‘Cognition … has changed dramatically’

The final day of FETC 2007 featured a session from Chris Dede about new possibilities created by handheld devices.

Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, discussed how wireless mobile devices are going to change things in education and open up intriguing possibilities.

“We are living in a very interesting time in the history of education,” Dede said. Several important things are happening at once to change education, he noted.

For one thing, “the knowledge and skills that society wants from our graduates are shifting,” he said. The U.S. now has a global, knowledge-based economy that many people–such as baby boomers–struggle with, because they learned different professional skills growing up.

“Technologies are also changing the kinds of methods we have in teaching and learning,” Dede said, referring to how technology can augment curriculum.

These same technologies change the characteristics of students, and the technology that students use outside of the classroom affects their personal expression and creativity inside the classroom.

“These three trends are not discrete from one another; they’re quite interrelated,” he said. “It’s ironic that what kids do in their personal lives looks more like 21st-century work than what we do in our classrooms.”

Dede noted that “technologies are changing rapidly–the level of devices like cell phones, the applications that run on these devices, the media that are created, and the vendors that glue all the media together.”

He highlighted a few themes to give educators some context when thinking about mobile wireless devices and how they can be used in education.

First, the definition of “information technology” keeps changing, he said. It has encompassed everything from number crunching to communication. Fifteen years ago, it meant something different than it does today–and “we have every reason to believe, during the lifetimes of our students, that this definition will probably change again,” he said.

Second, “cognition–thinking–has changed dramatically, because now it’s distributed,” Dede said. “Thinking still takes place inside our minds, but now it’s also distributed [among] people and tools. We work with things like graphing programs that do our thinking for us. Work now takes place largely through teams, where each person does part of the work–and not just in one office, but across the world in virtual workplaces.”

In the keynotes and other sessions, change was at the heart of the discussion, but outwardly FETC 2007 maintained its accustomed look and feel. Under new ownership, change is inevitable for the venerable conference itself. How educators will greet the transformation is something that won’t be known for at least another year.

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