Sometime in the early 1980s, the first computer took up residence in our home, a Commodore 64. It was a marvel of a machine, according to my husband and children – he because of its word processing and spreadsheet capacity and they because of the games, of course. You could even draw little pictures on it – not as well as with a pencil on paper, but still amazing. It could take the place of my typewriter, my husband insisted, but I balked. Not until the first Mac arrived on the scene, a few years later, did I reluctantly begin to play with word processing and the earliest page layout programs. Within weeks, the typewriter was relegated to a closet, where it remained for several years until no one wanted a typewriter anymore.
All this, of course, was long before the technology became “interactive” and long before the Internet. It was at times useful, at times fun, but never personal.
Last winter I took an online writing course. I read lectures, posted submissions, chatted with fellow classmates, critiqued the work of others, queried the instructor, and felt genuinely engaged with the process and the other nine students – who were from all over North America, and one from Australia. By the time the course ended, I felt I’d made friends, although we will probably never see one another – except on Skype, if we want to.
And yet, my course barely scratched the surface of the technology’s potential for interactive learning and personal engagement. In her article on teaching in a participatory digital world, Michele Jacobsen says, “Web 2.0 applications… are part of a new user-centric information infrastructure that emphasizes creative participation over presentation; encourages focused conversation and short briefs written in less technical, public vernacular; and facilitates innovative explorations, experimentations, and purposeful tinkerings that often form the basis of situated understanding that emerges from action not passivity.” The stuff of real learning, and the same concept of learning through doing that Jodene Dunleavy and Penny Milton promote in their article on student engagement. Nothing impersonal about it.
It’s hard to imagine schools without computers anymore. And there aren’t many luddites left who refuse to check their email or google for information. But here’s the problem: it’s easy to think that’s enough. In the emerging world of digital learning, it’s not. Teachers, as well as students, need to become comfortable about learning with technology – using these powerful new tools to create learning experiences that are both engaging and personal.