Learning with 'e's
The Learning with 'e's blog focuses on technology for the classroom. Steve Wheeler is a British academic, author, speaker and learning technologist. He is the Associate Professor of Learning Technology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Plymouth where he teaches on a number of undergraduate and postgraduate teacher education programs. He also tweets under the handle @timbuckteeth and has nearly 23 000 twitter followers at last count.
Steve believes that technology can be a major factor in driving change in classrooms, and a great way to enhance a student's creativity. "I always say to my colleagues, if you want the student to be creative, give them a camera and watch them go! The number of things they can do with that camera even without knowing what it can initially do for them is just incredible. You see some very creative actions emerging."
Are all kids inherently creative? "I think Ken Robinson originally said, 'Creativity is only imagination until you bring it out in some kind of act, or some kind of purpose.' Children have an incredible amount of imagination. So do adults, actually, but it's interesting that when you've been in school for a long time maybe when you are 12, 13, or 14 years old and in secondary school, your imagination tends to be stifled somewhat and your creative outputs reduce incredibly."
Steve has pointed out that there are tests on divergent thinking in children and adults. For example people are instructed to think about how many uses there are for a house brick or a paperclip.
Steve says, "When you are five, you can think of hundreds,
because there is no limit to your imagination but somehow by the time you are 14 years old you can only think of about ten. And as an adult, you can think of even less, because it seems almost as if school has knocked the creativity out of you!"
So what does Steve put this down to? "I think that's partly to do with the kind of 'factory' or the 'industrialised model' of education," he says, "but it's also to do with other things as well, like peer pressure and family life and so on." So does he think that technology could help with this?
"I think technology is not the only answer but it will help young people to be more creative and to put those creative acts "into being" through tools like cameras and mobile phones, for instance."
Steve is quite an advocate for game playing, citing the fact that it can help students retain the information and engage with it in new ways. However, it seems in the current school system, the older a student gets, the less "playtime" they are given.
Does this educator think that it could be possible (and beneficial) for secondary students and adult and university/college students to receive more time to 'play' while learning, for example, with games and active exercises?
Steve says, yes. "Absolutely, and in fact, I do I give my students a lot of playtime I give them new tools to play with I give them new ideas to kick around. It's a good way to experiment with making mistakes. What better way than finding out what those errors could be, except in a simulation, or a game?"
Steve points out that simulations and computer programs are often used to train many medical, armed forces and health students. These simulation 'games' allow them to practise their skills with games-based learning. These students can make their mistakes, and learn from them without having to endanger themselves or others.
In the past, it could be said that initially people thought computers were frivolous, gaming was just for fun, blogging wasn't a serious way to write and facebook was to be avoided. Times are changing, in particular, for advocates of social media. Is technology opening us up to how we look at these 'more disposable' forms of creativity? Does Steve feel that some teachers are slow to take up these new technologies?
Steve says, "Facebook is important because it's where young people are and if you want to know where young people are and what they are doing you need to go to Facebook. Any lecturer or teacher who is avoiding the use of Facebook because they think it's frivolous...well, they need to rethink and change their minds!"
Steve has a gentle warning for his co-educators, however. "They also need to be careful that they don't overstep the line – it's like 'down at the disco' – you go into Facebook and you try to use their language and you get it wrong and you look stupid. So don't try to 'get down with the kids' but do try to understand what they are doing!"
Some critics of the genre have mentioned that blogging is a 'disposable' form of journalism. Steve disagrees. "I don't think it is disposable; I think blogs are in a new culture, this new culture that has emerged. I wrote a book on this a few years ago called Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures: Cybercultures in Online Learning and in it we talked about a number of emerging cultures – things that are changing the paradigm, things that are disrupting what we've considered to be the social norms up until now.
And how does Steve think this will this affect mainstream publishing? "I have to say that a lot of publishers are getting worried, a lot of record producers and film makers are getting worried because their territory, their hegemony, is being eroded by these new technologies."
Steve says, "People are coming in and publishing for themselves, this kind of Levi Strauss notion of bricolage that started with the punk era of the 70s and the music and fashion industries."
"People started doing it (publishing) themselves, I was a punk musician and we created our own record label because we just couldn't break into the mainstream, so we sold our own vinyl disks, and distributed them ourselves. We created our own fanzines and so on, we didn't go though any publishers."
The educator continues, "In today's world things are different. One publisher came to me recently and said to me, 'Steve, we're very concerned because you are no longer writing, reviewing or editing for any closed journals – can we talk about this? You know, we're changing our models.' I told them, 'You're not changing them fast enough!' I've withdrawn all my support for closed journals I'm going for open access journals now, I'm going for blogging now, because it gains you a bigger audience."
