A Study of "New Learning Environments in School Education" has been carried out under the eLearning initiative and eLearning Action Plan. This article is a free adaptation of the study summary. It gives an overall view of some of the main aspects of the findings included in the report.
The findings of the study suggest a clear move towards a new learning paradigm. This new learning paradigm represents a shift away from instructionism towards constructivism. That is, constructionist visions for the future education system seem to be globally shared.
What is a learning environment?
The common features in all of the theoretical definitions of new learning environments are their emphasis that a learning environment is a place or community in which a number of activities are occurring with the purpose of supporting learning, and that actors can draw upon a number of resources when doing so. They also emphasize the constructionist view of learning and the use of ICT.
Towards a new learning paradigm?
Common perceptions point to a number of potential changes.
The view of pupils as individuals. First they relate to a change in the focus on the pupils as individuals and their opportunities for becoming more active and taking more responsibility for their own learning process.
Planning learning according to individual learning styles.This aspect seems to be closely linked to a second substantial feature in the new learning paradigm, namely the differentiated learning approach, which emphasises the need to plan learning differently for different pupils, allowing them to work according to their individual learning style and learning pace. A perception based on a broader concept of intelligence than traditional literary intelligence.
Focus on social participation. At the same time there is an increased focus on social participation, hence on working with children's communication and collaboration skills.
Change in the teachers' role. There is a change in the perception of the
appropriate role of the teacher from a 'teacher to pupils' process of knowledge processing to more 'group-based' or 'pupil to pupil' processes where the teachers act more systematically as advisors, guides and supervisors for students, as well as providers of the frameworks for the learning process of their students.
From reproducing to constructing knowledge. An important aspect of the migration towards another learning paradigm is a shift in focus away from content and the ability to reproduce facts and knowledge towards the creation of knowledge. Pupils should be active participants in constructing knowledge through their own learning processes, both working alone or together with peers. Experimenting and exploring are important aspects of this active construction of knowledge.
Reorganizing the learning situation. The new learning paradigm involves the belief that learning will benefit from reorganizing the learning situation in ways that transcend traditional, curriculum-bound ways of thinking, with multidisciplinary approaches and radically modified time planning and organization of both learning and teachers' work.
The role of ICT ?
It seems to be commonly perceived that the use of ICT holds great potential for supporting or even being the transforming agent for the above mentioned shifts towards a new learning paradigm. As far as many of the study information sources were concerned, ICT is the initiator of a evolution within the education system. The study however concludes that this could be the case, but that it is by no means inevitable. Rather, it is concluded that ICT could either support and preserve traditional methods, or else be a means of - or a support for - changing the pedagogical methods and the organization of the learning situation.
Six best practice case studies were undertaken as part of the study. The six case studies supported the study's preliminary conclusion that New Learning Environments are not so much dependent on the use of ICT itself, but rely more on the reorganization of the learning situation and the teacher's ability to use technology to support pedagogical learning objectives that transform traditional learning activities.
On the basis of the case studies, it was clear that if ICT are being used to support new and innovative ways of learning and thereby create new learning environments throughout a school, the process has nothing to do with ICT as such. The resulting change proved to be much more closely connected with management style, attitudes among teachers, teacher education, pedagogical approaches and new learning styles. In all the best practice examples, ICT was not an objective for its own sake but merely represented a mechanism for attaining specific learning objectives.
Some of the general characteristics of new and innovative learning environments in which ICT is being used to support new ways of learning can be summed up as follows:
The use of ICT gives schools the opportunity to network with other institutions - both cultural institutions and other educational institutions - and gives them access to new forms of learning / multimedia material.
However, the innovative use of technology often only occurs within the classroom, and not very often between classrooms, across entire schools, or between schools and other institutions and organisations.
ICT is used mainly for collaborative and communication activities, production, and information seeking.
ICT is used more seldom for game playing, simulation and other experimental uses, although such activities have been observed.
ICT is often a catalyst of change, but does not in itself determine the direction of change.
Main challenges of the new learning environments?
Some of the main challenges that have been identified in the study are:
A need to evaluate in new terms. Schools are experiencing the need to evaluate and assess their pupils' learning processes in new ways that correspond to new learning methods, and that are not reflected in the present system of national examinations in any country in Europe.
Persistent sticking to tradition causes some problems for the New Learning Environments in several respects. First of all, pupils receive no credit for the new skills they have developed, even though these are regarded as being important for the future development of our societies. Secondly, some teachers and parents are still nervous about the new methods' capability of ensuring that the pupils studying in schools where they are being used will perform as well in national exams as pupils from schools which use traditional methods of learning.
Doubts about new learning methods. Among parents and in the public, debate about the new learning environments has expressed doubts about the schools' ability to develop the competences required for pupils to pass national exams as well as those from schools that rely on more traditional methods of learning, and the schools' ability to support and teach children with special needs has also been called into doubt. It was not the purpose of this study to evaluate whether these doubts are justified. However, pupils at two of the case study schools proved to be excellent achievers in national exams, coming second in national rankings. Some teachers at the schools claim that ICT has proved to be a robust tool for helping children with special needs of all kinds. For instance, children with dyslexia are benefiting from computer applications that can support their reading skills by reading texts aloud to them, or which help them to check their spelling. Children with other special needs such as those with motor problems can also benefit from using ICT.
Doubts about reorganization. In some of the schools visited, a dilemma seems to exist between the desire to reorganize the mode of learning and a number of other considerations. For instance, parents expressed their doubts about the value of reorganizing across time, age and subjects, mainly because they were very concerned about whether their children would score as highly in national exams as children from other schools. In addition, teachers are sometimes resistant to new modes of organization because it will involve more work for them at the beginning. However, the teachers we spoke to had all benefited in many ways from working more closely with their colleagues, and their experience was that it was worth doing in the long run because their work became much more interesting and their motivation increased.
Difficulties of independent learning. Doubts were also expressed as to whether the structure and motivation required for independent learning may be more difficult for children with learning problems, or for children who simply find school work boring and have trouble motivating themselves. They can get away with this more easily in an individualized learning environment. The management at some of the schools has pointed out in response to this criticism that children with learning problems have benefited particularly from the use of differentiated learning approaches.
This article is an edited version of the report summary. See the full text of the Study “New Learning Environments in School Education” (8 MB).