support staff, learning technologists, and information, advice and guidance professionals.
First, the good news: in the years ahead, the declining cost of computation will make digital technologies accessible to nearly everyone in all parts of the world, from inner-city neighborhoods in the United States to rural villages in developing nations. These new technologies have the potential to fundamentally transform how and what people learn throughout their lives. Just as advances in biotechnologies made possible the "green revolution" in agriculture, new digital technologies make possible a "learning revolution" in education.
Now, the bad news: while new digital technologies make a learning revolution possible, they certainly do not guarantee it. Early results are not encouraging. In most places where new technologies are being used in education today, the technologies are used simply to reinforce outmoded approaches to learning. Even as scientific and technological advances are transforming agriculture, medicine, and industry, ideas about and approaches to teaching and learning remain largely unchanged. To take full advantage of new technologies, we need to fundamentally rethink our approaches to learning and education- and our ideas of how new technologies can support them.
When people think about education and learning, they often think about information. They ask questions like: What information is most important for people to know? What are the best ways to transmit that information from one person (a teacher) to another (a learner)? What are the best ways to represent and display information so that it is both understandable and learnable? It's not surprising that people see a natural connection between computers and education. Computers enable people to transmit, access, represent, and manipulate information in many new ways. Because education is associated with information and computers are associated with information, the two seem to make a perfect marriage.
This focus on information however is limiting and distorting both for the field of education and for computers. If we want to take full advantage of new computational technologies, and if we want to help people become better thinkers and learners, we need to move beyond these information-centric views of computing and learning.
Over the past fifty years, psychologists and educational researchers, building on the pioneering work of Jean Piaget, have come to understand that learning is not a simple matter of information transmission. Teachers cannot simply pour information into the heads of learners; rather, learning is an active process in which people construct new understandings of the world around them through active exploration, experimentation, discussion, and reflection. In short: people don't get ideas; they make them. As for computers, they are more than simply information machines, despite the common use of the phrase "information technology" or "IT." Of course, computers are wonderful for transmitting and accessing information, but they are, more broadly, a new medium through which people can create and express. If we use computers simply to deliver information to students, we are missing the revolutionary potential of the new technology for transforming learning and education. Consider the following three things: computers, television, finger paint. Which of the three doesn't belong? For most people, the answer seems obvious: "finger paint" doesn't fit. After all, computers and televisions were both invented in the twentieth century, both involve electronic technology, and both can deliver information to large numbers of people. None of that is true for finger paint. But until we start to think of computers more like finger paint and less like television, computers will not live up to their full potential. Like finger paint (and unlike television), computers can be used for designing and creating things. In addition to accessing Web pages, people can create their own Web pages. In addition to downloading MP3 music files, people can compose their own music. In addition to playing SimCity, people can create their own simulated worlds.
It is design activities such as these that offer the greatest new learning opportunities with computers. Research has shown that many of our best learning experiences come when we are engaged in designing and creating things, especially things that are meaningful either to us or others around us (e.g., Papert 1993). When children create pictures with finger paint, for example, they learn how colors mix together. When they build houses and castles with building blocks, they learn about structures and stability. When they make bracelets with colored beads, they learn about symmetries and patterns.
Like finger paint, blocks, and beads, computers can also be used as a "material" for making things-and not just by children, but by everyone. Indeed, the computer is the most extraordinary construction material ever invented, enabling people to create anything from music videos to scientific simulations to robotic creatures. Computers can be seen as a universal construction material, greatly expanding what people can create and what they can learn in the process (Resnick 1998).
Unfortunately, most people don't use computers that way today. When people are introduced to computers today, they are typically taught how to look up information on the Web, how to use a word processor, how to send e-mail. But they don't become fluent with the technology.
What does it mean to be digitally fluent? Consider the analogy with learning a foreign language. If someone learned a few phrases so that they could read menus in restaurants and ask for directions on the street, would you consider them fluent in the language? Certainly not. That type of phrase-book knowledge is equivalent to the way most people use computers today. Is such knowledge useful? Yes. But it is not fluency. To be truly fluent in a foreign language, you must be able to articulate a complex idea or tell an engaging story; in other words, you must be able to "make things" with language. Analogously, being digitally fluent involves not only knowing how to use technological tools, but also knowing how to construct things of significance with those tools (Papert and Resnick 1995).
Fluency with language not only has great utilitarian value in everyday life but also has a catalytic effect on learning. When you learn to read and write, you are in a better position to learn many other things. So, too, with digital fluency. In the years ahead, digital fluency will become a prerequisite for obtaining jobs, participating meaningfully in society, and learning throughout a lifetime.
Today, discussions about the "digital divide" typically focus on differences in access to computers. That will change. As the costs of computing decline, people everywhere will gain better access to digital technologies. But there is a real risk that only a small handful will be able to use the technologies fluently. In short, the "access gap" will shrink, but a serious "fluency gap" could remain.
In addition to rethinking our approaches to learning and education, we also need to rethink the technologies that we provide to young people. Most of today's computers were designed primarily for use by adults in the workplace. We need to develop a new generation of computer technologies worthy of the next generation of children. It's not enough just to make computers faster; we need to develop new types of computers. Today's youth are ready and eager to do more with computers. We need to provide the hardware and software that will enable them to do so. These new technologies might look very different from traditional computers. For example, my research group has developed a family of "programmable bricks": tiny computers embedded inside children's building blocks (Martin et al. 2000; Resnick et al. 1996). With these bricks, children can build computational power directly into their physical-world constructions, using the programmable bricks to control motors, receive information from sensors, and even communicate with one another. The LEGO Company now sells a commercial version of these programmable bricks, under the name LEGO Mind Storms.
