We're hearing a lot of talk about education in these back-to-school days, but a few conversations rise above the din. One such is the chatter about "flipped classrooms,"1 in which students listen to lectures at home and do homework at school. We also hear names like TED, Codecademy, Khan Academy and Knowmia bandied about, not to mention the term "MOOC"2 and such brands as Udacity, Coursera, MITx, edX . . . What's it all about?
No doubt about it, online learning at every level for every purpose is the flavor of the moment, and everyone is scrambling to offer a feast. Investors are salivating at the prospect of getting into an education market with an estimated global value of $54 billion; social and academic entrepreneurs want to provide free education opportunities for the poor; and at the same time, media organizations are falling all over themselves trying to come up with the right model to replace the textbook and other print materials.
Before we pick up too much speed to stop, we need to consider the educational future we are aiming for in higher education, technical education, and especially in the early years of K-12 education, when it really counts.
Instructionism vs. Constructionism
It seems to me that some recent MOOCs and start-up ideas -- which at the outset appear exciting and promising -- are basically indifferent to what we know about what constitutes good learning. All of a sudden, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Maria Montessori, Seymour Papert, Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardner, Allan Collins, John Seely Brown -- more than 100 years of theory about cognition and learning-by-doing -- are being forgotten.
Branded instructional online channels playing speaker-centered videos and tutorials on a range of themes and topics, such as TED and Khan Academy, claim to break new ground with the ability to teach you anything, including physics and programming fundamentals.
But think about it: they are using rather traditional instructional methods. Instructional TV (ITV) is half a century old. While this medium is compelling when produced well, isn't it time to make use of new technology to move beyond streaming impersonal frontal teaching, instructional video tutorials or filmed lectures aimed at mass audiences?
I've seen it before -- specifically, about 25 years ago -- when publishers first got excited by the potential of Apple and IBM personal computers that now strike us as antediluvian in their clunkiness. Like ITV, Instructional Computer Technology (ICT) was going to constitute an alternative pedagogy that would transform early learning.
There was transformation, but it was mainly around the edges. It came from inventors and publishers who believed in programmable, customizable, learner-driven, socially constructed learning networks, tools and project-driven environments. As a result, there exist relevant working models that speak directly to the questions that education technology innovators and publishers are considering today. To help guide all of us who play in this new "bubble," let's consider the old education debate that was framed as Instructionism vs. Constructionism.3 It asks: Do we focus on using technology for perfecting the art of instruction (Instructionism) or rather for achieving active learning-by-doing in social contexts (Constructionism)? What makes for a more effective education -- regardless of whether it's being carried out in print, on TV, through PCs, online, or mobile apps on tablets and handheld devices -- an instructor teaching what he or she knows to large groups of pupils, or learners learning by working alone and in teams to solve a problem or create an object that simulates or explains a piece of knowledge?
Of course, we know the answer: BOTH. Instructionism and Constructionism are two sides of a single cognitive equation. Both are needed if learners, especially young learners, are to obtain basic knowledge and take ownership of what they learn. Both are necessary to learn how to learn.
Technology for Its Own Sake?
Years of research have proved that an individual's ownership of new knowledge comes through constructive, productive, creative activities, not through passive consumption of instructional tutorials or reading textbooks. By the same token, step-by-step instruction and instructional consumption are necessary for some subject matters at some stages of knowledge development.
Seeking to take full advantage of technology, many leading education entrepreneurs have been trying different ways of deploying this "equation," devising software, hardware or digital networks that allow both Constructionist and Instructionist learning to occur as needed by learners and educators.
I recently founded Globaloria, a social learning network where students develop digital literacies, STEM and computing knowledge and global citizenship skills through game design. In this project, we found that blending video tutorials about complex concepts into a high-quality project-based curriculum has its place in the learning process. Such via-the-network Instructionism is appropriate for on-demand presenting and explaining information not otherwise readily available to learners in low-income rural or urban communities, or for presenting a renowned expert “in person” to anyone who can access a digital device. It’s what makes the world flat.
But, we also found that when the aim is to make children the designers and builders of their own learning -- and therefore the owners of the knowledge they achieve -- Constructionism is necessary. And if investors and innovators want the new flipped classrooms to have a significant and scalable impact on students, we must use technology to integrate and promote Constructionist learning spaces across the country -- faster. This integration is both our greatest challenge and our biggest opportunity for realizing the potential benefits -- educational, societal or financial -- of flipping classrooms. It puts both sides of the learning equation, Instructionism and Constructionism, to work in class and at home, and it can only happen by using the newest, most effective models of learning with technology.
3 Constructionist learning theory was conceived by Seymour Papert and his team at the MIT Media Lab in the '80s and is based on Constructivist theories of psychology that view learning as active construction and reconstruction rather than transmission of knowledge. Then, the ideas of learning-by-doing with manipulatives, especially digital materials and programming tools, were extended to the idea that learning is most effective when part of an activity is constructing a meaningful digital product that involves representation, explanation, and sharing (see Harel & Papert 1991, Constructionism; www.Papert.org; as well as the Edutopia articles Project-Based Learning: An Overview and A Computer for Every Lap: The Maine Learning Technology Initiative).