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Monday, September 04, 2006

The Emergence of New Learning Environments and The Nature of Learning

The emergence of new learning environments.
The nature of learning.
Comment and Support
The history of higher education is characterized by change according to Carol Twigg, as evidenced in the number of persons seeking a higher education and the motivational foundations of education. Beginning with the provision of theological and moral preparation, colleges experienced a major change due to industrialization and the need to develop practical applications for society. Society has again experienced a shift in the economic and social structure, leading the way for educational reform.
Communication and information is changing how and why people learn…and the concept of learning itself. According to Twigg, deciding what constitutes learning invokes questions of mastery, analytic ability, communication, training, independence, and socialization. These skills, abilities, and traits do not lend themselves to routine memorization or multiple choice competency exams, further escalating the problem of traditional assessment and standardization of scores. Lecture based instruction, time limited, linear, and self-contained is increasingly at odds with the dictates of business and professional preparation.
Twigg addresses the question of life-time learning, citing examples from business and industry indicating the inability to learn/master a subject in only four years. This is strongly supported by David Thornburg's article "2020 Visions for the Future of Education", which discusses the rapid increase in information. According to Thornburg, "it has been estimated that information, world-wide, is doubling every two years". He goes on to state the ability to determine accuracy and relevance of information in a rapidly expanding (and often misleading) information base is a "pivital skill". Furthermore, the "time lag between discovery and application is rapidly shrinking" and international access is increasingly important, as is the mandate for education to "prepare students for jobs that have yet to be invented" (Thornburg, 1997). Emphasis on the ability to learn…and re-learn…is increasingly important, as is the ability to assimilate and apply information.
The concept of lifetime learning has significant impact on the new learning environment and the nature of learning.
The New Learning Environment
In "The WWW: A Technology to Enhance Teaching and Learning", Ronald Owston based his framework on the analysis suggested by Gordon Davies who stated "that for technology to address the "big problems" of higher education it must make learning more accessible and improve learning in a cost effective manner.
Owston demonstrates the potential of the Web to meet these criteria. For example, increasing accessibility is a primary benefit to web based instruction…"providing educational opportunities in the workplace, community, or home, for those unable to attend school or college because of cultural, economic, or social barriers" (Owston, 1997). Owston states that despite the potential to increase access, use of the Web can create barriers. Lack of access, for any reason (economic, disability, or even hardware/software problems) hinders access rather than increases it.
The Nature of Learning
Traditional students are now the minority (Twigg, 1997) with education increasingly viewed through a consumer perspective. The need to increase analytic ability, communication skills, provide life-time learning, include diverse populations, meet the needs of "non-traditional" students, and educate more persons than ever before, is re-shaping the "nature of learning". Recognition of different learning styles, the importance of enhancing instruction and communication to meet the needs of the learner, and the ability to produce a functionally literate professional have influenced the perception, design, and purpose of education. Indeed, the question of increased learning centers on the definition of and reason for learning. If an adult is returning to school to increase employability skills, a consumer approach and issues of accountability will be determined by the ability to increase what I call "functional literacy" (for lack of a better word). Evaluating the effectiveness of learning is increasingly subject to "real world" scrutiny as determined by a students ability to function in a given capacity. This has provided impetus for the goals of systemic change which supports multiple intelligence, individualized learning, and varying learning styles. In the article "Realizing the Promise of Technology…" by Jane David, the question centers on "how to use technology as a catalyst for change and as a tool in creating, implementing, managing, and communicating a new conception of teaching and learning and a system that supports it" (David, 1994). The emphasis on effective use of technology to enhance learning and teaching is viewed not as an end to itself, but rather a tool designed to foster "survival" skills. Short term abilities and low order processing such as memorization and recall examinations do little to foster increased functionability in today's society nor provide the means for gaining needed information in the future. Instead, systemic reform promotes authority and responsibility for learning…"At each level of the system, people are asked to take on more authority and responsibility--students for their learning; teachers for their effectiveness and professional growth; administrators for providing the necessary conditions for teachers; and policymakers to provide the direction, standards, and resources to guide and assist" (1994). Clearly, the nature of learning is changing what is learned, why it is learned, how it is learned, and who is responsible for learning. Technology has the potential to increase access to learning, enhance lifetime learning, support different styles of learning, and meet the needs of individuals in a changing society…"if it is correctly designed and implemented"(Swain, 1998).

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