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Rethinking service learning in a digital age
Article Type: Commentaries From: International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Volume 18, Issue 2
The digital age is changing the world at alarming speed. Never before in history has the confluence of technology and collaborative tools been so apparent and open. All of the conditions are in place to craft new teaching and learning methodology, particularly in the field of service learning. Still, the ultimate challenge for a field of practice remains. How do we begin to prepare students for an unscripted future in the digital age? Friedman (2005) in his popular book, The World is Flat , offers insight into this query suggesting there will be four critical sets and attitudes required to make it in a flattened world. Among his examples, learning how to learn, being innovative, being collaborative, and being creative are the most salient. However, despite overarching evidence on the importance of possessing these twenty-first century competencies, pedagogical thought and practices are lagging behind. Instructional practices, especially in the use of advanced technologies, have not really changed that much since the days of Plato, asserts Bonk (2009). While some might argue that the use of technology in education abounds – demonstrated by projection units, PowerPoint slides, and podcasted lectures – teaching and learning remains more of the same teacher-centric focus. According to Bonk (2009, p. 10):
Today’s teachers, much like those in preceding generations or even a millennia ago, remain masters of some content area that must somehow be imparted to students and then rigorously assessed.
The reliance on “eye-ball to eye-ball,” notwithstanding, new learning forms are steadily trumping tired ones when instructors integrate advanced learning technologies into teaching and learning experiences. The use of learning technologies such as chat rooms, iPods, mobile phones, wikis, blogs and interactive head gear encourage students to take charge of their learning events. These twenty-first century technologies enable opportunities to hear a “learner’s voice.” Ergo, learners can engage in more meaningful and sustaining projects opening the doors of human potential and global benefit.
George Siemens (2004) suggests it is time to replace contemporary models of practice with models reflecting the knowledge and information needs in today’s world. “The shortcomings of behaviourist, cognitivist, and constructivist ideologies of learning are answered in light of learning as a connection-forming (network-creation) process,” reports Siemens. His connectivism perspective proposes that learning is no longer an internal process limited to linear structure. Rather technology has transformed the learning process to become more external, ubiquitous, and transparent, enabling students to make their own connections and links to create knowledge. Digital-age technologies perform many of the cognitive processes previously performed by learners – acquiring information, storing information, and retrieving information (Siemens, 2004, p. 1). Learners can now shift learning emphasis to focus on deeper intellectual thought. They can participate in online discussions via blogs, produce a case study to problem-solve via wikis and share service learning experiences via social networks. While the results of innovative conversations, ideas, or insights might not be accessed today or tomorrow, with the web and its storing and retrieving capabilities, it is likely that someone, sometime may seek to connect to these learning resources, enabling them to connect and create their own learning paths.
Clearly, it is time to rethink conventional practice tethered, to some extent, to a tired and outdated toolbox of instructional methodology. A new mindset is demanded, one that promotes critical inquiry, intellectual flexibility, and collaboration in a networked and connected atmosphere. The first steps forward begin by empowering students to take on the role of teachers, encouraging them to expand their learning beyond time and space rigidity. It is also incumbent for instructors to provide students with the necessary tools that promote connection to broader social issues through civic engagement. Students need to be coached and given opportunities to apply their knowledge while wrestling to solve society’s pressing and complex problems (Johnson et al., 2010, p. 7).
Gettysburg College illustrates the types of learning now possible in a digital age demonstrating the range and location of learners who can access information. Students at Gettysburg College participating in a Baltimore public school service-learning project recorded their reflections and thoughts through the use of a blog (Pre-trip reflections, 2009). As one senior reported:
I expect to be exposed to educational systems and techniques that I have never seen before, since much of my personal schooling and classroom observations have occurred in rural areas. My hope is that I will gain insight into the type of techniques and practices that are most effective in an urban school.
Another student admits:
I’m trying to keep an open mind, I know that these schools are probably going to be very different from my own school experience and that this week is going to take me way out of my comfort zone and what is familiar to me.
These student narratives are open to masses of people who might be engaged in similar service learning projects. As these students relate and converse about their experiences, they are also leaving a legacy for others to reinvent or build upon. Imagine the possibilities as students across the globe collaboratively build social, emotional, and innovative learning environments.
The technologies and digital resources that have flattened the world economically have simultaneously opened up a myriad of educational opportunities. Perhaps, then the question originally posed needs rethinking and reframing. Instead of asking how to prepare students for an unscripted future, it might be better to ask, how our teaching and learning methodologies align or limit connections and conversations in a digitally centered world. Are we, as educators, maximizing the potential of new technologies to chart our own fresh path in an unscripted world?
Julie GiulianiExecutive Dean Virtual College, Florida Community College,Jacksonville, Florida, USA
About the author
Julie Giuliani (EdD, Northern Illinois University) is the Executive Dean of the Virtual College at Florida State College in Jacksonville. In this position, Giuliani has oversight of 260 adjunct faculty and 1,100 online course sections supporting over 42,000 online students annually. In addition, she manages several initiatives including the use of emerging technologies to serve disconnected students, deployed military, and a dispersed workforce. She also supports the college’s development of online courses leading to a BAS degree in Management and Supervision and Early Childhood. She has over 30 years experience in higher education. Julie Giuliani can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bonk, C. (2009), The World is Open: How Technology is Revolutionizing Education, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA
Friedman, T.L. (2005), The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY
Johnson, L., Levine, A., Smith, R. and Stone, S. (2010), The 2010 Horizon Report, The New Media Consortium, Austin, TX
Pre-trip reflections (2009), “Baltimore project service learning blog”, available at: www.gettysburg.edu/news_events/blogs/2009/baltimore-project/index.dot (accessed February 10, 2010)
Siemens, G. (2004), “Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age”, available at: www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm (accessed January 1, 2010)