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K-12 Classrooms Need to Be Hotbeds of Social Learning

Two giant pillars of Western thought, along with parents, agree that social learning is a good pedagogical strategy.

This article originally appeared in the Q2 issue of Converge magazine.

The coffee pot in the teachers’ lounge. The water cooler in the law office. The playground at an elementary school. The lockers in the hall at a high school. The dinner table in your home. What do these places have in common? Social learning — these are places where individuals learn from and with one another. Indeed, the majority of situations and locations in our lives are places where social learning takes place.

But then why isn’t the teacher with 35 students in a classroom on the above list? Because the hallmark of social learning is dialog not monolog. However, in that classroom just described, the dominant pedagogical strategy is still direct instruction — where a teacher in the classroom, a video of a teacher or a computer screen all deliver a monolog to students.

Yet two giant pillars of Western thought, along with parents, agree that social learning is a good pedagogical strategy:

  • In Plato’s Meno, Socrates said that knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning.
  • “Education is a social process. … Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself,” wrote John Dewey in Democracy and Education.
What’s exciting is that the infrastructure technologies to support dialog — social learning — in K-12 classrooms are essentially here, driven by these factors:

1-to-1 is the new normal: According to a recent study, 50 percent of K-12 classrooms are already 1-to-1, in which schools issue each student a device. At that rate, 100 percent of U.S. K-12 classrooms will be 1-to-1 by 2020.

Internet-connected: With changes in E-rate, the availability of low-cost solutions for home Internet and new cloud-based network management technologies, network connectivity may no longer be K-12’s Achilles’ heel.

Powered by software: While liberating in its day, Web 2.0 is a bit tired. Moore’s Law plus entrepreneurial zeal are enabling the creation of Web 3.0 technologies that support synchronous communication and collaboration. For example, press the mayday button on an Amazon Fire tablet and a live salesperson appears to work with you, synchronously, to make a purchase. Indeed, free, device-agnostic, collaborative Web 3.0 apps are readily available (e.g., Google’s Apps for Education, Microsoft’s Office 365, and our Intergalactic Mobile Learning Center’s Collabrify Suite of Productivity Tools) to support K-12 students in working together synchronously, co-creating artifacts while talking full-tilt.

While we’re in the early days for Web 3.0 technologies, you can take this prediction to the bank: In three to four years all Web pages and mobile/Web apps will be “collabrified,” meaning they all will support synchronous communication.

Some educators are taking the opportunity to use Web 3.0 technologies to support social learning. For example, various inquiry-oriented pedagogies (e.g., 5E, project-based learning) employ social learning technologies to support students working together to figure things out, for example, by explaining phenomena and solving problems.

However, some educators are using new technologies to support the old, direct-instruction pedagogy. In “personalized learning,” children sit in front of computers, sometimes for more than half of the school day, being fed content supposedly tailored for them by machine-learning algorithms. This is no different from the same old monolog-style of instruction.

Social learning is the education strategy of the playground, of the workplace, of the dinner table, of the learning strategies of Plato, Dewey and, more recently, of serious thinkers such as Lev Vygotsky and Seymour Papert. The time has come to support educators in taking advantage of 1-to-1, Internet-connected, Web 3.0 technologies and make our children’s classrooms hotbeds of social learning.

Cathleen Norris is a professor at the University of North Texas College of Information’s Department of Learning Technologies. She is a past president of the International Society for Technology in Education and the National Educational Computing Association. Elliot Soloway is a professor in the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering and, along with Dr. Norris, started the Intergalactic Mobile Learning Center, creating tomorrow’s educational software today.