Saturday, November 13, 2010

Classrooms in Cyberspace

By Nelson Stewart
[Editors Note: Nelson Stewart is a music, English, geography, and history teacher in Hamilton, Ontario.  He is also a contributing subject matter expert on Cyberspace Age public education and the musical industry, as he describes in the SENDS White Paper on the Science of Cyberspace.  Below, Nelson discusses his thoughts on how cyberspace is transforming education in the grade school classroom. Carl Hunt].
As a teacher I have seen in just the past few years an explosion in the use of cyberspace.  There are important ways in which this been a valuable asset in the classroom.  For example, as a teacher of multiple subjects I literally have computer access to a world of knowledge, right from my desk.  When a student asks a question about any subject I can instantly seek out the answer, and if appropriate put it up on a screen and share it with the whole class.  Not only that, but I can often provide a photo, video clip or a sound-bite to accompany the information I pass on to the students. 
My students recently completed a cross-curriculum assignment involving the presentation of songs of a socio-political nature.  Each student was required to research the history of the song, the composer and the way the song relates to similar music and the world at large.  They also had to provide an analysis of the song from both a lyrical and musical perspective and then discuss it with the class.  Not only was research done using the Internet but each song was played for the class using YouTube. 
This power is augmented by the use of Smartboards in the classroom, which are touch-sensitive and are linked directly to the Internet through the teachers computer.  This means that even a primary or junior student has the ability to instantly connect with the world through their fingertips.  As we move toward a time when each student has their own Internet capable device, connected to the vastness of cyberspace, the possibilities seem endless.  Indeed, my school board just issued $185,000 worth of iPhones to school board staff so that they may have a reliable and consistent means of communication. 
Once we get to the point where every student has an iPad or similar tablet device, for example, then two things are likely.  The first is that these devices may lose their novelty, and therefore will just become tools, much like text books and whiteboards now.  As students and teachers get used to these new devices in the classroom, students with headphones plugged in listening to music -- as a lot of us do when we're working -- won't seem strange (the next generation of teachers, who were raised in an iPod/laptop world, will be even more accepting of this).

Secondly, if every student has a standard electronic medium then it will be easier for the teacher to plan around that.  Lessons, audio-visual aids, etc., can all be downloaded into each device and used in a uniform manner that is supervised by the teacher.  Report cards, homework, letters to the parents, and permission forms can all go home with the students on their tablet.  As technology advances, those devices will no doubt provide increasingly stimulating ways to improve pedagogy as well (for example: holographic images, direct cerebral connections that transport students to new lands, etc.).  While isolated experiments of this nature are being conducted around the world, we have a long way to go to fully exploit these new ways of thinking about the classroom in cyberspace!
Today, such devices only provide access to childrens games, music, and bare-bones Internet access, but one can easily imagine how much simpler it will be for students, particularly ones with learning disabilities, to access cyberspace by plugging in directly just by thinking about it or interfacing cerebrally, a la The Matrix.  Education must not be limited to so-called standard ways of perception, and new forms of cyberspace connectivity are beginning to offer ways to overcome the lack of eyesight, hearing or other senses.
Of course cyberspace and its accompanying technologies come with their own sets of problems related to use in the classroom.  Students with hand-held, Internet-capable devices are sometimes more interested in emailing their friends or playing on-line games than what is going on in the classroom.  To my mind this directly relates to the general decline in attention-span and on-task time in the classroom that is viewed by many teachers to be a result of technology overload, particularly in relation to cyberspace communication and gaming at home.  As always, achieving balance is importantbut thats not a problem unique to cyberspace.  I think a science of cyberspace can certainly inform how we achieve that balance.
In the end, it will be up to teachers of this and new generations of students to challenge themselves and their educational systems to harness these new technologies and connectivity in ways that produce interesting and relevant forms of education.  Cyberspace is expanding, as are the technologies that leverage it: as teachers we must ensure our students can take advantage of this new world, not deny its role in education.  The classrooms of the Cyberspace Age offer far more winners than losers if we get this right.