Shifting Sands – Digital Futures and the 21st century classroom

For those of you who missed his inspirational keynote address at the annual INTO Staff conference held at Newcastle University on 21st June 2013, we bring a blog from Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor at Plymouth University and one of Europe’s leading speakers and researchers on digital technology and higher education.

 You can follow Steve on Twitter at @timbuckteeth


I have been blogging, writing and talking about our digital learning futures for some time. Although it is very difficult to predict the future, we are aware of the trends and can use these to detect where we may be heading, and that may take us in one or more directions, hence the plurality of ‘futures’. Technology is one of the major drivers of change in our society, and it is easy to see where this is being integrated into schools, colleges and universities. Mostly it is integrated into classrooms, but it is largely left out of most curricula. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that we are rooted in old practices and outdated frameworks which are in need of change. Places of learning are notoriously resistant to change, but change is needed if progress in education is to be made. We now live on shifting sands. Allow me elaborate:
Many of our pedagogical theories and much of our practice in higher education is grounded in, and has been derived
from, a pre-digital era, when the lecturer or professor was central to the process of education, and where the classroom was the predominant place for learning to take place. Such approaches to pedagogy were rooted in the behaviourist model of psychology that privileged expert knowledge and formalised its transmission to novices. Education premised on this philosophy has been commonly referred to as the ‘factory model’ because of its parallels to industrialised working, which included batchprocessing, rationalisation of resources, synchronised behaviour and homogenisation of product. In Henry Ford’s car factory it was said, you could choose a car of any colour, as long as it was black. 

In a time where education was being organised around experts (teachers) and students (novices) and where behaviour was required to be synchronised and content homogenised, such instructionalist approaches seemed to be relevant and appropriate. However, society moved on, the world of work changed, and the industrialised processes were replaced by knowledge working. And yet, although society has moved on, industrialised processes still persist in all sectors of education. It is more comfortable to stay the same, than it is to change.  We still see large groups of students sitting in rows (often in auditoria and lecture theatres) struggling to take notes as a professor at the front hold forth on some theory or debate. Someone once remarked that the lecture is the most effective way to transfer a lecturer’s notes into a student’s notes without having to pass through two minds first. The old modes of teaching are outmoded. New modes will, and are replacing them.

In the digital age, where we are surrounded by new and emerging technologies, pedagogical theories and practices are in need of change. Technology is disrupting everything it touches, and education is no exception. Academic roles are changing. With the agenda for student centred learning, teaching staff should now act more as a supporting cast rather than as leading actors.  Learning can take place anywhere, anytime, so formalised education contexts such as those seen in classrooms are going to become less important. Whilst learning is still learning, the pathways that lead us to that learning are radically changing, and there will need to be shifts in our perception and changes in our attitudes as a teaching profession, if we are to make sense of the seismic effects of new technologies.

In the keynote delivered to the INTO Staff Conference at Newcastle University on midsummer day – 21 June, 2013 – I will explore new technologies and new pedagogies, and offer some evaluation of some of the new digital age learning theories.

For example, social media is encouraging learners not only to discover existing knowledge, it is also enabling them to create, repurpose, organise and share new knowledge. Most of this activity is self organised. The self organising spaces that are proliferating on the web support the spread of these activities and in so doing help to sustain and grow the learning communities of practice that are now so vital to our society. Self organised spaces such as Wikipedia and YouTube have received bad press in the past, but increasingly, such huge, and ever growing repositories of knowledge and learning resources will become more important in education. We will also witness the growth of ambient and transient learning communities, which will spring up and thrive for a specific purpose, and then disappear again just as quickly. That they are ephemeral, from this perspective, will be less important than the impact such communities will have whilst they still exist.  

Learning is changing, as are the roles of teachers. Technology will continue to disrupt our lives, and education will be conducted in many diverse ways, and in multiple contexts. Much learning will become informal, but as for formal learning – the expectations of young people will be different from the expectations we had when we were students in university. We can no longer afford to teach in the same ways as we were taught. And we can no longer avoid or ignore the technology wave that is driving these changes. 

Photo by Steve Wheeler

Creative Commons License

Shifting sands by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

One thought on “Shifting Sands – Digital Futures and the 21st century classroom

  1. It was a great session from Steve, insightful and inspirational. His leading theme was taken from the William Gibson quote “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.
    see more quotes and links at the twiitter hashtag #INTOstaff13

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *