How do students learn? What is the best way to learn? How can technology make students learn better?
How would you answer that last question? Most likely, you will say something about the inherent interest that students have in technology. Some of you might describe the multimedia nature of technology and how it brings life to otherwise boring material. Certainly, some will mention the research capacity of the Internet, and a few may even name some specific content-driven learning-software titles such as Plato, A+, Accelerated Math, Reading, or Study Island. All of these have their place, but I'll bet that almost nobody will mention the most powerful learning-enhancement technology tools out there.
The tools I'm talking about are the kind that help students think better. In other words, they encourage students to organize and clarify their thinking. These are the technology tools that force students to use the capacity-building characteristics of higher-order thinking. (Read my earlier post "To Sink or Swim: Creating Effective Learning Systems," which discusses Bloom's Taxonomy and the importance of teaching higher-order thinking skills.)
These tools inspire students to create sense out of chaos, and they release students to think nonlinearly. They empower students to design and share open-ended learning experiences. In short, these are the technology tools that fundamentally promote intrinsic student learning experiences. I would like to talk about one of these technology tools in particular.
Several years ago -- OK, many years ago -- all Macintosh computers came installed with such a tool, a "hyper" programming language called HyperCard. For us techno geeks, it was way cool, but for everyone else, it was pretty complicated to use, and it came only in black and white. An enterprising programmer, Roger Wagner, took that idea one step further and made HyperStudio, a colorful, easy, and fun way for anyone to create "hyper-learning" stacks.
Just so we are all talking the same language, hyper learning is the first child of the information-on-demand generation. (By the way, that's us.) It is based on the concept that you learn best when you are asking questions, and nothing frustrates us more than to have to wait to get the answers.
The simplest illustration of hyper-learning programming is when you are reading a text on the computer and you come across a word you don't know. You just click on the word, and a window pops up, giving a definition or added information about the word. If the information does not fit in a pop-up window, it might play a movie or a sound clip or take you to another page or series of pages. When you are done learning, you click on Return to go back to the original document and continue reading.
Hundreds of electronic storybooks take advantage of this concept, and the Rosetta Stone language-learning software is founded on this principle, too: Click on a word, and you find out not only what it means but also how to pronounce it.
As a high school Spanish teacher, I instantly recognized applications for this kind of hyper learning. (I know what you are thinking, but no, I did not create my lessons in this format and then let the programs do the teaching.)
I had a better idea. I had my students create a hyper-learning program for younger students learning Spanish. It was easy enough to show the students how to use the controls in fifteen minutes, and they spent the rest of the time designing and creating the lessons and evaluations -- all the while further cementing in their own minds the concepts we had been learning in class. They had to know the concept well enough to teach it and test it, and, as a bonus, they had a blast creating a fully functional product. Their learning came to consist less of what I could put into them and more of what they pulled out of themselves. (To discover ways tech integration can deepen and enhance the learning process, read "Why Integrate Technology into the Curriculum?: The Reasons Are Many.")
Well, that was in 1996. HyperStudio kind of disappeared for a while, but I ran into program creator Roger Wagner at the world's largest educational-technology conference for teachers and technology coordinators, the National Educational Computing Conference. He told me good news: HyperStudio is back with a vengeance. It has all the old features and a bunch of new ones, such as podcasting and movie-making capabilities. It's completely modernized for today's techno-savvy students (and teachers). Needless to say, I was ecstatic that teachers once again had another option besides the sequential lecture crutch that is Microsoft PowerPoint and the mindless drill-and-kill of content-based learning.
So, now, let's get back to my original set of questions. What is the best way for students to learn? I would hope the answer is obvious. Students learn best when they teach themselves, when they learn by doing, and when they create. That is true hyper learning.
What kinds of hyper learning have you had success with?