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Five Questions...for Christopher Dede

By Lisa Neal / March 2006

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Christopher Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His areas of interest and research include virtual environments, handheld devices, and neo-millennial learning. Professor Dede graciously agreed to inaugurate our "Five Questions" interview series with the following exchange.

Lisa Neal: What are the new technologies that are having the biggest impact on learning in higher education? And in the workplace?

Christopher Dede: Over the next decade, three complementary interfaces will shape how people learn:

The familiar "world to the desktop." Provides access to distant experts and archives, and enables collaborations, mentoring relationships, and virtual communities of practice. This interface is evolving through initiatives such as Internet2 and applications such as RSS feeds.

"Alice in Wonderland" multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs). Participants' avatars (self-created digital characters) interact with computer-based agents and digital artifacts in virtual contexts. The initial stages of studies on shared virtual environments are characterized by advances in Internet games and work in virtual reality.

Ubiquitous computing. Mobile wireless devices infuse virtual resources as we move through the real world. The early stages of "augmented reality" interfaces are characterized by research on the role of "smart objects" and "intelligent contexts" in learning and doing. Podcasting is a low-level, early application.

More information about my research on these various interfaces is available here. Higher education and workplace training are slowly realizing the educational possibilities of emerging media for these three interfaces. Change is driven less by technology-push than by demand-pull, as each cohort of entering students or workers is increasingly savvy about interactive media.

LN: What are the social and pedagogical transformations emerging as a result-for teachers, students, and approaches to education or training?

CD: Emerging devices, tools, media, and virtual environments offer opportunities for creating new types of learning communities for students, faculty, and alumni in higher education-and for trainers, managers, and employees in workplace settings. According to K. Bielaczyc & A. Collins, as written in Instructional Design Theories and Models, Vol. II (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates):

"The defining quality of a learning community is that there is a culture of learning, in which everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding. There are four characteristics that such a culture must have: (1) diversity of expertise among its members, who are valued for their contributions and given support to develop, (2) a shared objective of continually advancing the collective knowledge and skills, (3) an emphasis on learning how to learn, and (4) mechanisms for sharing what is learned."

"Distributed learning" is a term used to describe educational experiences that are distributed across a variety of geographic settings, across time, and across various interactive media. Many participants in distributed learning situations report that the use of asynchronous learning environments (such as threaded online discussions, which do not rely on posting at the same time for interaction) positively affects their participation and their individual cognitive processes for mastering knowledge and skills. In addition, participants indicate that synchronous virtual media (e.g., chat rooms and other interactive media requiring posting simultaneously) help them get to know members of the learning community with whom they might not otherwise individually interact and also provide a clear advantage over asynchronous media in facilitating the online work of small groups. Learning communities based on distributed learning strategies ("distributed-learning communities") are an exciting frontier for instruction in higher education.

LN: Can you comment on neo-millennial students and how you envision online courses best meeting their needs and accommodating their learning styles?

CD: Many adolescents today are highly engaged and expert in many forms of informal learning outside of school (e.g., virtual communities of practice based on videogames, television and movies, or fan sites for anime or fiction). In many cases, this sophisticated, but non-academic educational activity involves emerging "neo-millennial" learning styles based on the use of media such as instant messaging, multi-user virtual environments, and cell phones with text and image messaging. The process of neo-millennial learning is as engaging for these adolescents as the entertainment content they are mastering. Neo-millennial learning styles include:

  • fluency in multiple media, valuing each for the types of communication, activities, experiences, and expressions it empowers
  • learning based on collectively seeking, sieving, and synthesizing experiences, rather than individually locating and absorbing information from some single best source
  • active learning based on experience (real and simulated) that includes frequent opportunities for reflection (for example, infusing experiences in the Virtual University simulation [] in a course on university leadership)
  • expression through non-linear, associational webs of representations rather than linear "stories" (e.g., authoring a simulation and a Web page to express understanding, rather than a paper)
  • co-design of learning experiences personalized to individual needs and preferences
    Over the next decade, each cohort of students entering higher education-and the workplace-will increasingly exhibit these neomillennial learning styles.

LN: What would you do tomorrow with an unlimited budget?

CD: I would design innovative learning experiences for the general public that articulate the shift in knowledge and skills that graduates of US education must have for the emerging, global, knowledge-based economy. The success or failure of America's educational system over the next decade will determine the future of our economy and society for generations to come. Competitive advantage for a region, state, or nation is now built on the skills of its general workforce as opposed to its geography, trade laws, research labs, and patents. And critical to that competitive advantage are the education and skills training adults acquire in primary and secondary schools. Yet the rate at which high school graduates are going on to postsecondary education is falling, not rising, particularly in science and engineering. Our country is losing vital talent because our current educational system neither engages many students nor helps them succeed.

A primary challenge for US education is to transform children's learning processes in and out of school and to engage student interest in gaining 21st century skills and knowledge. Education must align curriculum and learning to a whole new economic model. Linking economic development, educational evolution, workforce development, and strengthened social services is essential to meeting this challenge. The use of sophisticated information technologies in every aspect of education can provide a powerful lever for this transformation.


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