The world of publishing information has drastically changed as new technologies have emerged: "For example, I produced two papers in 2006 and one of them took three years to publish in a closed journal. Three years is unacceptable in any sense, let alone the field of technology where things are changing. So I produced this paper, it was reviewed and (the publisher) sent it back to me. It took them 18 months to review it, because they couldn't find two reviewers (would you believe!) that would look at it and I sent it back to them with the corrections fairly quickly. It then took them another 18 months for it to appear in paper because of the backlog."
Steve feels (understandably) that this is an example of a wasted opportunity. "It was coming up to the time of our research excellence framework exercise; this is the time of year when everybody starts publishing," he explains. "The second paper was sent to an open access journal and it was reviewed by three people, openly. There was no blindness; I knew who they were, they knew who I was, and all the names were open."
Steve continues, "It was 'open review' and therefore had a kind of transparency. I am attracted to the openness of journals and blogs; you can usually see who is writing. Both versions of my papers were published online as were the review comments from the journal reviewers, as were my responses to them."
Steve parallels this to more traditional publishing: "My closed journal has had 36 citations to date and my open access journal has had 550. There's no comparison. Anybody who reads that paper can see where it comes from and the provenance of it, how it was responded to, and so on. For me, that's the future of publishing academically. Forget the closed journals, they are dead."
Blogs, journals, papers, social media, conventional news: there are so many creative resources in the marketplace now, it might be fair to say that many educators may not know where to begin when sourcing resources for their students. If an educator wanted to try to get started with new media in a classroom situation, what would Steve recommend?
"Firstly, I would suggest some kind of social media link," he says. "Obviously, you need hand held devices too, so those are the two things I would choose." Steve mentions that, "Handheld devices where students can move around are essential. The students should be able to take the portable devices with them, so they are not tethered to a table or desk. It's important that they can move around the space...they can go outside...they can use the hand held device anywhere," Steve feels that these things are the most essential to contemporary learning.
"Whether it's a mobile phone, an iPad, Android, whatever it is, it doesn't matter! As long as they can gain access to all the same resources as everybody else," he explains.
"The second thing I would recommend is some kind of social media link. I advocate Twitter, in fact I have Twitter walls in my classroom so we can converse not just with everybody within the group (with the back channel that Twitter offers) but also, we converse with experts outside the room, somewhere else in the world." Steve has been very progressive with adopting this technology.
"Twitter is really cool because they can actually converse with the authors of books they are reading," Steve says. "A lot of people are locked into my Twitter stream. I have over twenty thousand followers and when they see me tweet something out from one of the students, they will respond and it comes up live on the screen and the students think that it's amazing!"
So, does Steve find that the students are teaching the teachers about these technologies in some cases? When answering, Steve cites the opinion of an American-Canadian novelist:
"William Gibson said, 'The future is already here but it's just not evenly distributed.' What he means by that is, not everybody will adopt everything, there's always going to be innovators and early adopters and late adopters and laggards."
"My belief is that we all have a huge potential, to be who we want to be, to make sense of the world in new and creative ways to be creative in terms of inventiveness and in terms of how we connect with each other. I utterly reject the learning styles theories that exist that say, 'He's an analyst, she's a reflector, he's a pragmatist.' Each of us has the ability to all of those things in different contexts we just need to give people the opportunities to express themselves in these ways."
"I think Howard Gardener (an American developmental psychologist) has the most appropriate model where he talks about multiple intelligence – that each of us can specialise according to what we want to be. But we all have all of those elements inside us."
Looking towards the year 2020, could the classroom of the future have one kid at the front studying math and one kid at the back studying Shakespeare? Is that a good idea, or is there something to be said for collaborative group learning?
Steve says that this is already in effect in some places. "There's a school in Auckland called Albany Senior High School which is a very innovative school. They were one of the first schools I've seen to do this. Albany has open spaces, open software, open 'bring your own device' policies and the teachers there all teach in the same space and the students are allowed to move around between classes as they wish."
He continues: "This way, you are seeing a breaking down of the silos of curriculum, breaking down of the compartmentalisation, which is false anyway. It shouldn't exist as all subjects are related to each other and if you back to the great classic Greek educators they educated students in every which way all the time constantly asking questions."
Steve goes on to mention another example of modern 'deconstructed' education practices. "There's also a school in England called Skipton High School for Girls, which is innovating in different ways too. It's a girls' engineering college, it's the only one I know of anywhere in the world. It's a secondary school and engineering is at the heart of everything they do. This relates to design, ergonomics, how to use technology, how to apply science; all that is within their curriculum. They'll do things like study physics with music, or art with science, or maths with English."
Steve was there fairly recently. He says, "I asked one of the girls, she was only about 13 years old, during a presentation, 'What was it about doing all these curriculum things together that you like?' and she said 'It helps me to understand the world better.'
Steve, like many other educators is spreading the messages of new media in learning to other students and teachers who are ready to step up to new challenges in education.