Science for Everyone
SCIENCE FOR EVERYONE VISIONS FOR NEAR-FUTURE EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY
Originally published 2008 in International Journal of Information and Communication Education 4 (4) 62-71. Slightly revised and Updated Jan 16, 2009
Charles A. Wood Center for Educational Technologies® Wheeling Jesuit University
Recent and emerging technologies offer many opportunities for exploration and learning. These technologies allow learners (of any age) to work with real data, use authentic scientific instruments, explore immersive simulations and act as scientists. The capabilities soon to be available raise questions about the role of schools but do rely on directed learning traditionally supplied by teachers. The prevalence of new tools and data streams can transform society, not just kids, into a culture of learning.
Predicting the future of educational technology is difficult. New ideas, products and capabilities spring into existence and are developed within months, making it nearly impossible to predict the exciting new opportunities even a few years from now. But we can say that technology will be increasingly incorporated in most aspects of formal, informal, and casual education, and that it will build upon today’s capabilities. In this review I discuss some current and emerging technologies and suggest how they might be used to increase learning in science, technology, engineering, mathematic, and geography (STEM-G). I don’t describe well-entrenched tools, nor administrative or teacher management applications, and am not limited to classroom uses. These are personal choices of tools with high opportunities for engaging learning.
The foundation of most educational technologies is the World Wide Web and similar networks (e.g., wireless cell phone nets) that are already widely available in the Western World and many parts of Asia (though issues of financial access still loom everywhere). These networks are becoming more pervasive (even invasive), ever faster, and ultimately everyone in developed nations will be connected. The educational value of evolving networks is that learners will be able to connect to almost every conceivable kind of learning opportunity, anytime, from almost any place. Once online there are already a great variety of interactive learning activities, including control of real and simulated scientific instruments, expeditions to tag along with, courses to take, simulations and games to play, and literally billions of content-rich web pages to peruse. And increasingly these activities are not done alone, but rather within communities. Second Life, Halo and a growing number of other synthetic worlds bring teams together to talk, solve problems, share experiences, and collaborate. This is immersive, shared learning that young people seem to do naturally.
The value of educational technology is often unvalidated through formal assessments, yet is widely considered important because it makes learning more lively and more participatory, plus provides skill in using technology, itself a learning goal. If a learner becomes engaged in the tasks, it is assumed that there is a higher likelihood that the experience will be productive. The uses of technology described here are generally ones that require involvement and interactions—observing, collecting, displaying, and interpreting data; making decisions that have learning consequences; and using instruments normally beyond typical educational experiences. And the learning opportunities typically focus on important problems worthy of a learner’s time and effort. Trivial labs and make-work exercises with non-real data are intrinsically boring, but activities based on real data and socially significant STEM-G issues capture attention. The Internet and online tech tools bring the world live into our learning environments.
REAL TIME DATA
Many organizations place near real-time data online, providing opportunities for classes and individuals to experience authentic data analysis, often using professional tools. One extraordinarily successful example is the discovery of comets in the daily solar images obtained by the SOHO spacecraft and placed online. As of July, 2008 (http://home.earthlink.net/~tonyhoffman/SOHOleaderboard.htm), 1500 comets have been discovered by 67 amateur astronomers from 17 countries. Most of these comets would not have been found without the amateurs because professional astronomers do not have the time to search the daily flood of data. Other examples of discoveries from online astronomy data are numerous, including the discovery of asteroids, variable stars, and supernova. School kids have even discovered Kuiper Belt objects out beyond Pluto. With the imminent arrival of massive surveys that map the entire sky every three nights, there will be more near real-time astronomical data online than all the astronomers in the world can review. With the creation of appropriate tools, there can be an explosion of science discoveries and explorations by adults and youth everywhere. Science is becoming an activity for everyone.
The GLOBE Project (http://www.globe.gov/fsl/html/aboutglobe.cgi?intro&lang=en&nav=1) is another successful example of youth making and analyzing observations, this time of their local environments, which contribute to global scientific understanding. More than 40,000 teachers have been trained to use GLOBE in their classrooms, and 19 million measurements have been contributed by more than one million students in 110 countries. GLOBE must be one of the largest international data collection/education programs ever.
