Education in 2015: Cyberlearning for digital natives


Emerging technologies are the foundation of radically rethinking how learning takes place, and how to foster that change.

Almost hidden by a boxy lectern, researcher and author Christine Borgman stood before a couple hundred college and university education IT professionals and gave them the Vision Thing.

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At this week's annual Educause conference in Orlando, Borgman outlined what learning might look like in 2015, just seven years from now, if educators, teachers, researchers and policy makers systematically leverage emerging technology trends. Those trends include pervasive high-bandwidth wireless networks; cloud-based processing; and fast-growing repositories of digital information, including a rising tide of data from networked sensors and information analysis tools.

Her presentation was based on the recently released report by the National Science Foundation's Task Force on Cyberlearning, which Borgman chaired. The report, "Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge" is available online.

Borgman is professor and presidential chair of information studies at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, and a researcher with the university's Center for Embedded Networked Sensing,  which develops wireless sensing systems and explores their impact on a range of scientific and social issues. Her latest book, from MIT Press, is Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet

Cool and precise, Borgman reminded her listeners that today's students, whom she called "digital natives," already are using many of these tools on their own to understand their world and to learn, often in nontraditional ways, outside of formal education structures. Yet the classrooms into which these students are herded are unchanged, for the most part, from those of their parents or even their grandparents. When they take their seat in a row of other seats, students in effect step back in time, out of their connected, real-time relationship with the Web, with friends, with information.

In 2015, learning, as distinct from "education," will be fully accessible, not only at school but at home and other areas outside of class, Borgman predicted. Simulations, remote virtual labs and data-visualization tools will let students work with vast amounts of real-time data. They will have access to information in a wide range of online digital repositories. At home, they will have seamless access to resources of all kinds, and share in virtual interactions with classmates, teachers and others. Teachers will be able to track how students are interacting with course materials, identifying problems early and helping students toward successful learning.

This is the vision of cyberlearning, which the NSF task force defined, in purposefully general terms, as "learning that is mediated by networked computing and communications technologies." By design the definition echoes a phrase coined by an earlier NSF report: cyberinfrastructure, a collection of networked communications technologies on which to build new types of "scientific and engineering knowledge environments and organizations." (Network World covers many of these technologies in our regular New Data Center series.)

The task force sees these technologies of cloud computing, pervasive connectivity and others as essential to transforming education, Borgman said. "We can't [physically] build the classrooms and schools that are needed to meet 21st-century education needs," she said.

Early in its work, the NSF task force tackled the criticism that "technology isn't the answer to education." The group's members did an extensive review of the fast-increasing published research on technology and learning, and came to a firm conclusion. "When technology is properly used and deployed, we can improve learning, and we can scale this up," Borgman said.

Authentic "visions" are work. That's evident in the task force's five summary recommendations.

The first recommendation is creating a community and equipping its members to carry cyberlearning forward. "We need to develop a pipeline of people who understand cyberlearning," Borgman said. That community includes researchers, teachers at all levels, teaching colleges, software developers and IT staff, doing what such communities need to do: experimenting, creating best practices, developing a career path. "This will take time," Borgman said.

Second is the importance of what Borgman called a "platform perspective," meaning an orientation toward shared, interoperable, extensible, testable designs in hardware and software. UCLA discovered there were more than 25 course-management applications deployed on the campus. Such duplication is the opposite of the scaling and interoperability promised by Web 2.0 innovations, she said. A platform approach can accept, integrate, evolve and share innovation.

Third is emphasizing the "transformative power" of technology for education at all levels. Academic and scientific disciplines are changing as a result of these emerging information-communication technologies. Funding and research can accelerate those changes, as well as link these disciplines with classroom and virtual learning environments.

A fourth recommendation is to promote the development and use of open education resources. Innovation has failed in the past, Borgman said, in part because notions of copyright limited innovations to being used as a whole. They couldn't be broken into interoperable, reusable, mashable components that in turn ould be combined with others to form new features or capabilities. The NSF should take the step of requiring its funded research projects to make their data available through one of the Creative Commons licenses. "Rights are separated, grouped and licensable, as it fits your needs," Borgman said.

Finally, the NSF itself needs to make internal changes to sustain, coordinate and effectively share past and future cyberlearning research. "The NSF has no database of what they've already done [in cyberlearning]," Borgman said. "It's very difficult to leverage this work."

In the past several years, the Educause conferences have become a kind of informal, unstructured embodiment of some of these recommendations. As is done in most technical conferences, Educause divides presentations by members into distinct tracks, such as "teaching and learning," "networking and infrastructure," and "security and privacy." In each, reflecting the ferment in education, there are an almost bewildering number and styles of presentations by faculty, researchers and IT professionals, all wrestling with these emerging technologies.

In a sense, the NSF task force's report calls for systematizing these efforts, their funding and their outcomes; and leveraging the collective effort across an entire industry. The time available to do so may be limited, Borgman warned. "The 'digital natives' are coming," she said. "They are already here."

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