New media = new ways to learn

When it comes to learning, the best way between two points is not a straight line.

Actually, it’s never the same line. It’s hardly a line at all. More like a series of zig zags.

That was a key theme of the 2012 New Media Consortium Summer Conference, which I attended in Boston, MA last week on the campus of MIT. There were dozens of topics under discussion related to technology and higher education — use of multimedia, gamification, mobile apps, digital literacy — but they all coalesced around a theme of project-based learning that values creativity and free agency among students. The day of teaching facts and testing recall are obsolete, because facts are cheap and easy to access from anywhere. It’s making sense of those facts and applying them independently that really counts.

“We’re focused on putting things in people’s brains and sending them out with these packs,” Joichi Ito, director of MIT’s media lab, said in his keynote address. “Instead we have to realize that it’s more important to learn how to pull knowledge than learning how to stock.”

The success stories trotted out by each of the conference’s major speakers all dealt with empowering students to create something tangible and explore a topic using their own intuition rather than following the directions and sequences prescribed by an instructor. Students experimented, they failed, they innovated, and they collaborated. What they didn’t do was memorize.

This sentiment wasn’t unique to the NMC conference. I’ve heard it on dozens of education blogs and at other conferences. But it is a perspective especially strong in the technology circle, as it speaks to the potential of integrating new media with old occupations. When technology holds the data, facilitates the connections, and empowers creativity, then learning becomes focused more on doing and less on transcribing. The “flipped” classroom model — cited repetedly throughout the conference — illustrates this advantage. Building online lecture content allows students to consume and study the material at their own pace. That frees up the actual classroom time to apply the knowledge and make connections to its use in the real world.

It’s also a chance for students to go above and beyond the requirements of the course.

“Focus on igniting their passion,” Ito told conference attendees. “The classroom should be focused on how to motivate the kids. You don’t stand in a classroom teaching. You stand in the classroom inspiring.”

Coming up, I’ll list some of the top ways to apply this style of teaching using new media that were covered during the conference’s breakout sessions.