Other types of near real-time data allow students to share the excitement of current geophysical activity. For example, near real-time seismic data are displayed on interactive maps by the U.S. Geologic Survey (http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqcenter/) and the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (http://www.iris.edu/seismon/). With creation of easily mastered online tools, learners can determine where earthquakes are centered, and estimate magnitudes and potential damage. Follow-up on CNN and other news sources would provide ground truth for major events.
The most widely available real-time information is weather data. Through the Weather Channel and every news channel on TV, near real-time weather images and radar data are visible nearly constantly. And the Internet brings satellite images of various types from around the Earth (and sometimes other planets). What is commonly overlooked by nearly all educators is that these continually updated streams of data can be used in the study of various aspects of science, geography, and even social studies. What needs development are educational modules that easily import current data and provide directed investigations, perhaps using an artificial intelligence interface.
Using real-time data is doing real science with potentially important but unpredictable discoveries. It gives participants actual experience as scientists, hopefully turning them on to the excitement of intellectual exploration. All of these technology-enabled explorations are already being used, often by individuals with their home computers—the problem is that too few teachers or science center staff help their learners get involved. Such authentic learning opportunities will become more widespread as technologies and learning guides come into existence as turnkey systems.
REAL SCIENCE INSTRUMENTS IN YOUR HANDS
School is largely pretend; students learn content and skills just to learn them. Using real scientific instruments to collect real data transforms learning into an activity with a purpose. Working with real instruments that have to be properly used to make real measurements that in turn need to be carefully analyzed and interpreted is exciting. Compare a planetarium to being in an observatory with a real telescope. Schools rarely have real instruments (other than microscopes), but a number of capable scientific instruments are now available at costs that are achievable through PTAs, bake sales, and perhaps even federal and state technology dollars. But like classroom laptop programs (Zucker and Light, 2009), equipment purchases are typically only about 20% of the total cost of use, with training, service and support being more than 50%.
A remarkably sensitive seismometer kit (http://jclahr.com/science/psn/as1/index.html) can be bought for $600 that allows students to record global earthquakes as they occur, and free software is available to calculate earthquake magnitudes and distances. Success in setting up and using the instrument requires training and perseverance by the educator, and support groups exist. All science centers should have a working seismometer on display, but apparently no turnkey solution is available yet. You may already have access to a seismometer, because one is built into every Macintosh laptop computer. All modern laptops have sudden motion sensors (accelerometers) to detect rapid movement (falling) as an input to protect the hard drive. Macintosh makes access to that data available, and free software (SeisMac; http://www.suitable.com/tools/seismac.html) transforms Macs into portable seismometers. There appear to be no materials to support the educational use of SeisMac – an opportunity for someone.
Telescopes and associated electronic cameras are becoming more common in schools, but their greatest applicability is outside school hours, so access is usually restricted. Of course, the Sun can be observed during school hours (as often can be the Moon), and new technology binoculars and small solar telescopes offer dramatic views of the solar corona and sunspots. Small astronomical telescopes typically costing $200 to $1,000 can be used in early evenings to study the moon and planets, leading to immersive exploration of geologic processes and the role of gravity and temperature in explaining the existence of atmospheres and water. The same small telescope also can be used for science projects by high schoolers, igniting a passion for science. The visual excitement of putting an eyeball in front of an eyepiece should not be underestimated—it is often an inspiring moment. Radio telescopes do work during the day, and NASA has long had a radio telescope educational program. Project Jove (http://radiojove.gsfc.nasa.gov/) is an innovative $300 radio telescope specifically for studying changing radiation from Jupiter and the Sun. This educational program, which has been used by 850 schools and individuals, gives the real experience of doing science. More capable radio telescopes with moveable dish antennas capable of studying the galaxy are $7,000 (http://www.cassicorp.com/), which makes them more suitable as virtual instruments. The University of Florida (http://ufro1.astro.ufl.edu/liveaccess.htm) does stream live data from their radio telescope observatory.
