How technology is changing education

By Catherine Gall, Vice-President of Education Business at Steelcase

When a Stanford University professor offered a free online course in artificial intelligence in 2011, he had no idea that the experiment would attract 160,000 students from 190 countries and generate a wave of publicity.

That’s one of many examples of how technology is reshaping education around the world. From the rapid proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs), to the widespread use of mobile devices that support a variety of “blended learning” models (part online, part bricks-and-mortar based), technology is creating new challenges and opportunities for educational institutions of all types, from early education to universities.

“Technology is changing the dynamics of education, especially the relationship between teachers and students,” says Andrew Kim, a Steelcase WorkSpace Futures researcher. “As educators begin to rethink the learning experience, we believe it will be important to also reshape educational spaces to support this evolution.” Andrew is a member of the Steelcase Education Solutions team that has been investigating the spatial implications of learning and technology. So far, the study has involved observing and interviewing students and teachers at 20 schools.

Among the fastest-growing trends at all levels of education is the use of laptops, tablets and other mobile devices. As recently as a few years ago, mobile devices were used almost exclusively as a substitute for handouts, books, paper and pens. Today, however, these technologies are beginning to transform how instruction and learning actually take place.

Teachers are using technology to replace old models of standardized, rote learning and create more personalized, self-directed experiences for students. There’s more multi-device synchronization with software that supports collaboration and more support for virtual conversations, both within and beyond a classroom. And more students and teachers are creating their own digital content, including animations and videos.

“If you think of classrooms as places where knowledge gets created, instead of consumed, they have similarities to innovation studios.”

Much of the information that only teachers possessed is now available to students online, and the role of teachers is changing. Instead of using class time to spoon-feed information, technology is helping them use their time with students to advance problem-solving, communication and collaboration.

“More and more, classrooms are becoming places where knowledge is created versus consumed by students,” says Andrew. “As students start to have more control over what they use to help them learn, you need spaces that support more creative or generative activities. Providing a palette of place, posture and presence—i.e., virtual as well as face-to-face interactions—is as important in educational spaces as it is in workplaces, for many of the same reasons. In fact, schools are beginning to leapfrog corporations in the use of mobile devices and many are facing the related challenges head on.”

Blended learning programs combine online and face-to-face interaction. Just one of many examples is the flipped classroom model, in which students access content online outside the classroom as homework ,and then apply this new knowledge in discussions or group work.

Blended learning can cut costs, which makes it popular in today’s challenging economy. There are also early signals from several studies that suggest giving students more control over how they access information can be more effective than face-to-face or virtual learning.

“As educators begin to rethink the learning experience, we believe it will be important to also reshape educational spaces to support this evolution.” 

Because blended learning changes the role of the educator to become more of a facilitator and coach, there’s a growing use of para-educators who work alongside teachers to manage online learning and help with classroom activities. There are also spatial implications. Schools are dramatically reducing the amount of space allotted for classrooms, instead creating large open areas for self-directed learning.

Colleges and universities, while embracing various forms of online learning, are also looking for ways to build student-teacher engagement and monitor performance. Teachers have always been very aware that schools engender social learning as well as cognitive learning, and so the search for adding physicality to cyber-schooling continues. For example, one MOOC professor announces “office hours” at a coffee shop in his destination city whenever he travels, for students who want to meet in person. Some community colleges are now creating blended courses using MOOC content, with the MOOC providing the online experience and the community college picking up the offline experience of professors interacting in person with students.

The importance of teachers and bricks-and-mortar places are expected to remain valuable components in the educational equation, says Andrew. “As we continue our research, it’s clear that the best places for education will bring people, technology and space together in innovative ways. If you think of classrooms as places where knowledge gets created, instead of consumed, they have similarities to innovation studios where flexibility is built in and it’s easy to switch between individual work and collaboration. More than ever, we’re seeing the need for classrooms to become highly flexible spaces that support the new behaviours of learning that are the direct result of new technologies.”

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