Educause 2013, Day 1

I’m having a great time at my first Educause. It turns out that being surrounded by thousands of IT professionals dedicated to making their organizations better is a heady experience. Sir Ken Robinson’s keynote this morning was enchanting. He is the kind of speaker who can mix demographics with science fiction and educational paradigms to create a captivating experience for his listeners. Though his message was similar to other talks of his I’ve seen, I was struck by the shared vision of creativity and innovation that he inspired in his listeners. My main takeaway from his talk was that we’re still at the beginning of the digital revolution and, given the kinds of challenges that we are facing with population and climate, we need to become even more creative in our endeavors. Educational systems need to reflect this priority rather than holding on to an outdated, industrial-revolution-era model.

This theme continued with a talk by Mimi Ito of UC Irvine. Mimi is a cultural anthropologist who studies the uses and cultural meanings of technology among young people. She made a great distinction between the ways that learning has changed, especially its new networked and socially-mediated dimensions, and the way that education has not changed. Like Sir Ken, she sees the educational system as based on an outdated paradigm, though she defines the old paradigm slightly differently: information scarcity. Thus she thinks that our current transition to information abundance should cause us to reconsider our educational models. She made an analogy that I found particularly insightful: when human beings lived in an age of caloric scarcity, our biological systems for storing and miserly use of those resources made great sense. In an age of caloric abundance those strategies no longer make sense (and, indeed, can be maladaptive), and our job as eaters becomes one of choosing our food wisely. Likewise, information scarcity leads to the kinds of educational models we still have today, like lecture-based classes and expensive textbooks. But this can (and perhaps should) change with the recognition that scarcity is no longer the reigning paradigm.

Two other things stood out to me in her talk. The first was her call for educators to use insights about how students learn outside of school to change the way that students learn in school, hopefully mediating the culture clash in learning modalities between the two areas. It turns out that students are learning quite a bit through outside-of-school online interactions, including an increasingly important technical literacy. And this idea is not new: Dewey talked about the potential seamlessness of education many years ago.

The second point that stood out to me was the distinction she drew between learning motivated by interest and learning motivated by friendship. The latter is learning that comes from one’s peer group, from keeping up with one’s friends of Facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets. The former is learning that students seek out because they are interested in something, be it web comics or programming or how to build a pumpkin-launching device (no, seriously). This learning does not necessarily have anything to do with their in-person social group, and in fact often creates a sort of distributed peer community organizes around a certain topic. Anyone with a particular hobby can tell you how deep this rabbit hole can go. Her point here, though, was that it may be important for educators to target the interest-based engagement rather than the friendship-based engagement in order to avoid the “creepiness factor” and engage students where there interests lie.

 

Though I went to three other sessions, the two referenced above were the highlights for me. I’m excited to see what Day 2 has in store – I think it will likely be great.

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