Robots were a science fantasy for much of the last 100 years but now are pervasive in industry and are entering personal living spaces and educational venues. Robots are intrinsically intriguing because, like a dog, they have some human traits and theoretically can be made to do what you want. And because robotic rovers have been used on Mars for more than a decade, there is an immediate tie to NASA science. Lego® Mindstorms® robots (http://mindstorms.lego.com/) are available from $250 and have extensive associated lesson plans and activities for formal and informal settings; unfortunately, too few learners have opportunities to use them. There are some good educational training materials, but more are needed, especially in using robots to improve teaching of science and math. Cheaper robots (coming from China) will make it easier for more educators to use robots in different learning environments.
Satellite Image Observatories
The continuing and often unexpected natural changes of the Earth is a driver for learning why change happens. One of the easiest tools to bring change into a classroom or science center is a receiver that captures images of Earth directly from NOAA’s passing weather satellites. These receives capture about a dozen color images a day with 4 km resolution. Satellite capture cards and antennas (http://www.hamtronics.com/r139.htm) are available for $450 and connect to an existing PC for saving and displaying images. Satellite images allow tracking of weather systems, including hurricanes, but also detection of ocean temperatures and currents, and monitoring of agriculture growth, forest fires, floods, blizzards, and many other dynamic phenomena. Learning opportunities abound, and some teacher training materials exist, but there needs to be national champions to promote the excitement of this opportunity for education rather than amateur radio operators.
Computers provide the mathematical power to quickly manipulate vast matrices of numbers—and that is all a digital image is. Nearly all of the instruments described here produce digital displays of data that need to be enhanced and visualized. With inexpensive or free software such as Photoshop Elements, the ancient NIH image and its online version ImageJ (http://rsb.info.nih.gov/ij/), the information within data can be explored. Seeing remarkable images on NASA web sites is not as engaging as enhancing your own image, which creates ownership, pride and understanding.
ONLINE SCIENCE INSTRUMENTS—REAL AND SIMULATED
Scientists use instruments to make observations and conduct experiments. Most students don’t have access to quality scientific instruments and miss the experience of collecting real data that requires planning and analysis. Through the Internet there is now easy access to actual and simulated science instruments, especially online telescopes. The best known program is Telescopes in Education (TIE; http://www.telescopesineducation.com/), which has been used by students in hundreds of classrooms to plan, collect, and analyze real astronomical data. The decade-old program allows students to actually control a telescope and digital camera to collect images. Other online telescopes, such as the oldest, the Bradford Robotic Telescope (http://www.telescope.org/ ) – now in the Canary Islands - allow users to submit observing requests and later receive the images by e-mail. The excitement of receiving “your” image is there, but the more complex involvement in operating a large scientific instrument is completely lacking. Slooh (http://www.slooh.com/) is a commercial online observatory that necessarily has an easy interface and sells telescope time for about $10/hr.
A few other types of online instruments are available today. Students mail their own bugs to the University of Illinois’ Bugscope project (http://bugscope.beckman.uiuc.edu/) and actually control an electron microscope to image them. Nearly all other virtual electron microscopes (e.g. http://www.vcbio.science.ru.nl/en/fesem/intro/) are simply viewers that allow users to simulate control of focus, contrast, brightness, and magnification for pre-imaged specimens. They are good for training but not inspiration.
One of the most famous groups of simulated scientific instruments is produced by Project CLEA—Contemporary Laboratory Experiences in Astronomy (http://www3.gettysburg.edu/~marschal/clea/CLEAhome.html). Thirteen simulated astronomy labs have been developed that present real data and simulated tools to analyze them. Learners can measure the heights of mountains on the moon, the rotation rate of the sun, the expansion of the universe, and many other interesting projects.
Caves and Immersive Virtual Reality
In the 1980s virtual reality was the next big thing for research and education. It still is, and maybe someday will be. NSF has funded various organizations to experiment with virtual reality. Researchers at Brown University built an “eight-foot cubicle in which high-resolution stereo graphics are projected onto three walls and the floor to create an immersive virtual reality experience.” I have entered the Brown cave (http://graphics.cs.brown.edu/research/cave/home.html) to explore canyons on the surface of Mars. The experience is captivating (actually dizzyingly real at first) and allows researchers to get inside data, to explore visualization in three dimensions. But caves are expensive and difficult to create and maintain; they may be excellent educational activities for science centers, but probably not for classrooms. Three-dimensional goggles are a lower cost option for classes and personal virtual reality exploration. Goggles are basically two tiny TV monitors embedded in a pair of spectacles with associated software that displays the virtual images. But immersive data and guided exploration materials are needed for this technology to get beyond experimenters’ labs.