Children have used our programmable bricks to build a variety of creative constructions, including an odometer for rollerblades (using a magnetic sensor to count wheel rotations); a diary-security system (using a touch sensor to detect if anyone tried to open the diary); and an automated hamster cage (using a light sensor to monitor the hamster's movements).
One 11-year-old girl, named Jenny, was very interested in birds, and she decided to use programmable bricks to build a new type of bird feeder. She started by making a wooden lever that served as a perch for the birds. When a bird landed, it would trigger a touch sensor, sending a signal to a programmable brick, which turned on a LEGO mechanism, which pushed down the shutter of a camera, taking a picture of the bird. The design-oriented nature of the project was clearly very important for Jenny. As she described it: "The fun part is knowing that you made it; my machine can take pictures of birds." At the same time, the project served as a rich context for engaging in scientific inquiry and learning science-related concepts. Jenny developed a deeper understanding of some concepts (such as mechanical advantage) that she had previously studied in school but had never really appreciated. She also began to work with some engineering concepts (related to feedback and control) that are traditionally taught only at the university level (Resnick et al. 2000).
Programmable bricks provided Jenny with "design leverage," enabling her to create things that would have been difficult for her to create in the past. At the same time, the bricks provided Jenny with "conceptual leverage," enabling her to learn concepts that would have been difficult for her to learn in the past.
Reforming Educational Reform
Increasingly, nations are recognizing that improving education is the best way to increase wealth, enhance health, and maintain peace. But there is little consensus on how to achieve an educated population, or even on what it means to have an educated population. Can progress towards an educated population be measured by counting the number of people in school? By the number of years they spend in school? By assessing their grades on standardized tests?
Every country in the world, it seems, has a plan for educational reform. But, in most cases, reform initiatives are superficial and incremental, and do not get at the heart of the problem. These initiatives often introduce new forms of testing and assessment, but leave in place (or make only small incremental changes to) existing curricula and existing teaching strategies. We need to reform educational reform.
Rethink how people learn.
We need to fundamentally reorganize school classrooms. Instead of a centralized-control model (with a teacher delivering information to a roomful of students), we should take a more entrepreneurial approach to learning. Students can become more active and independent learners, with the teacher serving as consultant, not chief executive. Instead of dividing up the curriculum into separate disciplines (math, science, social studies, language), we should focus on themes and projects that cut across the disciplines, taking advantage of the rich connections among different domains of knowledge. Instead of dividing students according to age, we should encourage students of all ages to work together on projects, enabling them to learn from one another (and to learn by teaching one another). Instead of dividing the school day into hour-long slices, we should let students work on projects for extended periods of time, enabling them to follow through more deeply and meaningfully on the ideas that arise in the course of their work.
Rethink what people learn.
Much of what children learn in schools today was designed for the era of paper-and-pencil. We need to update curricula for the digital age. One reason is obvious: Schools must prepare students with the new skills and ideas that are needed for living and working in a digital society. There is a second, subtler reason: new technologies are changing not only what students should learn, but also what they can learn. There are many ideas and topics that have always been important but were left out of traditional school curricula because they were too difficult to teach and learn with only paper, pencil, books, and blackboard. Some of these ideas are now accessible through creative use of new digital technologies. For example, children can now use computer simulations to explore the workings of systems in the world (everything from ecosystems to economic systems to immune systems) in ways that were previously not possible. Some ideas that were previously introduced only at the university level can and should be learned much earlier. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to transform curricula so that they focus less on "things to know" and more on "strategies for learning the things you don't know." As new technologies continue to quicken the pace of change in all parts of our lives, learning to become a better learner is far more important than learning to multiply fractions or memorizing the capitals of the world.
Rethink where and when people learn.
Most education-reform initiatives appear to assume that learning takes place only between the ages of 6 and 18, between 8:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M.-that is, when children are in schools. But schools are just part of a broader learning ecosystem. In the digital age, learning can and must become a daylong and lifelong experience. National education initiatives should aim to improve learning opportunities not only in schools, but also in homes, community centers, museums, and workplaces. In Denmark, for example, the Ministry of Education joined with the Ministry of Business and Industry to create Learning Lab Denmark, a new research lab that studies learning in all settings, in all stages of life. In the years ahead, the Internet will open up new learning opportunities, enabling new types of "knowledge building communities" in which children (and adults) around the globe collaborate on projects and learn from one another.
Towards the Creative Society
In the 1980s, there was much talk about the transition from the "Industrial Society" to the "Information Society." No longer would natural resources and manufacturing be the driving forces in our economies and societies. Information was the new king. In the 1990s, people began to talk about the "Knowledge Society." They began to realize that information itself would not bring about important change. Rather, the key was how people transformed information into knowledge and managed that knowledge. The shift in focus from "information" to "knowledge" is an improvement. But I prefer a different conception: the "Creative Society." As I see it, success in the future will be based not on how much we know, but on our ability to think and act creatively. The proliferation of digital technologies has accentuated the need for creative thinking in all aspects of our lives, and has also provided tools that can help us improve and reinvent ourselves. Throughout the world, computing and communications technologies are sparking a new entrepreneurial spirit, the creation of innovative products and services, and increased productivity. The importance of a well-educated, creative citizenry is greater than ever before. Children should play a central role in this transition to the Creative Society. Childhood is one of the most creative periods of our lives. We must make sure that children's creativity is nourished and developed, and we must help children learn how to extend and refine their creative abilities, so that the creativity of childhood persists and grows throughout life.
To achieve these goals will require new approaches to education and learning, and new types of technologies to support those new approaches. The ultimate goal is a society of creative individuals who are constantly inventing new possibilities for themselves and their communities.