College students of yesteryear had to do their learning in the library and the lecture hall; college students of tomorrow may do theirs in something more similar to Second Life. That's one of the conclusions of a 2007 study of educational technology from EDUCAUSE and the New Media Consortium. Their 2007 "Horizon Report" (PDF) describes six key technologies that its authors believe will make an impact on education in the next one to five years:
User-created contentSocial networkingMobile phone integrationVirtual worlds for learningNew forms of scholarly publication, including wikisMassively multiplayer educational gaming
To quickly summarize the report: both user-generated content and social networking are expected to enter the educational mainstream within the next year. Already such tools are beginning to be used in college campuses across the US, although we hear from readers who are none too impressed with what their profs can do with the technology (exceptions exist, of course).
Mobile phones will become an "ideal platform for educational content and activities" in two to three years, as will virtual worlds, says the report. "The new scholarship" (publishing to wikis and blogs, for instance) will take root among scholars in four to five years. And massively multiplayer gaming, which we imagine will be like World of WarCraft with fewer orcs and more turtle-necked philosophers ("I hurl the +7 Derridean Argument of Deconstruction at your Unenchanted Shield of Rational Modernism!"), is also scheduled to come into its own within five years.
So will college classrooms soon look like a darkened Chinese gold farming operation with students pecking away desperately at their superpowered mobile phones? Will education consist solely of task-switching between chatting up friends, posting to blogs, and generally becoming a "part of the conversation"?
No. The report suggests that having students compare user-created content, for instance, "can give students a valuable perspective on their own abilities and inspire them to try new ideas or techniques." This is true, but in order to join the conversation, one needs something to say. If you've ever assigned groups of freshmen to give in-class presentations on course topics, you know that peer learning has its limits.
Most disciplines have at their core a huge body of source material and criticism; while this can be appropriated in many ways (iPods, for instance), it's simply not possible to replace the hard work of gaining all that knowledge. While the technologies discussed in the report will all play their parts in the educational process over the next decade, games, student-created content, social networking, and virtual worlds simply can't deliver that content well in its primary form (of course, there are some disciplines where this doesn't hold true).
To return to the user-created content example, the report points out that groups of students can successfully create reading and resource lists, and the example projects cover just this sort of ground. While this is certainly useful, it's really just organizing preexisting expert material; learners can't simply "generate" content in their discipline until they have mastered what's already out there. This is actually true of most of the technologies outlined in the report. Despite the hype surrounding such tools, they are useful for core learning in only a limited set of disciplines. For most programs, consuming and understanding large amounts of knowledge remains fundamental, no matter how much audiences today like to be in charge of their content or how many times Time magazine puts "You!" on the cover.
But the other key part of the educational process,thinking throughmaterial and debating it with others, seems perfectly suited to new technology. Such tools are good at creating all sorts of secondary learning opportunities: class discussion blogs, games that allow users to explore ancient Greece, or interdisciplinary networks formed via social networking tools.
For teachers, too, such tools will quickly gain prominence. Social networking helps professors link up with other interested researchers in their field. New publishing tools like blogging software and wikis are already producing fascinating new outlets for knowledge and argument, and one can certainly argue that good academic blogs are more helpful to the community as a whole than Yet Another Journal Article.
And of course there are certain disciplines where such technologies can play a more central role than in the sciences and humanities. Management courses, for instance, could make much greater use of social networking tools and role-playing in virtual worlds, while programs that focus explicitly on user-generated content (writing, photography, etc.) can make excellent use of tech tools like Flickr and Scribd and social networks. Archaeology can benefit from virtual worlds containing reconstructions of buildings and towns.
Educators need to be discerning in putting such tools to use. The report suggests, for instance, that virtual worlds might be useful as theatrical sandboxes, and it says that "productions from murder mysteries to westerns have [already] been staged in Second Life." Well, fair enough. One could use such tools to work on set design and blocking, for instance, but how much would someone learn about the craft of acting from sitting behind a computer? Is a college literature course that requires its students to build Second Life buildings in the syle of various cultures they have studied really doingthe best jobof teaching lit?Is modding Neverwinter Nights really the best way toteach students about investigative journalism?
Let's hope so, since if the report's conclusions are true, such tools will become far more common in the classroom over the next few years. Perhaps we have only a year or two before virtual worlds are common… three or four before edugaming is rampant. Start leveling up your turtle-neckedavatar now.
Props to the Chronicle of Higher Education for bringing the report to our attention.