Creating a Hybrid Learning Community
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What might a 21st-century community look in which students direct their own education? In this world, the following scenario could take place: a student, engrossed in his favorite video game, puts down his gaming console and decides that he has an innovative idea for a new game of his own. From the convenience of his home computer he signs on to his profile at his school website and posts a bulletin within the "projects" section of the school's online network. His bulletin states the reasons why his video game idea is innovative and what kind of people he needs to help him bring his idea to fruition. After a few hours, seven other students have shown an interest in his idea and want to join him in the endeavor. The intended critical mass of interested parties having been reached, they must now seek out the relevant information and processes to make the project happen.
The group is assigned a teacher/mentor that will aid them in facilitating the achievement of their goal. A meeting time is set and the interested parties meet up in a conference room located at the online school's Hub complex. The Hub Complex is a state of the art building that acts as a meeting ground for the physical aspects of project based learning. In some rooms there are students working on massive science projects while in other rooms students are studying the fine arts related to current cultural topics. The video game designing student has contacted fellow classmates in the carpool list, but due to no one traveling to the Hub at the time he had to travel via public transit.
With notes scribbled on whiteboards and paper, the student's initial idea is fleshed out. It is determined that computer programming, graphic design, and physics are crucial aspects of the forthcoming project and, while the students have some experience in graphic design, their first challenge is that they lack the requisite programming skills. The group decides to sign up for a programming session where other groups are learning the tools necessary to write video game code. A student with a strong interest in the visual aspect of the project works with a student from another group to walk through an online tutorial in game graphic design. The project continues with the mentor acting as consultant, ensuring that the students are not getting overwhelmed and are finding the resources they need. When the video game is completed, the students reflect with the mentor on what was the most difficult part of the project. It may be determined that the project would have gone much more smoothly if a tutorial on some particular facet of the process had been made available to them. This would have saved some time on trial and error and unnecessary difficulties. The group works to publish documentation wherein their reflections won't just benefit their own future project endeavors, but will also serve as an available resource to future student projects and other users around the world.
How do we achieve this vision while working to simultaneously ensure that our students are well educated and allowed to pursue their passions? Perhaps the Internet is the answer public education has been looking for. Over the past decade, online schools and universities have opened at radically increasing rates while many colleges are adopting some form of hybrid online/traditional classrooms to facilitate learning. In the traditional classroom, students interact with other students and teachers, an interaction which creates a relationship that can be treasured for a lifetime. Online lectures and textbooks are still lectures and textbooks, which can be very difficult and confusing. Without another person to help us and without challenging projects that require human interaction the online classroom will be devoid of the life naturally attained within the traditional classroom. Lectures and textbook based learning is why the current form of "online schooling" will never be completely successful. Project based learning with a human face to face component must be included in this new online paradigm in order to facilitate personal and meaningful engagement of students.
One of the principles that our public education system is founded on is the idea that a well-informed citizenry remain strong, free, constantly interactive and capable of diverse thinking. Educating to diverse communication standards (both new and old) is vital to strengthening the community of a multi-cultural society. It is becoming increasingly apparent as we move further into the twenty-first century that education should dovetail with rapidly evolving practices in contemporary communications. In fact, institutional policies are reacting to this demand across the United States. (1) Public education must be flexible enough to follow communities within its structure no matter where they exist. Online education becomes inevitable in this scenario because, as it has become the popular means of mass communication, it has also begun to supplant and augment the traditional loci of communities world-wide. The modern classroom has become the Internet, and vice-versa. Because of the limitless potential of human interaction made possible by the numerous technologies we find at our disposal in the twenty-first century, communities based on instantaneous communication have formed within a new frontier that exists worldwide. Public education, if it is to stay relevant to the needs of the modern community, needs to find its place at the forefront of this frontier.
Online communities have replaced geographical ones. While many are unable to name one of their neighbors, they connect daily with hundreds or thousands of like-minded people for various reasons. These communities are in place, yet education has not effectively found a way to harness these connections for meaningful learning-even while meaningful learning is taking place within them all along! As public educators work to discern and define the function of the K-12 classroom in this new era of communication, they must strive to meet the demands brought forth by new and ever-emerging technologies while still working to create a school that will-above and beyond all things-facilitate learning for the K-12 student. But moving towards a methodology which no longer focuses strictly on the "traditional" means of communication does not mean that teachers need to abandon their basic instinct, viz. to learn we need to interact physically with one another. The traditional concept of a school as being a place where students come together to learn in the same physical environment is not a concept that should be abandoned. Rather, public educators need to change their preconceptions of how and when students come together to learn so that their education can support this new type of technology driven classroom.
