7 Questions About the State of Education in the Digital Era

Débora Batello of Contos da Escola (Stories of the School) reviewed Using Wiki in Education, and interviewed me. We discussed a range of issues, including the changing role of teachers in the Digital Era, how technology evens the playing field for developing nations, whether technology use will change even further when the current generation of students enters the professional world, and how social tools like blogging and the wiki collaboration change the nature of course assignments and student learning. The interview is available in Brazilian Portuguese and English on her blog, and I’m reprinting the English version here as well:

Contos da Escola: How the teachers’ role has changed in the Digital Era?
Stewart Mader: Today, we have an abundance of information – more than ever before – within unprecedented easy reach. Therefore, the teachers’ role has changed from being the source of a limited amount of information to guiding students in their use of all the information on a particular subject that’s available.

-What is the difference between using wiki and blog in an educational project?
SM: Using a blog is good for communicating, i.e. posting links for students to look at, blogging about a news article on a topic relevant to class, etc. Using a wiki is good for collaborating on group projects, having a student write a paper that the teacher can read and edit as a student writes it, instead of after they turn in a final draft. It’s also good for building a persistent record of what students have done in a course. For example, you give each group of students a page on the wiki to develop their major project for the course, then keep their page with final project, and let students in future semester see the project from previous students, then develop their own project alongside the previous ones.

-Is it any possible that teachers who are not fond of internet nor technology might achieve success by using wiki as an educational tool?
SM: One perspective: Someone has to see the value in doing this to see past the occasional difficulties, invest the time to develop content and collaborative assignments on their wiki that makes it useful to students, and guide the development of community through an academic course. Someone has to be fond of technology and interested in using it to commit the time and energy to do this.

Another perspective: I’ve seen even the most jaded, skeptical people change their mind after using a wiki, because it’s so simple, requires very little time to learn, and lets them quickly get to work on what’s important. So they see it as a tool that can quickly prove its value.

-What makes a project using technology for education fails ? What are the most commom mistakes teachers do?
SM: The biggest failure I’ve seen is to use technology as an after-thought, or “in addition” to the traditional ways of teaching a course. For it to be successful, it needs to be integrated fully into the course, and assignments have to count for course credit.

– Deborah Torres’ story on “Wikis in Academy” shows that it is a challenge to make a grown-up produce knowledge as a team in a non-linear way. It is correct to say that we will only have education and technology hand-in-hand when younger teachers get to the market?
SM: Hmmm, this is a touchy subject. I’ve heard this argument and my take on it is that the younger generation is already proficient so they’ll need little education on the value of it, but we need to educate the current generation on it’s value so they not only use it, but understand that it needs to be available. It’s a big selling point for people just entering the workforce when companies, schools, etc. have these tools and encourage their use.

-79% of the Brazilian population has never used the internet not even occasionally. Could this fact increase our educational discrepancy, since the developed countries are already ahead at the use of technologies as tools for education?
SM: I think that five years ago this fact would have increased the educational discrepancy, but not so much today. Technology tools are relentlessly becoming faster, cheaper, and simpler to use. Wikis, as an example, are so inexpensive and simple that lots of people, including those who have never used the Internet before, will find them easy to learn and use. The fact that the developed countries are ahead right now doesn’t matter that much, because the fact that wikis are so simple levels the “playing field” so to speak, and makes it much easier for a developing country to quickly get up to speed.

-Brazilian students are used to copy and paste internet content without any post editing or checking on the data. Does that happen to US students too? How are teachers in your country dealing with that? SM: This does happen in the US, and many people will say that the reason for this is that students are lazy. I think the real reason is that assignments don’t challenge students enough, and the students recognize that, so they give the assignment the same amount of respect that it gives them. Some teachers penalize students for this and try to discourage it, but I think they miss the point.

For example, if I was given an assignment to read a chapter, then write a summary of it, I would be quite bored by that and feel that it was just wasting my time since it’s the same thing every other student in my class is repeating. If I was given that same chapter, and a wiki page on which to collaboratively write a reaction to it with a group of other students, I would be much more enthusiastic about that, and not likely to just copy and paste from the Internet since I would want to offer my own thoughts to the collaborative discussion. That kind of assignment respects my intellectual contribution, and gives me a legitimate opportunity to contribute.

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