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Opinion: Before We Flip Classrooms, Let’s Re-Think What We’re Flipping To

By on October 18, 2012
Blended Learning, Domestic, Education Quality, Flipped Classrooms, Gamification, K-12, Opinion, Required, Startups, Technology

 Integrated into their regular math classes, Globaloria students access online video tutorials and receive expert advice on how to build original educational video games about math topics.

 

By Idit Harel Caperton, Guest Columnist

We’re hearing a lot of talk about education in these back-to-school days, but a few conversations rise above the din. One such is the chatter about “flipped classrooms,”[i] in which students listen to lectures at home and do homework at school. We also hear names like Codecademy, Khan Academy, and Knowmia bandied about, not to mention the term “MOOCs”[ii] and such brands as Udacity, Coursera,  MITx, edX… What’s it all about?

No doubt about it: Online learning at every level for every purpose is the flavor of the moment, and everyone is scrambling to offer a feast. Investors are salivating at the prospect of getting into an education market with an estimated global value of $54 billion; social and academic entrepreneurs want to provide free education opportunities for the poor; and at the same time, media organizations are falling all over themselves trying to come up with the right model to replace the textbook and other print materials.

It’s a good time to call a timeout in this somewhat helter-skelter headlong rush to online learning and its projected benefits, financial and otherwise. Before we pick up too much speed to stop, we need to ask exactly where we’re going and why we want to get there so badly. Specifically, what’s the educational future we are aiming for—in higher education, technical education, and especially in the early years of education, when it really counts?

My sense is that many of the new start-up ideas that seem at the outset creative and exciting may be missing the mark. In some cases, it’s a question of let’s-do-this-because-the-technology-lets-us; in other cases, there’s just a need to be part of the crowd, to stake out a beachhead early on.

There is nothing wrong with these online entrepreneurial intentions. In fact, many of the current efforts to find new, digital paths of early learning and adult learning are fantastic and to be welcomed.  It’s about time.

But take a breath. It seems to me that some of them are basically indifferent to what we know about what constitutes good learning. All of a sudden, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Maria Montessori, Seymour Papert, Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardner, Allan Collins, John Seely Brown – more than 100 years of theory about cognition and learning-by-doing are being forgotten.

And some are downright retro. Free or not, do we really want to go back to large-auditorium lectures and instructional television (ITV) in 2012? Sesame Street was groundbreaking in 1969 and remains an essential part of our learning-with-media culture. Ditto for Nova, Nature, the National Geographic Channel, TED, and the like. But ITV is half a century old; it’s time now to make use of new technology to move beyond impersonal frontal teaching and the instructional videos, filmed lectures, and tutorials aimed at a mass audience.

Meanwhile, production has grown easier and cheaper and so democratic that all of us can (potentially) publish awesome instructional videos and tutorials and teach each other complex stuff in fun ways. And that’s a good thing (if we all have equal opportunity to learn how to do it). We can also become curators of thoughtfully branded channels of videos and tutorials on a range of themes and topics. That is the new ground that TED, Codecademy, Khan Academy, and their competitors claim to be breaking today: They are teaching anything (including physics and programming fundamentals) using rather traditional, passive instructional methods.

That’s great for some people some of the time, and there remains a legitimate demand for it in the world’s marketplace.[iii]  But I’ve heard it before—specifically, about 30 years ago, when publishers (including mom-&-pop entrepreneurs) first got excited by the potential of Apple and IBM personal computers that now strike us as antediluvian in their clunkiness. Like ITV, Instructional Computer Technology (ICT) was going to constitute an alternative pedagogy that would transform early learning. Or so it was claimed in its early days.

There was transformation, but it was mainly around the edges. It came from inventors and publishers who believed in programmable, customizable, learner-driven, socially constructed learning networks, tools, and project-driven environments.

There are better, more relevant, more effective theories and working models to guide all of us who play in this new bubble. For example, the education debate my colleague, MIT Professor Seymour Papert, and I framed as Instructionism vs. Constructionism [iv] speaks directly to the questions that educational technology innovators and publishers are considering today. It asks: Do we focus on using technology for perfecting the art of instruction (Instructionism) or rather for achieving learning-by-doing in social contexts (Constructionism)?  What makes for a more effective education, regardless of whether it’s being carried out in print, on TV, through PCs, online, or in mobile apps: an instructor teaching what he or she knows to large groups of pupils, or learners learning by working alone and in teams on constructing a model to solve a problem or an object that simulates or explains a piece of knowledge?

Of course, we know the answer: BOTH. Instructionism and Constructionism are two sides of a single cognitive equation. Both are needed if learners, especially young learners, are to obtain basic knowledge and take ownership of what they learn. Both are necessary to learn how to learn.

