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THE MODERN LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
The sociologist Mark Prensky coined the term “Digital Natives” to indicate all people who were born during or after the development of technology and “Digital Immigrants” everyone who wasn’t born in a digital world but who introduced technological tools in their life over time. Today’s students are Digital Natives because they are constantly surrounded by technology: computers, tablets, smartphones and social media are parts of their everyday life. They are multitasking, they study by using links, videos and graphics, resort to the Internet to search for information and social platforms to share their life experience with other people. These new digitals means have made life easier and better in every way and have allowed new generations to think and live in a completely different way or rather, in an interactive way. All generations prior, including teachers and educators, can be defined as Digital immigrant because they had to adapt to the new technological environment and started to disseminate knowledge in a different way.
In today’s society technology has become an integral part of all aspects of our lives: at home, at work and particularly at school. A modern teacher gives a lesson by using the laptop to show their students slides, links and online documents but when he tends to speak faster how is it possible to write all notes and information? The answer to this question is: virtual learning environment (VLE), a web-based platform that allows professors to share learning material with their pupils. According to this, computers and tablets are replacing textbooks and learning on blackboards is turning into learning on interactive whiteboards. But what is the reason for this change? Children who were born around the 2000s, grew up in a technological world so it’s easier for them to use digital means in life and in class. These tools constitute a great resource capable of improving skills and creativity, they have been created with the aim of helping students in their tasks, facilitating learning and ensuring greater efficiency between teachers and learners.
The revolution of eBooks
A research conducted in 2014 has shown that less than 5% of today’s students are not really interested in reading books on their own but they buy them only when they are obligated because of a text. Since young learners were born and live in a technological world, their brains have adapted to learn through digital means, for this reason technology could be a good solution to this problem and make studying and reading more interesting. According to this, nowadays primary, secondary, high schools and universities have provided the opportunity to use Ebooks, namely books in a digital format that students can purchase or download by using a computer, laptop, tablet or their smartphone. Amazon created the Kindle in 2007 and Apple introduced its first Ipad in 2010; a recent survey revealed that 47% of eBook readers use the Kindle and 32% use the iPad (GPI, 2011).
There are meaningful advantages in using these digital means in class. Pupils can have access to all downloaded books at the same time without an internet connection so they can refrain from filling their school bags with heavy textbooks and risking that they break.
Ebooks have many functions: they make it possible to highlight the most important information, take notes and add bookmarks. Students can also connect their devices to interactive whiteboards in order to download documents which can include graphics, images and links connected to specific websites. Thanks to this function they are more encouraged to participate in school discussion and they can enrich their educational experience.
Another point to consider concerns the environmental impact of textbooks. In 2008 Green Press Initiative and the Book Industry Study Group did a report on environmental impact of printed books and they concluded that U.S book industry cut about 30 million trees that year. According to this findings, schools, colleges and universities can significantly lower the costs by introducing digital means for learning. Clearly, if eBooks are misused they can cause negative consequences such as online distractions, for this reason, it’s important that every person is aware of their proper use.
The benefits of learning platforms
A learning platform is an online application that provides information, tools and resources for teachers, learners and parents in order to ensure efficiency and efficacy in communication within the school and the local environment. Nowadays learning platforms are used in primary school, college and universities and they support the management of the learning and teaching by means of email, blackboards, discussion forums and blogs.
An effective learning platform in educational institutes can offer several benefits to teachers because they can:
- share learning material with their scholars so that they have the possibility to print it before class or just download that files and take notes directly on their tablets;
- inform students about tasks and assignments;
- receive submissions of work from learners;
- reply to queries through discussion forums or emails;
- manage the timetable and lesson plans;
- improve the quality of information they give to parents about their children’s school career.
To students because they’re allowed to:
- have access to learning material from laptops and mobile devices 24 hours a day;
- download slides and documents and focus on them before class;
- communicate effectively through discussion forums with teachers and other learners;
- submit homework and projects;
- carry out self-assessment quizzes to test their acquired knowledge;
- check if there are changes to the timetable and lesson plans.
To parents because they have the possibility to:
- be informed about school activities, marks and attendance in class;
- improve communication with teachers and school;
- participate actively in children’s learning and support them in doing homework.