Since very early in American history, educators have worked to ensure that all students are prepared and well rounded. Every year more and more people are choosing to enter a college or university; choosing to go beyond their required education in order to receive training in areas about which they are passionate. Yet, in the last couple of decades we have seen technology explode onto the scene, permanently changing the way we live, interact, and learn. While schools have worked hard to ensure that students are equipped with the tools needed in today's society, we can always ask: is technology being used its fullest extent? The above scenario, in which students utilize available technologies to the fullest extent in order to complete a complex project, outlines a possible situation in which students, rather than simply making use of technology to absorb disjointed and only marginally useful facts, employ such technology to learn and develop within a tightly-knit community.
Is it possible to envision a world where an online student body is able to complete a project that they are interested in while still obtaining the skills and facts necessary to fall in line with the National Standards of Education? How can schools stay in touch with the world if they are not part of the mainstream student communities of the 21st century? All humans have a natural inclination towards learning; whether learning to walk, read a book, or to take a car apart and put it back together again. It is the responsibility of public educational institutions to mentor these natural motivations and to encourage a productive and collaborative society. Can this be successfully achieved and supported within the confines of a hybrid school? If public educators are to rise to the challenges of our times, the answer must invariably be, "yes."
The Internet has become the unofficial 21st century method for learning. Almost anything can be learned by simply watching a YouTube video or following along on someone else's blog. News is transmitted instantaneously throughout the world creating an almost unlimited supply of information for almost any need. However, when we look in the classroom, we find information continuing to be disseminated in the same way it has been for centuries. Where information comes out of the Internet like a waterfall, students are asked to sit for eight hours a day and move through information at a trickle. This is why public education needs to follow the community, especially when the community is obviously shouting that it knows where it wants to be.
So how do we tap into those communities? If there is one thing that has truly kept the fire of learning alive, it has been the library. Imagine a super-library, a kind of K-12 learning center that has been built to be alive and able to act a resource for an online community. A place that would support a kind of project-based learning that could be facilitated anywhere there was an Internet connection. This online school Hub would be filled with teachers and experts who could be present both physically present and virtually for students to interact with no matter where they are. This place would also serve as an easy meeting place for the physically interactive parts of project-based learning that are required of its online student body.
We propose that this Hub be the school that actively engages with the 21st century community structures. This high tech Hub facility will be a place where teachers no longer become the gatekeepers of a rigid grading system, but rather start acting as mentors and facilitators within a complex hive of student activity. Why this hub would be successful as a base for an online/virtual school is because it would enable what public education has been seeking to accomplish all along - it would allow students to naturally gravitate to the school out of the want for learning. The basic idea is that human beings learn while uncomfortable, i.e. in new situations where they are forced to be alert. If students were able to first engage with a school from a comfortable place it is our theory that these students would in turn be not only motivated to come to school they will be drawn to it. A "Hey, what's going on here?" attitude will be fostered when a student is able to observe the classroom before entering it.
It is of our opinion that if a High School were to utilize new technologies to expand the classroom and support its communication between all parties involved the result would be a class that is no longer confined by the walls of one room. The classroom could then become earth and the world we live in would become the teacher. This "free from physical constraints" classroom would be populated with students who are able to communicate anywhere that they can receive Internet bandwidth. Projects could take place in the African bush or in a coffee shop in Bern, Switzerland.
As we move into the future of learning the question of how to combine truly personalized education and online learning becomes self-evident. There are many more conversations that must come up to answer this, but none can arise until we have a core understanding as a community of what we are trying to achieve and what we are trying to teach as educators.
1) For a detailed elaboration of this phenomenon, see John Watson, Butch Gemin, and Jennifer Ryan. "Keeping the Pace with K-12 Online learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice." Rev. of K-12 Online Learning. Nov. 2008: 1-163.