Second Life requires neither a cave nor special glasses. It is a free 3-D virtual reality simulation (http://secondlife.com/) displayed on your monitor. You customize an avatar and explore and interact with 3-D environments and other avatars. Second Life currently has 40,000 to 50,000 people online at any time, and there are many science education areas to explore. Many simply display material that can be seen equally well on normal websites, but because your avatar can meet and speak with others a strong social component of learning is possible. A key component of Second Life is that anyone can build a virtual environment with provided tools that are simple to get started with. Currently Second Life is limited to people over the age of 18, and younger people are restricted to a Teen Grid.
Real scientists discover by reading what their predecessors and colleagues have done, conducting experiments, making observations, and exploring simulations of physical or biological processes. In classrooms, students read textbooks and conduct labs but rarely investigate simulations. Although hands-on experimentation is a critical learning experience, computers and the Internet offer opportunities for another kind of experiential learning where a virtual reality simulation is manipulated and its responses noted.
STELLA is a famous simulation program that can model many different types of systems and processes, but STELLA (http://www.iseesystems.com/softwares/Education/STELLASoftware.aspx) is not graphically interesting and has a steep learning curve. Fortunately, there are many other types of less intimidating simulations.
Virtual frog dissections were one of the first software labs to simulate experiments with higher quality graphics. There is now a vibrant cottage industry of transposing standard school lab experiments to computer interactions. The best—some of the physics simulators—offer a chance to learn by exploring parameter space. Most test the processes of experimentation in that the correct sequence of steps have to be performed to achieve success but don’t give much feel for the underlying science. A study has demonstrated that at least one simulation of an electric circuits lab is more effective at teaching concepts than actually conducting the lab with lights, wire and batteries (Finkelstein et al, 2005).
A number of planetary science sims have been created to help students understand geologic processes by playing with them. Splat! (http://volcano.und.nodak.edu/vwdocs/crater_sim/intersect.html) is a Java applet that allows the learner to vary the size distribution and number of impact craters formed on a planetary surface and watch both a view of the changing surface and a crater frequency graph as used by scientists. Comparison of Splats! visual maps of craters with real photos of the moon quickly reveals the different impact conditions of older and younger lunar surfaces. A companion applet (http://volcano.und.edu/vwdocs/kids/fun/volcano/volcano.html) models the distribution of ash from an explosive volcanic eruption. Users can vary the energy of the eruption, particle sizes, wind speed, and even gravity to explore what eruptions would be like under many different conditions—including on other planets. Simulations such as these fit nicely into in-school learning because they require only tens of minutes to play and can embed a personal understanding of complex processes. Easy sim-building software would allow teachers to construct just the sims they need, but an approach more likely to be successful is to create libraries of sims for downloading.
Serious games—a phrase that avoids the negative connotations of “educational games”—is a concept struggling to become a reality. In the 1980s there were two acclaimed educational computer games, Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Many other efforts, most famously Math Blasters, were really just drill and kill exercises that provided a video treat as a reward for completing numbing problems. The success of OT and WITWICS stemmed from their interesting story lines, rather than their graphics or interactivities. Originally Oregon Trail was very effective as a text game, and Carmen Sandiego was a hunt for an elusive criminal that was relatively engaging.
The best examples of existing serious games are simulations that teach procedures or sequential steps to achieve goals. For example, business games require maximizing profit in management simulations. Commercially successful games that mimic a business model are construction sims such as Roller Coaster Tycoon and Sim-Earth.
Video games offer a natural, motivating way of learning (Gee, 2003). Video games require solving a seemingly unending stream of increasingly complex challenges. Players constantly make decisions based on what they have just learned experientially. Unlike school where a test is the end of learning on a particular topic, no matter what the grade, game players keep playing until they master the knowledge and skills needed for success. Video games immerse players in a realistic, almost authentic environment, which players must absorb to be successful. In video games the medium can be the (educational) message.
