UW-Madison: Digital revolution happening outside the classroom

CONTACT: Rich Halverson, 608-265-4772, halverson@education.wisc.edu

MADISON – The way we learn is changing, but schools are having trouble keeping up.

While technology dominates daily life and work, it still plays a limited role in public schools filled with students who are increasingly learning outside the classroom with help from cell phones, computers, and video games, says Rich Halverson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of educational leadership and policy analysis and co-author of the new book “Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology.”

“I want schools to understand what they’re up against and I want schools to be able to embrace opportunities where digital learning makes sense,” says Halverson, who is also co-founder of the Games, Learning and Society group at UW-Madison, a group of researchers and interactive media developers who study how digital media are changing the ways we think, learn and interact.

“Schools have an awareness they’re missing out on something,” Halverson says. The book details areas of education that are “being lopped off and transformed by digital media. Is there a designed response? Can school systems adapt to this?”

Halverson co-wrote the book with Allan Collins, professor emeritus of education and social policy at Northwestern University and former co-director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center for Technology in Education. Their book doesn’t predict the collapse of the local elementary school; rather it identifies the seeds of a new educational system forming outside of public schools.

We are in the middle of a knowledge revolution, fueled by technology that offers personalized learning that encourages people to pursue their interests and goals. Schools are increasingly held responsible for teaching certain kinds of knowledge and skills, and adopt the kinds of technologies that help students achieve common learning goals. But schools can find it difficult to integrate many of the new personalized technologies in to everyday classrooms.

Take middle school boys who devote hours and hours outside of school to playing the video game Madden NFL. These same boys might be unmotivated in school, but when playing Madden “they’ll calculate the ratings on their rosters. They’ll figure out how to distribute their salary caps, how much they can pay players for long term, how they can improve their players,” Halverson says. “Pretty sophisticated math reasoning, and here they are in their middle school classrooms ‘Zzzzzzz’ … the contrast is just sort of shocking.”

The book also serves as a history of educational reform in the United States, outlining the rapid development of universal public education that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“There was a time in the origins of the American school system where the big pieces of the system were up for grabs” Halverson says. Over time, the educational revolution of the late 1800s and early 1900s settled into the system that exists today.

“On of the nice things about a stable system is that it’s stable. And one of the not-nice things is that it’s stable,” Halverson says. “Now, when you get a new change in the way knowledge generation and exchange happens, a stable system has a really hard time coping.”

Halverson says although classroom instruction has not changed much, many schools are already technologically sophisticated when it comes to administration and the data-driven assessment of students. All schools have databases and most have online testing systems, which Halverson says are just as technologically sophisticated as anything found in video games or in the business world.

If schools can’t integrate technology into the classroom to focus on individual learning, Halverson says the link between schools and education will be redefined. Students – and their parents – will continue to seek learning venues outside of public schools including virtual schools, learning centers and home-schooling. Already, some high schools are requiring students to take at least one class online, outside of the bricks-and-mortar establishment, as a requirement for technological literacy.

Despite the knowledge revolution taking place, Halverson says there’s still a lot to be said for “a well-structured, traditional education that gives you a sense of what’s worth knowing.”

“I don’t believe we should open up the gates and make school all digital, all Google, on demand, all the time. Without good teachers in classrooms, who would read Plato? Who would do algebra?”