The Future of Learning
Kandi Stinson is anything but a fortuneteller. Her roomy Schmidt Hall office reflects her position as the University’s interim associate academic vice president-a sizable desk, a neat row of filing cabinets and a large window overlooking a small courtyard. There isn’t a crystal ball in sight. Nevertheless, on this gray winter morning, Stinson is looking into the future, first with a direct nod to the not-so-distant past.
“When I was in the faculty, I had shelves with books and books,” Stinson says. “And it was relatively common for a student to look around and say ‘Have you read all these books?’ And I’d say ‘Well, yeah, plus some.’ And to them it’s really amazing that somebody could actually sit and read these books.”
Books, she says-at least those in the three-dimensional sense-are slipping quietly into the background, and not just in her office, but across campus. Stinson’s job is, in part, to look ahead and make sure Xavier stays at the front of higher education’s learning curve, and today that curve is paved with technology. Quantum leaps in the quality and accessibility of techno-tools and -toys are creating a high-speed generation of learners who read, write and research online. Dubbed the “millennials,” they are weaned on and shaped by around-the-clock stimulation and access. And it’s creating change.
At Xavier and campuses across the nation, the impact of these developments is altering the way learners learn, the way instructors teach, the way classrooms look and, yes, even traditional ideas about colleges and universities. Responses are ranging from the creation of online campuses to supplying traditional students with computers or iPods on which they can download and turn in their assignments. Traditional means of teaching are giving way to methods that are collaborative, interdisciplinary, sound bite oriented, and, yes, perhaps even flashy and entertaining. All of which, Stinson says, is light years removed from the days not too very long ago when it was a major classroom production to wheel out a cranky movie projector to show reels of even crankier film.
“When I started here about 17 years ago, a computer assignment for students was unheard of,” Stinson says. “Now it’s not unusual to walk into a classroom and see students working on computers during classes.”
At the top of each hour, students flood the academic mall outside of Ron Slepitza’s third floor office window. Looking at the masses on the mall, the University’s vice president for student development points out the new generation of students developed around the central themes of multi-tasking and constant communication.
“You hardly see a student walking down the mall without a cell phone close by their hip, their hand or their ear,” he says. “And if they’re not talking, they are text-messaging. At the same time, when they’re on the computer doing an assignment, they’ve probably got up an instant messaging service and they’re talking to 20 of their friends at the same time. They might have their iPod earplugs in listening to music, and out of the corner of their eye they’re catching what’s coming across the screen from CNN. And they have four different programs down below that they’re switching between, and that’s life.”
These students tend to be learners who utilize more experiential techniques than their predecessors, says Mary Walker, the University’s interim vice president for information resources. “Millennial students also tend to be more interested in service to the community, are more open to learning mediated by technology and are more comfortable working in teams compared to past generations.”
This attitudinal shift toward computerized bites of information is challenging long-held concepts in many areas. The staff at McDonald Library, for instance, must now look at digitizing titles in their collection, says JoAnne Young, the University’s associate vice president for library service. But improved electronic access raises another critical point in the learning process-overwhelmed with options, students don’t automatically choose the best information.
“Right now students say ‘I can get anything I want on the web,'” Young says. “The challenge is to find a way to package it so the user can know it’s an authentic, valid, reputable item that they can make judgments based on.”
Such issues, Stinson says, signal a kind of change in the very concept of learning literacy. “It isn’t just reading; it’s technological literacy and it is, I think, visual literacy,” she says. “How do you make sense of the pictures and the things that you see? Whether it’s in an advertisement, a billboard, a map-any of those things requires a kind of literacy, a kind of critical interpretation that I think students don’t necessarily come prepared with in part because they are so exposed to it, so it’s like breathing-you don’t really think about it.”
Tremors from these major swings are being felt in classrooms as well. “In some ways, students expect to be entertained,” Stinson says. “They’ve been entertained from birth with television, movies-all that technology. You can go into Media Play and buy computer games for your 2-year-old. Pre-schools increasingly incorporate technology into playtime and education. So students don’t expect to sit in a classroom and simply listen. They want to see, they want to have that flash and the interest that goes on with those things.”
They also expect to do their work in teams, creating projects that are interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary with other courses-a mindset created by the business world where improved communications have made collaboration and teamwork the name of the global game.
“The generation that’s coming up now has classrooms that you and I wouldn’t recognize,” says associate professor of education Brenda Levya-Gardner. “They are working in groups for projects in preschool, elementary school, high school. So they come to college, if they’re the traditional undergraduate, and they expect to do that at the college level as well.”
To meet the need, the University plans to construct a multi-building Academic Quadrangle that employs a wide range of technology and a host of non- traditional classrooms and learning areas.
“The University has been changing rapidly for many years in that realm,” Levya-Gardner says. “But the quadrangle incorporates almost an institutionalization of the fact that we realize students learn informally as well as formally. And informal ways are as important as the formal ways. A lot of professors are also acknowledging that students learn best with a combination of modes of learning-the individual as well as the group. And so they’re focusing on building activities into their environment that encourage both.”
Sitting at the table in her office, Stinson takes these visions one step further to the next wave of instructors-not just the recent graduates, but the ones who follow them. What roles will they play? How will they change things? It’s possible, Stinson says, that students 10 years hence will encounter learning environments that seem foreign not only to 1995 graduates, but to 2005 graduates as well.
“I think that there is a real possibility that, architecturally speaking, classrooms with four walls may be a thing of the past,” she says. “Fluid spaces shared by people, by activities, by technology as well as by more traditional kinds of learning spaces might become more common.”
In such a future, Stinson says, a class that transpires over a period of 75 minutes may be broken into a number of activities with people-and possibly multiple classes-moving back and forth to stations within the same general learning space.
“In teaching, one of the trends is toward much more interdisciplinary, collaborative team-teaching building on the idea that things are connected,” she says. “For instance, that it’s really difficult to study history well if you’re not also studying political science and thinking about how that relates to philosophy. And I think as the connections become clearer, we’ve got to think about spaces and activities that make it possible for students to make those connections and allow them to happen.”
Of course, as times change, the target has a habit of moving. So there’s no way to tell exactly just what’s over the horizon.
But it seems certain that learning, as it has always done, will continue to play tag with the future, opening doors, reflecting what’s behind them and then opening new doors. And learners will continue to respond to the world in which they’ve grown up-for the foreseeable future a world that includes massive doses of technology.
“The world is becoming smaller because of technology,” Stinson says. “I just don’t see that going back. It would be like getting rid of your microwave.”