Because of success that the U.S. Army has had in utilizing a game (America’s Army) for training and recruiting, and because of the failure of many schools to excite students for learning, serious video games are now being rapidly discussed and even developed, with funding from NSF, NASA, and other US agencies. No one is yet certain if serious games can be created that successfully meld engaging game play with desired domain learning outcomes.
Serious video games typically aren’t for classroom use because most take tens of hours to play, and there just isn’t that much time available during the school day. Can an educationally meaningful game be built that requires only tens of minutes to play? Most serious games are for personal, self-directed learning, perhaps as homework reinforcement of what was taught in formal environments. Consider Viral Escape, a game to learn about fighting a cold. The scene is within a body, with movement possible along arteries, through tissues, and into bones, with scale changes available. To fight a cold, you (as dissolving chemicals from a cold relief pill) stream through the body looking for white blood cells to destroy and red ones to clone; T-cells must be fought off. Players of Viral Escape will become intimately familiar with the layout of the human body, its components, and what a cold really is. The student who plays this game at home will come to biology class the next day with a familiarity of things that had only been words the day before.
Generally, serious games with STEM-G subjects have not been successful, and there have been few of them. Most successful serious (or semi-serious) games are simulations that explore ideas in history and warfare. There need to be more serious games based on the puzzles and clues (real and false) of scientists at work.
3-D Object Creation
Sometimes new technical capabilities for industry create new opportunities for education. One of the recent examples pregnant with possibilities is 3-D printers (http://www.zcorp.com/products/printersdetail.asp?ID=1). These were invented to provide a rapid and cheap way for industrial developers to prototype new products. These amazing devices “print” thin layers of plastic that fuse together, gradually building up a solid and strong three-dimensional structure. Printers that build black and white physical structures about 4”x4”x4” cost $20,000, and color constructors (my new word for 3-D printers) that make things up to 24” wide are about $60,000. If normal trends apply, these costs should be 10-20 times lower within five years. The materials to construct a fully-colored, fist-sided object currently cost about $10. One of the first public uses of 3-D printing technology is constructing and selling 3-D representations of user-created avatars for Will Wright’s new videogame Spore.
3-D printers work with existing 3-D CAD software (http://www.solidworks.com/) and new 3-D scanners ($2,500; https://www.nextengine.com/indexSecure.htm) that allow duplication and modification of even intricate objects, such as chains. There will be many educational uses of this integrated scan-CAD manipulate-print 3-D technology. An obvious use will be creating 3-D models of chemical and biological structures, e.g. a DNA strand or the crystal structure of a mineral. More interesting constructions might include a human femur, which could be transformed with the CAD to a horse’s femur (illustrating different strength needs) or more exotically a femur for a mammal on a planet of different gravity. Models of planetary landforms, such as impact craters, volcanoes, and stream channels, could be created from planetary digital terrain maps. Other examples would be moving beyond computer screen visualization physical models of complex mathematical surfaces (Palais, 2006) or heads of unwrapped mummies revealed by computed tomography (Cheng et al., 2006). One researcher is experimenting with 3-D printers that might be able to reproduce themselves—this is probably not in the business plan of the 3-D printer manufacturers! 3-D constructors will provide real-life visualization, especially valuable for tactile learners and the seeing-impaired. And 3-D constructions take visualization to the next level—tactilization.
eBooks—Content and Readers
The idea of electronic books that fit within a compact and ergonomic reader has been around for more than a decade; various companies promoting them have sprung into existence with fanfare and disappeared quietly months later. There are many advantages of an etext, including low cost, easy updating, and bundling with teacher notes and activities. The current lack of success of ebooks is because of their high cost (a good reader is $300), lack of a standard format that permits any book to be read on any reader, not quite good enough legibility, and the lack of a strong core market. Excellent progress is being made on the legibility, and the price should fall as sales volume builds. A format standard is being promoted, but probably none will fully emerge until a single vendor—and their format—becomes dominant. Perhaps it will be Amazon’s Kindle (http://tinyurl.com/6n34al).
