A Smart Learning Environment

The 2004 spring term at Princeton University included 12 weeks of actual class time. A typical university course met three hours per week. That allowed just 36 hours of class time to master AST 301 Gravitational Astronomy: COS 318 Operating Systems, or COM 314 The Renaissance. Thirty-six hours is not enough time for even the most scholarly students to develop gravitational, operating system, or Renaissance karma. While learning d'es happen within the confines of a classroom, most learning is done elsewhere. Students are always learning. Classrooms are much more teaching environments than learning environments. Better classrooms will help improve learning, but because students spend such a tiny amount of their learning time in class, even the best classrooms will have a limited impact on learning.

Many students spend little or no time in classrooms, getting their instruction remotely. This further constrains what can be done to a classroom to improve learning. Having comfortable seats, for example, is great for the students actually there, but adds nothing for students viewing the class from their bedrooms. Remote and local teaching may require different classrooms, but for all students, a classroom is just a tiny part of their learning environment.

For some time, the rest of a student’s learning environment has consisted of textbooks and notes, the library, a professor’s office hours, collaboration with peers, and pondering abstruse material until it is understood. These are still good ways to learn, but students need a smart mobile learning environment that can always be with them, not just the 15 hours per week a student taking five courses spends in class.

Before we give students a smart learning environment or smart classroom, we need to make them smart learners. We expend an enormous effort to teach athletes how to excel. We ensure that they know how to make their bodies ready for rowing, for example, and fuss about proper nutrition, exercise, and mental attitude. They do weight lifting, aerobics, and more. They aren’t just told to row like mad any way they can and then we award them an A+ if they excel. That’s what we do to our students in their academic pursuit, however.

We need to prepare students’ brains to learn with the same care and thoroughness, which we prepare athletes’ bodies to compete in sporting events. Students need to know how to take notes and use them, how to manage their time, how to do research in the library, on the Web, and with other sources, and how to write coherently, logically, and persuasively. They need training in the hardware and software tools that we expect them to use. And they need to understand the importance of rest, nutrition, exercise, and non-academic pursuits.

A smart learning environment can be used best by smart learners. While the infrastructure for a smart learning environment would be distributed, every smart learner needs to own an appropriate learner’s workstation. Since a learner’s workstation is not useful unless students have one, the workstation must be small, light, and wireless, run for a long time without being recharged (solar, fuel cell—who knows?), and support TV, radio, music, DVDs, games, and other forms of electronic entertainment that will bond the device to the student.

As a device often used on the go, it will need text-to-speech capability so that a student can listen to books, Web pages, calendars, notes, and other electronic texts. It will also record spoken ideas and verbal annotation. It will include tools to help outline, organize, and summarize. For tasks such as learning vocabulary, it will have a tutor that will serve up electronic flash cards and remember where a student needs more help.

One can readily imagine many other basic tools, for example, simulations, academic portfolios, blogs, and self-assessments that would be integrated into this workstation; however, a great deal of its real power as a learning tool would be the use of the network for help and collaboration.

The network could be used to help learners by having peers and scholars who would be willing to answer questions. All learners and helpers would file a profile of their areas and levels of expertise. Some helpers would be volunteers who would be on the network at random times. Others would be paid, online, and available for specific hours. A helper on the network could decide how, when, and what topics to offer help. A student could pose a question that would be compared to the profiles of all helpers to find the best available person to handle the question. A dialogue would be established between the learner and the helper, and the result would be rated by the student and helper to improve the system. Other helpers could be brought in to collaborate if necessary.

With a collection of scholars and learners with profiles on the network, it would be routine to put together collaborative groups that spanned the traditional bounds of a university. Students and their newly discovered colleagues from around the globe could work together to learn about gravity, operating systems, the Renaissance or whatever—at any time, not just during the few hours that classes are held. Now that’s a smarter way to learn. .

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