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“Instead of focusing on the teacher, the education system should focus on the student.

Instead of lecturing, teachers should interact with students and help them discover for themselves.

Instead of isolating students, the schools should encourage them to collaborate.”

Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital, on the education system.

This book analyzes the Net Generation, those who have grown up with the Internet as a daily part of their lives. I just finished reading Chapter 5: The Net Generation as Learners, and it’s really interesting to me, as somebody who has been tutoring high school math and science for the past year and a half. There are a number of great quotes in this chapter, including this one from a college president named Jeffrey Bannister about the state of his professor’s technological advancements in the classroom:

“We’ve got a bunch of professors reading from handwritten notes, writing on blackboards, and the students are writing down what they say. This is a pre-Gutenberg model – the printing press is not even an important part of the learing paradigm. Wait til students who are 14 and have grown up learning on the Net hit the [college] classrooms – sparks are going to fly!”

Some of the kids who are in middle school right now have had daily access to the Internet since the day they were born (or could type). These students’ brains have developed in a digital world, and the way they function is different than a boomer, for example. Tapscott often compares Net Geners and boomers, and how differently they have grown up. Today’s student grows up with a Facebook profile, an iTunes account, Youtube and the instant answers of Google. A boomer grew up with the neighbourhood kids, Leave it to Beaver on one of four TV channels, and the daily newspaper. Things are different.

Tapscott calls for a shift from individual to collaborative learning, but notes that this is a tough approach to sell to traditionalists. He tells the story of Chris Avenir, a first-year engineering student at Toronto’s Ryerson University, who set up a Facebook group called Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry. The group gained 147 students as members, and shared tips on how to solve the assignments that were worth just 10% of their grade. When the teacher found out, he was outraged, and the school nearly expelled Chris, but due to protests, he was allowed to stay. He did get zero on his homework assignments though.

I think this story is ridiculous, and shows how far off some professors and/or schools are. We learn by working with each other, and in the real world, every test is open book and subject to collaboration. Why isolate people in this digital age of information? Let them collaborate on assignments. Is there really anything wrong with 147 students discussing a particular assignment? Would it be okay if they discussed it in person? Did the act of making the discussions public and in text form make it wrong?

This reminds me a lot of the story about Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, who had a similar incident during his university career at Harvard. As the story goes, Zuckerberg had an art history exam coming up, and because he had been so busy building a little website called Facebook, he had forgotten to go to class. So he did what any computer geek would do: he set up a website that contained all the pieces of art that would be covered on his exam. He left spaces for other students to leave comments, and in a few days, he had a website that was filled with comments and discussions about the pieces of art that would be on the upcoming exam. Zuckerberg studied the website and aced the test. When the professor found out, he was (according to Zuckerberg) “really pleased”, and also noted that the entire class did better than normal, perhaps due to the online collaboration.

I personally think that approaches such as Zuckerberg’s and Avenir’s are certainly the ways of the future in education, and it’s up to educators to not only accept, but also embrace and encourage the change.

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