I propose that the killer app for ebooks is, in fact, textbooks, which, in their traditional form, is a billion dollar annual market. The state of Texas has discussed requiring all schools to buy etexts and a few districts have experimented with them. If a large state like Texas requires etexts, a strong market will be created overnight, a format standard will likely emerge, and reader cost should decline.
eText readers will presumably be paperback size with very high text resolution, color for illustrations, and the standard features of keyword searches and electronic bookmarking and highlighting. To be more useful as general eTutors, eBook readers will evolve to increase their computing capability so that they can run simulations, access the Internet, and e-mail for interacting with teachers and fellow students. These eTutors will essentially be paperback-size computers that wirelessly connect anywhere (like cell phones) to the entire world of digital learning. And they must cost less than $100/yr to be compatible with current school spending on textbooks. The proposed ideal etext reader could really be just a larger screen iPhone, which already has reader software and all the other requested features, except for the price.
It might be thought that this is the same as using a laptop computer, but eBook readers will be as different from a laptop as a cell phone is. Laptops are too big and too expensive to carry all the time. A paperback size eBook reader provides a large enough screen size to be useful for reading (unlike a cell phone or PDA) but small enough to be put in a purse or a pocket.
A smaller market that can develop for eBooks is specialized libraries for particular disciplines. This would be of value to college students and professional learners and to advanced hobbyists. Examples might be eMed, which could be an exhaustive collection of reference materials for pre-med and medical students, including live subscriptions to relevant journals and news. eSky could be a library for amateur astronomers, containing the entire 60 year run of Sky & Telescope magazine, a collection of observing guidebooks, and live updating from NASA and other astronomy web sites.
iPhones are the coolest and most successful portable technology ever (displacing iPods). The ease of operation, powerful software, huge capacity, portability and Zen design make iPhones an ideal platform for a new advanced mobile education technology – the iExplorer. With a built in camera that easily uploads images to a website, a GPS receiver to pin-point location, and a web browser, the iPhone is a powerful platform to transform into a multi-purpose learning tool. For example, students conducting a botany field project could capture an image of a plant, record an audio description, tag the lat/long/elevation/time, and post it all online. Or they could use an online identification tool to compare what they see with images of typical specimens. As a roving tutor, specially written iPhone applications could lead learners on field trips, guiding them where to go, when to stop and observe specific features, and provide tools to create their own record of the experience to share.
At least one standalone mobile education module already exists. The Celestron SkyScout (http://www.celestron.com/skyscout/) is a $200 handheld, zero power telescope with a built in GPS unit and sky catalog. Point the SkyScout at any naked eye natural object in the sky and it will display and say what the object is and give information on its nature.
Cool Science TV
Motivating youth toward careers in science requires overcoming a common cultural stereotype (certainly common in the US) that science is boring and uncool. We know how to overcome such stereotypes. The CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) television programs have portrayed forensic science as an exciting career, and schools all across the country are scrambling to develop courses and programs to satisfy the strong educational demand that has resulted.
Commercial TV is where effective educational/motivational efforts belong, but traditionally, educationally enlightening TV has been on public TV. In the US, Nova and other award-winning TV science shows are seen by an older, wealthy, white PBS audience, not kids from various backgrounds whom we need to transfix with self-efficacy visions. Additionally, traditional science shows are not a continuing fictional drama, but rather a one-off factual report. We need a continuing story with STEM-G characters we gradually build positive relations with. Here is a sample storyline that might work. A team of engineers and scientists is designing the Orion spacecraft that will carry new adventurers to the moon. They have to discover the best design features and build a spacecraft, incorporating (or repulsing) inputs and demands from lunar scientists, administrators, contractors and politicians, and with rivalries and uncertainty within their own extended team. This storyline is in the context of the growing recognition of a generational competition with China, India, Japan, Europe, and maybe Russia for space exploitation, not just exploration. There would be many opportunities for character development and interaction as well as audience exposure to actual technical issues that are finally, just barely sometimes, overcome each episode.
A TV program might not appear to be a significant innovative educational technology, but it actually can be because a program creates a strong public appreciation of anything positively depicted. If program producers can be cajoled into creating TV series that portray scientists as real-life explorers of exciting ideas and unravelers of significant mysteries, such series may be more effective at turning kids on to STEM-G careers than all other efforts combined.
