‘Banned unless required.”
That was the recommendation shared recently in an article entitled: Why Clay Shirky Banned Laptops, Tablets and Phones from His Classroom*. It was written by one of the world’s leading teachers of, and experts on, the socio-economic effects of internet technologies.
This view captures the current conflict between students and faculty. It also reveals the tension behind any dialogue about the role of ICT in HE – particularly, when talk turns to enhancing learning spaces and the student experience.
So let’s dive right in.
Today’s students are coming to campus with devices that are made as much for entertainment as productivity. And they use them for both purposes – often at the same time. Streaming movies? Check. Interacting on social networks? Check. Taking notes in class? Check. Researching tomorrow’s paper? Check.
Laptops, smartphones and tablets are all part of the new normal in HE. Yes, they can be a distraction – but they’re not the sole cause of disengagement. Technology itself is not a problem, or a cure: course content; the quality of teaching, and the expectations of face-to-face learning will always count more.
Rewind 20 years, and the big innovation was installing a landline in every dorm room. Conventional wisdom also dictated that faculty was the source of all knowledge, and students were simply there to absorb it. Technology has flipped both notions on their heads.
The practicalities of enabling the connected learning experience; of providing secure access to information across locations, devices, platforms and screens; of fostering a culture of collaboration and innovation are forcing a fundamental change in approach – both physically and figuratively.
Bolting chairs to the ground in a forward-facing layout has become impractical in a NODES model of conversational learning. Libraries have started sprouting smaller study areas, equipped with the infrastructure of the boardroom to connect students to each other and critical content. And lecturers have had to evolve from delivering one-way monologues to embracing real-time feedback and peer instruction.
In his article, Clay Shirky went on to write: ‘Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative – “Concentrate, or lose out!” – and positive – “Let me attract your attention!” – I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.’
This is where the biggest enhancements to learning spaces apply: creating inspiring ‘environments’ beyond the lecture hall to meet the real needs of students – not the set demands of curricula. High-speed internet? Check. Ancillary kit? Check. Cloud services? Check. Technological horsepower? Check.
It’s an extension of the ‘maker’ mentality: the institution provides students with the right tools and the required freedom to incubate ideas – from conception to reality. Knowledge is useless, unless we do something with it, which is increasingly what 21st-century employers want graduates to demonstrate.
For most HE institutions, this shift is inevitable. And many are already making the capital investments needed to help their students take control of their own development through self-driven initiatives. Such activities might not earn them academic credit; but they lead to outcomes of more tangible value: positive energy and personal results.
Enhancing learning spaces starts with re-imagining them as learning environments in which technology serves as an invisible enabler, not a visible barrier. Then, and to paraphrase Clay Shirky, ICT can be ‘accessed when appropriate, and leveraged where required’.
Sam Morris is Education Executive at Lenovo Worldwide.