The Digital Ed. blog having recently brought Chris Dede to my awareness,  I have been poking around his publications at his Harvard GSE faculty website.

  • One paper, called Transforming Education for the 21st century, very effectively brings together a number of the issues and priorities that I blog about here:
  • * what the fast-changing world requires of our students to learn in the new era;
  • * how our students must have higher level thinking skills such as problem solving and communication;
  • how tackling real-world problems enhances the development of these 21st century skills;
  • and how contemporary digital tools enhance the opportunity for our students to gain these 21st c. skills.
  • Quoting Dede:

Information and communication technologies (ICT) aid with representing content, engaging learners, modeling skills, and assessing students’ progress in a manner parallel to how a carpenter would use a saw, hammer, screwdriver, and wrench to help construct an artifact.   The two key points in this analogy are (1) the tools make the job easier and (2) the result is of higher quality than possible without the tools. 20th century containers (e.g., chalk and talk) are insufficient for representing 21st century understandings and intellectual/psychosocial performances.

There is a lot of great material in this lengthy paper (I don’t know whether it has been published in any more formal setting than as a pdf at the HGSE website).   Dede explains that these new century skills are highly integrated, and best demonstrated in performance:

The discussion above suggests the importance of embedding students’ understandings in performances they can fluently accomplish. In the workplace, employees prove their worth through performances (e.g., collaboration), based on understandings but instantiated in sophisticated behaviors. In effective job settings, performances are part of an organizational culture that includes the provision of requisite tools, respect for all occupational roles, rewards for leadership and innovation; employees are part of a sociocultural, situated community of practice (Wenger, 1998). To prepare students for a prosperous and secure future, educators need to build not just understandings, but experiences in a community of practice that develops fluent, sophisticated behaviors – yet classrooms today typically lack this type of learning and teaching, in part because high-stakes tests do not assess these competencies.

Ded then take his paper onto terrain less familiar to this writer, writing about “immersion” as key to learning– what he calls “situated learning,”  and then to digital “second world” immersions as being opportune for providing students the closest approximation to real-world problems that schools can provide.

The design of mediated-immersion simulated learning experiences depends on actional, symbolic, and sensory factors (Dede, Salzman, Loftin, & Ash, 1999). Inducing actional immersion involves empowering the participant in an experience to initiate actions that have novel, intriguing consequences. For example, when a baby is learning to walk, the degree of concentration this activity creates in the child is extraordinary. Discovering new capabilities to shape one’s environment is highly motivating and sharply focuses attention. Inducing a participant’s symbolic immersion involves triggering powerful semantic associations via the content of an experience. As an illustration, reading a horror novel atmidnight in a strange house builds a mounting sense of terror, even though one’s physical context is unchanging and rationally safe. Invoking intellectual, emotional, and normative archetypes deepens the experience by imposing an overlay of associative mental models. Beyond actional and symbolic immersion, advances in interface technology are now creating virtual environments and augmented realities that induce a psychological sense of sensory and physical immersion. Sensory immersion is relatively easy to foster in augmented realities, which are set in physical environment

Dede goes on, in this sixty page paper, to discuss two interesting examples of virtual reality worlds and the curricular units built into them, such as River City.  My reaction is largely positive, appreciating what he has taught me about immersion and situated learning and the possibilities virtual world offer to deliver this.   I’d love to see students tackle the River City unit, and think there is probably great learning to be derived from it.

But, I want to say in response that before immersing our students into these virtual world during their school days, we should FIRST try harder to provide our students learning situated in the real world.   I don’t think Dede would oppose this, but his piece races ahead into his virtual world immersions after asserting that schools simply aren’t suited for actual world situated learning.   He is right that there are obstacles and limitations, but let’s make it a higher priority to connect our student learning to actual problems– studying the night sky and night light pollution, for instance, instead of studying the same problem inside a virtual world.