Learning in the 21st Century (Part Three)

I recently had the privilege of talking to a group of parents about the culture of schools and the education that their children were receiving during what is clearly a transitional phase in the history of education.

Many of the parents were very worried about their children and with some justification. This was a boy’s high school and the parents were concerned that their sons were spending an inordinate amount of time on computers as well as playing video games. I put up a slide with the words moral panic written in bold and this seemed to describe their feelings — a combination of hostility, fear and acceptance.

However, my intention in putting up the slide was not to reinforce the moral panic that they were feeling, but rather to explore the implications of the shifting cultural space now occupied by a generation that lives within the “net.”

Distinctions between online and offline life are no longer relevant nor are they germane to the way people learn. The continuum of relationships set up through mediated environments will only become more complex as societies explore the many layers of information and knowledge that now define not only relations among people but also among societies.

We are living within a period of history that is not dissimilar to the massive changes experienced during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These changes were as much a product of scientific invention as they were of fundamental social change. In fact, a key feature of that period was the advent of real scientific solutions to previously difficult challenges. At the same time, many old ways of thinking had to change as science gave empirical explanations for what had hitherto been thinking based on religion or superstition. 

Social and cultural changes ‘dislocate’ societies in various and often-unpredictable ways. For example, the Internet makes schools not so much centres of learning, as social spaces for the exploration of relationships, which may include immersion in particular disciplines but not in the manner to which we have become accustomed over the last fifty years. The issue is not only the availability of numerous venues for learning, but also comes down to the choices students make and the emphasis they place on learning experiences in different places.  

As John Falk and Lynn Dierking emphasize in a recent and brilliant article in American Scientist, (Nov-Dec 2010 issue) students spend only five percent of their lives in the classroom and learn most of what they know about the sciences outside the classroom. “We contend that a major educational advantage enjoyed by the U.S. relative to the rest of the world is its vibrant free-choice science learning landscape—a landscape filled with a vast array of digital resources, educational television and radio, science, museums, zoos, aquariums, national parks, community activities such as 4-H and scouting and many other scientifically enriching enterprises.” (p. 486)

Since Falk and Dierking are talking about K-12 as well as post-secondary, it would not be too hard to extrapolate an even lower percentage of university students for whom the classroom is the main venue for learning. This raises interesting issues for policymakers who have focused all their efforts on grading and testing while not recognizing that informal modes of learning are the dominant mode of learning.

I believe that parents are worried because mediated environments can lessen social interaction and can decrease if not eliminate the qualities of everyday conversation so essential to our well being. They are also worried because the information on digital culture is itself so contradictory. Statistics appear everyday from varying sources that suggest a whole variety of impacts caused by the swift appropriation of the Internet for nearly everything we do on an everyday basis. This is so to speak more of a source for the ‘panic’ than the actual engagement of children and adults with digital experiences.

In part four, I will look into the issues of moral panic and digital culture in greater detail with an emphasis on the importance of this discussion for learning and education.