Years of research have proved that an individual’s ownership of new knowledge comes through constructive, productive, creative activities, not through passive consumption of instructional tutorials or reading text books. By the same token, instructional consumption is necessary for some subject matters at some stages of knowledge development.

Seeking to take full advantage of technology, many leading education entrepreneurs have been trying different ways of deploying this “equation,” devising software, hardware, digital networks, tools, and environments that allow both Constructionist and Instructionist learning, each to occur as needed by learners and educators. Certainly, blending video tutorials on complex concepts into a high-quality project-based curriculum has its place in the learning process—precisely because, interactive or not, such tutorials can “feed” information into a classroom head-on. Such Instructionism is also appropriate for presenting and explaining information not otherwise readily available to learners, or for presenting a renowned expert “in person” to anyone who can access a digital device.

But when the aim is to make children the designers and builders of their own learning—and therefore the owners of the knowledge they achieve—Constructionism is necessary. And if investors and innovators want the new flipped classrooms to have a significant and scalable impact on students, we must use technology to integrate and promote Constructionist learning spaces across the country—faster. This integration is both our greatest challenge and our biggest opportunity for realizing the potential benefits—educational, societal, or financial—of flipping classrooms. It puts both sides of the learning equation—Instructionism and Constructionism—to work in class and at home, and it can only happen by using the newest, most effective models of learning with technology.

Dr. Idit Harel Caperton is an Israeli-American entrepreneur, innovator and futurist of global learning systems. She is founder and president of the World Wide Workshop, building visionary global platforms for learning. The Workshop’s flagship product, Globaloria, teaches students digital literacies, STEM & Computing knowledge and global citizenship through game design.  As a student at Harvard Graduate School of Education & MIT Media Lab, Idit pursued pioneering R&D work in computation, cognition and education. Her MIT spinoff startup, MaMaMedia, was a groundbreaking creative platform for kids on the net. Idit is a learning theorist, education activist and opinion leader, award-winning author and mentor of young entrepreneurs, and she serves on several prestigious higher-education, media, and non-profit boards.


[i] See also Edutopia’s recent piece on the pros and cons of the flipped classroom approach (http://www.edutopia.org/blog/flipped-classroom-pro-and-con-mary-beth-hertz) and an online film festival on flipped classroom practices more generally (http://www.edutopia.org/blog/film-festival-flipped-classroom).

[ii] See, as examples, a few recent articles in Wired Academic explaining what are MOOCs, what MOOCs will do, won’t do and might do: http://www.wiredacademic.com/2012/03/heard-moocs-growing-from-stanford-to-georgia-tech-to-mit-to-udacity-and-udemy/ and http://www.wiredacademic.com/2012/05/will-moocs-promote-superstar-teaching-over-superstar-research-at-princeton-and-other-ivy-universities/

[iii] Wired Academic recently posted a piece by NYT Shelly Freierman “Most Popular Back-to-School Education Apps (Top 5 On Apple/IOS, Top 5 On Android) noting that the popular education tools include flash card tools, math games and language learning apps. Two of the more unusual apps open large online collections to users: Free Books, offers more than 23,000 books and TED contains a video library of 1,300 TED Conference talk.” http://www.wiredacademic.com/2012/09/most-popular-back-to-school-education-apps-top-5-on-appleios-top-5-on-android/

[iv] The Constructionist learning theory was conceived by award-winning 21st-Century thinker Seymour Papert and his team at the MIT Media Lab already in the 80’s, and has thousands of active followers worldwide. It is based on Piaget’s and others’ Constructivist theories of psychology that view learning as active construction and reconstruction rather than transmission of knowledge. Then, the ideas of learning-by-doing with manipulative materials, especially digital materials and tools, especially programming languages, were extended to the idea that learning is most effective when part of an activity the learner experiences is constructing a meaningful digital product within a social context that involve reflection, representation, explanation, and sharing (to read about Constructionism and Constructionist projects worldwide, see Harel & Papert 1991, Constructionism; http://stager.org/planetpapert.html, www.Papert.org; http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-overview-videoand http://www.edutopia.org/stw-maine-project-based-learning-technology-initiative).

About the World Wide Workshop

World Wide Workshop develops applications for learning with technology that combine game mechanics and social networking to empower youth to be inventors and leaders in the global knowledge economy. Our programs transform education by connecting youth to learning, community engagement and economic development through game production.

About Globaloria

Globaloria is the first and largest social learning network, where students develop digital literacies, STEM knowledge and global citizenship skills through game design. Globaloria sparks students’ imaginations as they learn to design and program their own educational games through a mix of teacher-led instruction, team-based learning and online networking with experts and peers.



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