Where does learning take place? We still tend to think that we learn when we visit certain buildings labelled school or university. Indeed, we still build such places on the assumption that they encourage and stimulate learning. Our students gather in classrooms for lectures and seminars but most of the learning that goes on happens elsewhere; in cafes, bedrooms, parks, trains, buses etc. Those places have always been learning environments. Discussions in student cafes were often more stimulating than the rather contrived discussions that took place in the lecture hall. The difference today is ubiquitous net access allowing students not only to discuss with colleagues but also with a global network of students and experts who share the same interest. Basically we have instant access to unlimited knowledge, the latest research is instantly available and in many cases you can easily start a discussion with the author of a report or thesis.
I’ve been looking at the impressive collection of lectures and teaching resources freely available on iTunes U. Almost 50 universities offer a wide range of video lectures in all subject areas that can be downloaded to your iPod completely free. All universities in this venture are in the USA but the question is when European universities take the step. Many universities are still sceptical to filming lectures and making them available on the net. Many are worried about copyright and teachers are worried that their jobs may be threatened if all their teaching is out on the net. MIT’s OpenCourseWare has made whole courses freely available to anyone in the world. Wikiversity is built around the idea of teachers from all over the world sharing learning objects and making them freely available.
We’ve seen the revolution that has happened in the music industry over the last 10 years. Remember record stores? The ones that are left are in trouble and instead we now download all the music we want and mix our own playlists as many times as we want. Is a similar process under way in education?
If you can access all the lectures, simulations, literature, research and discussion on the net what is the future role of the university? The trump card is still examination – you can access all of MIT’s courses but you can’t get the qualification unless you enrol and pay your fee. The key is the teacher’s role; not as lecturer but as guide: Helping the student to choose the most relevant material, developing their information competence and encouraging critical thinking. There is so much knowledge out there it is almost frightening. We need help to filter it all, to organise it and interpret it. Teachers who can help students with this and encourage them to exploit the potential of the net will be the key to the next generation of higher education. The ability to stimulate net-based group/project work and create dynamic virtual discussions will be essential.
Could we be able to compile a course with material from many sources in a similar way as we compile a playlist? Instead of receiving the traditional course literature list the students could be able to find their own course material consisting of both literature and multimedia. The teacher’s role is to be able to help the students choose wisely and providing them with a sounding board as they navigate their way through the course. No longer would the student be restricted to discussing only with classmates and teacher. Contacts from all over the world can be involved in the discussions and experts can be consulted at any time.
Where, then, does learning take place? Anywhere. Any time. Anyhow.