MAKING TECHNOLOGY WORK
Critical to almost every idea here is that teachers (or science center staff or learners themselves) will need to learn something new, how to operate new equipment or software, and how to tie it to meaningful (standards-driven and test-driven) learning goals. There will always be a few teachers who undertake such projects, and these are the ones who win awards and speak at national conferences. The real question for federal agencies that promote education improvement is how do we make these technology-centric learning tools easy enough for widespread adoption so that millions of kids experience them? Piecemeal solutions with occasional workshops and massive online collections of learning activities aren’t the answers. We have had these for years, but youth achievement in STEM-G learning has not improved.
Just as the clocks on home VCRs have been blinking 12:00 for years, much modern educational technology is too hard for easy use. We don’t need more ed tech innovations, we need more adoptions of programs and tech tools that have been proven to work. I propose that a new organization (a National Center to Make Technology Easy) is needed not just to promote best practices, but to transform proven ideas and tools into near-turnkey solutions with appropriate training and curricular materials and ties to standards. Developers and early adapters of technologies often get caught up in the minutiae of the technology and leave behind the educator who simply wants to use the tool. The NCTMTE organization would develop and market not kits nor do-it-yourself instructions, but ready-to-use tech tools (like seismometers, satellite receivers, etc.), with simple instructions on how to incorporate them into lessons. A key to success would be the development of a community of users for mutual support. Tech tools have to be reduced to the simplicity of a toaster so that they will be widely adopted. The goal is not mastery of technogizmos, but exploration of concepts and knowledge, and falling in love with learning.
INTERNET LEARNING— THE END OF SCHOOLS
Schools are failing. The evidence is everywhere from test scores to shootings to the growing number of alternatives such as online academies and home schools. The products and ideas described here provide guidance for a coming educational technology revolution that will transform the idea of learning. Just saying learning opens the mind to new ways of learning that are obscured by the word school. Learning does not have to occur in certain buildings at certain hours in groups of 24 under the direction of people trained in only one discipline (education). Learning is becoming a 24/7 activity with tools and information available anywhere through mobile connections to everything on and off the planet.
Learning outside of a highly structured school building may not be appropriate for everyone at all times, and a culture will have to evolve to allow it to augment if not ultimately replace traditional school practices. Guided learning and being in contact with the world offer an infinite number of learning styles and directions. Guidance is critical, as is assessment—by achievement rather than by testing. The traditional idea of educating a well-rounded citizen is one to strive for—which we are failing at in many schools—and the proposed internet learning will result in people being differently learned, some having great expertise in some topics and less awareness of others. But each person can find the path that works for her or him, and in aggregate, for society.
Creating a Science-centered Society
The activities described above are largely aimed at the youth whom society need to convince to become the scientists and engineers necessary for our modern economies to continue. But science could become a dominant social element worldwide for children and adults. With the coming easy access to immense amounts of near real-time data and the tools to analyze and explore it, understanding our planet and the universe beyond could become a global pastime. Instead of being a passive receptor of whatever science is selected for the nightly news, any curious person with Internet access will be able to monitor many dynamic characteristics of the Earth, the sun and the night sky. I envision large numbers of WorldWatchers tracking developing hurricanes, retreating polar caps, pollution from nearby smokestacks, the migration of fall foliage, mining on the moon, a supernova in a distant galaxy, and the scream (with x-ray frequencies remapped as audio) of gases being sucked into the black hole at the center of our galaxy. Nova will become the most watched (or podcast) TV program, and competition between comet hunting teams will be featured on Monday night TV. Soon federal agencies will be pleading for students to study business and political science.
Charles Wood, director of the NASA-sponsored Classroom of the Future, has had a varied career, always associated with NASA science and education. Currently he analyses data from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, as well as directing an educational research center. He worked as a planetary geologist at Brown University, the Smithsonian Institution and at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and Johnson Space Center. Since 1990, he has been primarily an educator, developing online programs, simulations and instrumentation. His life-long passion is the Moon and he regrets that will not get to teach there.
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