To take full advantage of new technologies, we need to fundamentally rethink our approaches to learning and education and our ideas of how new technologies can support them.
When people think about education and learning, they often think about information. They ask questions like: What information is most important for people to know? What are the best ways to transmit that information from one person (a teacher) to another (a learner)? What are the best ways to represent and display information so that it is both understandable and learnable?
It’s not surprising that people see a natural connection between computers and education. Computers enable people to transmit, access, represent, and manipulate information in many new ways. Because education is associated with information and computers are associated with information, the two seem to make a perfect marriage.
This focus on information, however, is limiting and distorting, both for the field of education and for computers. If we want to take full advantage of new computational technologies, and if we want to help people become better thinkers and learners, we need to move beyond these information-centric views of computing and learning.
Over the past fifty years, psychologists and educational researchers, building on the pioneering work of Jean Piaget, have come to understand that learning is not a simple matter of information transmission. Teachers cannot simply pour information into the heads of learners; rather, learning is an active process in which people construct new understandings of the world around them through active exploration, experimentation, discussion, and reflection. In short: people don’t get ideas; they make them.
As for computers, they are more than simply information machines, despite the common use of the phrase “information technology” or “IT.” Of course, computers are wonderful for transmitting and accessing information, but they are, more broadly, a new medium through which people can create and express. If we use computers simply to deliver information to students, we are missing the revolutionary potential of the new technology for transforming learning and education.
Consider the following three things: computers, television, finger paint. Which of the three doesn’t belong? For most people, the answer seems obvious: “finger paint” doesn’t fit. After all, computers and televisions were both invented in the twentieth century, both involve electronic technology, and both can deliver information to large numbers of people. None of that is true for finger paint.
But until we start to think of computers more like finger paint and less like television, computers will not live up to their full potential. Like finger paint (and unlike television), computers can be used for designing and creating things. In addition to accessing Web pages, people can create their own Web pages. In addition to downloading MP3 music files, people can compose their own music. In addition to playing SimCity, people can create their own simulated worlds.
It is design activities such as these that offer the greatest new learning opportunities with computers. Research has shown that many of our best learning experiences come when we are engaged in designing and creating things, especially things that are meaningful either to us or others around us (e.g., Papert 1993). When children create pictures with finger paint, for example, they learn how colors mix together. When they build houses and castles with building blocks, they learn about structures and stability. When they make bracelets with colored beads, they learn about symmetries and patterns.
Like finger paint, blocks, and beads, computers can also be used as a “material” for making things—and not just by children, but by everyone. Indeed, the computer is the most extraordinary construction material ever invented, enabling people to create anything from music videos to scientific simulations to robotic creatures. Computers can be seen as a universal construction material, greatly expanding what people can create and what they can learn in the process (Resnick 1998).
Unfortunately, most people don’t use computers that way today. When people are introduced to computers today, they are typically taught how to look up information on the Web, how to use a word processor, how to send e-mail. But they don’t become fluent with the technology.
What does it mean to be digitally fluent? Consider the analogy with learning a foreign language. If someone learned a few phrases so that they could read menus in restaurants and ask for directions on the street, would you consider them fluent in the language? Certainly not. That type of phrase-book knowledge is equivalent to the way most people use computers today. Is such knowledge useful? Yes. But it is not fluency.
To be truly fluent in a foreign language, you must be able to articulate a complex idea or tell an engaging story; in other words, you must be able to “make things” with language.
Analogously, being digitally fluent involves not only knowing how to use technological tools, but also knowing how to construct things of significance with those tools (Papert and Resnick 1995).
Fluency with language not only has great utilitarian value in everyday life but also has a catalytic effect on learning. When you learn to read and write, you are in a better position to learn many other things. So, too, with digital fluency. In the years ahead, digital fluency will become a prerequisite for obtaining jobs, participating meaningfully in society, and learning throughout a lifetime.
Today, discussions about the “digital divide” typically focus on differences in access to computers. That will change. As the costs of computing decline, people everywhere will gain better access to digital technologies. But there is a real risk that only a small handful will be able to use the technologies fluently. In short, the “access gap” will shrink, but a serious “fluency gap” could remain.