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Paper-Based Materials Distorted Ways of Learning

Analog materials, slow, heavy, costly, and hard to distribute, came to define education over the centuries. The natural human instincts to collaborate and share were stunted and instead education came to valorize illusory "individual learning" as if that was the right idea all along. What we valued in higher education -- the clunky series of kludgy adaptations to the limitations of analog -- came to seem the right and only way to teach and learn. Digital restores communication and collaboration capabilities. We could say that digital returns us to more natural ways of learning.

The classroom is being freed of its psychological isolation from the world. "In class" and "out of class" have a fuzzier boundary given the authentic real-world experiences students can have right in the classroom or lab, or the classroom and experimental experiences they can do out of class: They can visit a classroom in France from their own classroom or they join in class discussion from their dorm rooms outside of normal class times. When in the classroom, they can be out and when out of the classroom they can be in.

These kinds of fuzzy boundaries have been around for years, but Web 2.0 now adds new dimensions and a more urgent challenge to re-think learning design. Web 2.0 tools are social tools. They've produced a super-nova burst of human energy. We've tapped an energy source that analog materials diluted for centuries. This burst of energy is a learning moment for higher education.

What should we learn?
Good learning design must take into account the learning materials we work with. Digital materials and digital spaces are fundamentally different than analog materials or spaces, as higher education is slowly realizing. Instead of designing learning based on the limitations of analog materials, we must design learning based on the greater capabilities and tendencies of the learning materials we have before us now. Let's not fight the super-nova but understand it better.

Therefore, the questions for faculty members as they design a learning process for a semester might be these:

Given the learning goals I've identified for my students over the next 15 weeks...

1. What work is best to do with my real-world immediate presence?
   a. What is the right mix of lecture, group work, experimentation (virtual or real), and of oral and electronic interaction?
   b. How can my students connect with this work when I'm not with them between classes so they can continue their projects?
2. What work is best to do without my real-world immediate presence?
   a. What rubric can I supply to my students for project or discovery work using the Internet and Web 2.0 spaces?
   b. How can this work then be connected back to the classroom process?

The "we'll talk in class and then you'll read or write or produce or experiment out of class" model is not sacrosanct but based on the sharing limitations of analog materials. It is no longer appropriate or even wise. The disconnect between talking in class and doing homework out of class is not only unnecessary, but directly contradicts the realities of the digital learning materials of today.

Why did we develop a default learning model and beliefs so contrary to current reality? We had adapted to what we could do over the whole time that we had only analog materials to work with. A student writing a paper on paper had a hard time showing that paper to the rest of the class, so, over time the natural collaborative learning style popularly known as Socratic became distorted by the limitations of analog materials. Collaboration was no longer the norm. Humans had lost something.


These analog limitations led to the idea that real academic work is individual and not collaborative. And this faith led directly to the quaking fear -- think Joe McCarthy and the Communist witch hunts -- of plagiarism. Sounds so much like "the plague," doesn't it? Oh, the horror if students should somehow share their ideas among themselves!

But the plagiarism problem is not at all with collaboration -- which is the culture of the Web and of today's world -- but with us educators having so little experience designing work assignments that eliminate any possibility of plagiarism.

Just think of this one subtle shift in the following paper-writing assignment:

1. The analog world test question: Why was the polar bear put on the endangered species list?
2. The digital world question: What did Fatimah (a class member) mean by her Wiki comment about polar bears?

The first question lays down the plagiarism challenge, the second eliminates that possibility.

Join the Devolution

Individual work as the default norm makes no sense in this time when both learning research and our materials lead us back to traditional human social learning norms. Our materials are by nature social and not individual. And, digital materials fit better with the natural social learning patterns of humans, which existed for thousands of years before the "Gutenberg Parenthesis" and are now re-emerging.

Yet, to look at the curricular design still prevalent in higher education, to see that same curricular design reinforced in course management systems, and in the quizzing and testing tools, you'd have to conclude that in the midst of this Web 2.0 world we still believe the only way to learn is individual and the greatest crime one can commit is plagiarism. We're living a paper fantasy in an electronic world.

Our beliefs about learning have been based on analog limitations, not digital possibilities. The cat's out of the bag: Digital tools and spaces don't augment learning design of the past few centuries, they augment pre-Gutenberg human social learning patterns. We are not in a revolution, but a devolution. It's nice to be home again.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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