Social media within the university
Another aspect I want to focus on is the importance of social media, particularly within the university. They can be defined as web-based applications that allow people to communicate, share information, ideas, pictures, videos and build relationships.
The use of social media by university students grew quickly in the last 10 years, from 12% in 2005 to 90% in 2015 with the introduction of smartphones, tablets and laptops (Perrin, 2015).
Nowadays universities use social platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Youtube to share what happens on campus and the events they organize. This is a good idea particularly for incoming students who have to choose the college, so they can get an idea of how campus life is.
As far as my Erasmus experience I have noticed that my foreign university uses communication tools such as Email to answer students’ questions, inform them about changes in the timetable and give them specific information. But there are also Instagram and Facebook pages that are very useful for Erasmus students: UCD created an own group “Erasmus & International Students 2018” with the aim to support student exchange and build a community in which people can know each other, share its ideas, opinions, experiences and talk about events and activities on and off campus.
But can social media be used to support learning activities in university? On one side they can be useful in learning because thanks to Whatsapp or Facebook groups, students have the possibility to share class notes, documents and skills and therefore enhance their academic performance. On the other side, social media become a form of distraction when students use them in class for personal purposes and don’t pay attention to the lesson. A survey conducted on 2 February 2016 from 675 undergraduate and graduate students in 26 states between 18 and 22 years of age and published in Journal of Media Education, shows that around 95% of college students are distracted by social media during class because they use it for non-educational purposes. According to this results, a real engagement in learning depends on students who have the responsibility to use social media efficiently, only in this way they can be helpful.
The power of Assistive Technology
Assistive Technology consists of various services that help students with learning disabilities improve their capabilities. The aim is to support them in education and give them the possibility to be part of the community like all the other pupils.
There are different types of assistive technology devices that allow students to be more successful in several skills, such as writing, reading, listening, doing mathematical calculations and memorizing. Some of the writing Assistive Technology tools are:
- Speech Recognition, the child can do written assignments by speaking to the computer and the system has the function of converting what he/she says to text. If it hears a wrong word it shows on the monitor a list of other solutions so that the student can choose the right one.
- Proofreading, they consist in checking grammatical errors and spelling.
Some of the reading and listening Assistive Technology tools include:
- Tape Recorders, the child who has reading disabilities can listen to the recordings of texts or printed materials instead of reading them.
- Microsoft Word, it’s the most commonly used among teachers to highlight keywords and specific parts of the text so that students can better focus on them.
- Listening Systems, they have the function of making the child understands what the teacher is explaining.
A digital device which helps pupils affected by dyscalculia is:
- Electronic Mathematics Worksheets, they enable the child to do math problems on a computer that is capable of reading aloud the numbers.
Finally, the technology services that support students with memory problems are:
- Free-form databases, they allow children to type notes that will serve as reminders.
- Prewriting organizers, these systems have the function of creating topics for written projects.
Education doesn’t just mean reading books, studying and taking texts, education allows students to understand what happens in the world, which are the values of life and thanks to this progress and the introduction of Assistive Technology, more and more children with learning disabilities have the access to schools. They finally have the possibility to change their life by participating actively in class discussion and building relationships with other students.
Bill Gates said: “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important”.
Technology has the power to improve the quality of teaching by making students’ learning more attractive and efficient but even so, it could never replace a good teacher. Technology has made available the education for those students who have a limited access and has given disabled learners the opportunity to improve their capabilities and live a better life. Technology has enabled the teacher, students and parents to establish an ongoing communication between them capable of enhancing parental involvement in their children education. Technology has allowed kids to learn in an interactive way: they have been the possibility to search for any information online with a click of the mouse, download pdf, images, videos from Internet, learn a language through specific websites, or by taking an online course, or just by watching streaming films in foreign languages. Technology is necessary in today’s world and education but we must not forget the important role that the teacher plays in the classroom. He provides information for students and teaches them how to use them properly, he supports pupils in their learning by giving them all means to be successful in the assessments, he has the responsibility to create a good environment in which students can grow up and develop skills and, above all, his real goal is to educate them to have critical thinking skills and therefore be able to express their own opinions, justify them and find solutions to all sorts of problems.
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