Schools’ disappearing walls: Explore the benefits!

By Anne Collier

School walls are disappearing. Probably anybody who’s raising or teaching young digital media users has noticed this. For more than a decade and a half (in developed countries, anyway), schools have been opening up to the world just as more and more of the planet has joined the wired and wireless global network. Less and less can learning – formal or informal – be compartmentalized into rooms, subjects or a “school day.”

We all – educators, students and parents – are trying to figure out what that means for learning and education, even as we (most of us, I hope) wonder at, and are maybe a little spellbound by, the learning and problem-solving potential that these collapsed walls represent.* We adults are working this puzzle while our children move freely and fluidly around digital and physical learning “spaces” and between learning on their own and learning with peers and mentors – and doing so while they navigate their parents’ and teachers’ myths and fears about the media they love.

Growing up with social-media-challenged adults

Certainly the implications of collapsed walls aren’t all good, but they’re certainly not all bad and some just plain exciting. As a society, however, we have focused a great deal more on the negative implications than the positive ones. So much so that some young people reflexively say things like, “The Web is a dangerous place and kids are behaving badly and need to be controlled” (a teacher paraphrasing for us folk what some high school students told her when she asked them about negativity in the news media about youth and the Internet). I had the same kind of reflexive response from 7th graders when they responded instantly with the word “predators” when – during a time when there were lots of news headlines and school assemblies about “online predators” – I asked them what the No. 1 Internet risk was. Yet, after a little more discussion, none of them seemed either to have experienced any communication with a “predator” or knew anyone who had; they were just telling me what they’d heard and probably what they thought I wanted to hear, rather than giving me their own thinking on the subject. [Media literacy and social literacy are so bound up together now; they include knowing how to think and troubleshoot together, yes, but also knowing when independent thought is appropriate and needed.]

Just as problematic for figuring out what learning in a connected world looks like is all the misperception of today’s (formal and informal) learning technologies – blogs, wikis, Google Docs, social apps, virtual worlds, multiplayer online games, media-sharing services, etc. I touched on this a little last week in a post on research about social media, but too often the adult public views social media as a single activity that’s the same for everybody. And we seem sometimes to forget that it isn’t just passively consumed. We too often characterize, and even trivialize, it as entertainment (doesn’t that sound a lot like the media many of us grew up with?).

Informal learning in social media

“I think there’s a general perception in the culture around new media that is associated with entertainment media … that it is inherently a space that is hostile to learning,” said professor, media researcher and cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito in a video just published by Edutopia. “And that’s the perception that I think we really need to work against. And part of it is understanding the differences between different kinds of online activities.”

Parents and educators thinking about social media’s effects on school might want to know that, over several years of research into how young people use social media at home, at school and in after-school programs, Ito and other researchers found, among other things, that the “friendship-driven” social media use society has focused on almost exclusively for nearly a decade now is not the only kind of social networking. They also identified interest-driven social networking, where young people “connect to peers who share specialized and niche interests of various kinds, whether that is online gaming, creative writing, video editing, or other artistic endeavors.

In these ‘interest-driven’ networks, youth may find new peers outside the boundaries of their local community. They can also find opportunities to publicize and distribute their work to online audiences and to gain new forms of visibility and reputation,” Ito and her co-authors explained in a white paper summarizing their three-year Digital Youth Project.

It’s just not accurate or helpful to discussions about learning, student engagement and school reform to view social media as an undifferentiated source of entertainment or inconsequential interaction. In the video at Edutopia, Ito says that “if you lump them all together, you’re actually missing the opportunity for [formal] learning that’s in the space and also not recognizing the sort of baseline social [informal] learning that’s happening in the friendship space.”

Get formal and informal learning working together!

It’s also not helpful to the discussion to think in this binary way: that only formal learning happens at school and informal learning outside school walls. “We know that the learning outside of school matters tremendously for the learning in school,” Ito said.

“The question is, how can we be more active about linking those two together?” she adds. “What we’re saying by evaluating informal learning is not that we should abandon formal learning but that we should get those working together in a much more coordinated way.”

We won’t get there – we won’t figure out what learning without the walls needs to be – until we stop blocking, trivializing, vilifying or just misunderstanding the media of this century and our children’s future. Instead, let’s help them learn how to use the tools effectively – to leverage the network and their love of digital media for full, safe engagement on and in them.

Related links

  • *One thing that wall-free, connected classrooms and schools represent is access to and participation in what educator Marc Prensky calls “digital wisdom” (I linked to and wrote about that here). Another thing it means is that anybody, regardless of age or academic degree (or lack thereof), can learn from and contribute to the planet’s discourse on a particular subject. What an amazing opportunity for young participants with the right kind of backup and support. We need to be looking at best practices for parents and educators supporting young contributors to global problem-solving projects.
  • I’m serving on a national task force that’s exploring connected learning and safety – the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning & the Internet, and I hope you’ll join the conversation here.
  • What is connected learning, anyway? Here‘s Here’s a video (about a 9th grader) that will show you
  • “Connected learning reality check from the US and UK”
  • Instead of monitoring for bad stuff, how about observing and engaging with young people on positive uses of media
  • “Why kids love video games and what parents can do about it”
  • “Do no harm”: message to parents and educators from a media professor (and parent)
  • Living & Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project