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Saturday September 20th 2014

The World Bank’s Robert Hawkins on Linking Technology Skills to Learning, a 21st Century Model

Post Published: 29 November 2010

Robert Hawkins, a strong advocate for integrating Information Communication Technology into education, shares his ideas with Creative Times about the development of a pedagogical model that combines ICT with learning to produce a 21st century work force. Hawkins is the Executive Producer of an online gaming program, EVOKE (www.urgentevoke.com), that is pushing and inventing boundaries for improved learning.

Set in 2020, EVOKE is an online crash course that challenges students to address future world crises, such as food and water shortages. Launched March 3, 2010, the ten week course enabled 20,000 players around the world to participate and develop innovative approaches to solving real global challenges using 21st century skills. “The assumption that we’re making is that more time on task translates into more knowledge and skill acquisition,” said Hawkins who is also a Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank which developed EVOKE. “The evaluation shows that players spent quite a bit of time engaging with the content. We think this is partially due to the incentives inherent in playing a game and receiving rewards. If this mode of engagement develops the type of motivation in students to stick with a subject, then we think there is some positive learning and skill acquisition taking place as a result. Beyond the motivational factors that contributed to more time with the content, we also saw a great deal of peer learning and interaction through the mechanics of the social aspects of the game. In many instances, students learn and understand concepts better from their peers. I think part of the success of EVOKE was that it was driven by a very compelling story. The narrative gave students the space to imagine alternative possibilities. I think that provoking students to think 10 to 20 years into the future cultivates the imagination and is critical to thinking about the possible, about students thinking of things outside of their day-to-day lives, being exposed to new perspectives. I think that the ability to imagine is the first step in doing and actually following through and creating something.”

While EVOKE is cutting edge and has anecdotally had tremendous success, its participants were university students and presumably already interested in learning, motivated and possessing a basic knowledge base. Hawkins is part of a trend in education reform that stipulates that bringing modern technology into the classroom is an important element to preparing students to adapt to a more fluid world, given the pace of technical change. The underpinnings of the ICT movement is that the traditional classroom harken back to the 19th century industrial age model that does not provide the capacity to adapt quickly and to be continuously engaged in the learning process. Below, Hawkins provides criteria for the ideal classroom, but cautions that “great teachers can be great without technology. Technology just expands the repertoire of tools that teachers bring into a classroom to accomplish their teaching objectives.”

Q: Describe the ideal 21st century classroom?

A lot of schools and education systems are looking at ways to create the appropriate spaces and environment to support the shift in pedagogy towards more group work, more collaboration. Obviously, access to information and technology is an important part of that, if they can afford it. There’s a shift towards more open spaces, more areas for small meetings, more opportunities for cross disciplinary collaboration where teachers are not confined to their own classrooms, and more inspiration and art with light infused through the building, more glass, more vibrant colors…these types of things.

Q: Given the realities of most schools in the developing world and a basic lack of tables, chairs, books and roofs, do you see technology having a transformational effect?

I think, for one, access and costs are coming down tremendously, I think it’s important for developing countries to anticipate a future where many of their students will have a mobile smart phone in their possession. Also, there is a virtuous loop or feedback mechanism of starting small and building opportunities to incorporate technology in teaching and learning. Teachers with access to technology develop some of the skills that other communities of teachers around the world are acquiring — such as techniques to facilitate the learning process; global collaborative project-based learning; creating and sharing information, and being more integrated into a global community of teachers. I think focusing on the teachers first is important, and slowly building a group of connected teachers who can support each other is a first step. That being said, I agree it’s a long stretch for many countries to do this at a system-wide level and there are definitely competing interests that are less expensive and easier to implement. On the theme of the lowering costs of technology and its rapid pace of change, there are many interesting experiments that are happening around cell phones, which are deployed mainly to support education outside of the classroom. For instance to help with literacy by providing m-books on mobile phones or to help with some basic numeracy through the development of cell phone games as is happening in India. So, it’s kind of slowly happening whether ICT is being fully integrated into the formal education system or not. Increasingly, young people all over the world are using mobile phones as their de facto information appliance. And, certainly, the hardware should never be the primary focus but rather education systems need to take a holistic approach. I mean you can’t just invest in the technology and hope that education happens. Teachers are still the most important element in teaching and learning. There needs to be a concerted effort on teacher professional development and an analysis of ways in which technology can best support different types of learning and thought as to integration into the curriculum.

Q: Do you have a good model for ICT in education?

I think what we did with World Links (www.world-links.org) was cutting edge at the time. It is still extremely relevant in terms of helping teachers think about how to use technology for teaching and learning. It had a large focus on project based learning. UNESCO has also developed a framework for teacher professional competencies focused on developing 21st century skills, which walks through the different phases of ICT skills.

EVOKE sparks youth’s search for the hero within.

Q: Can you tell me more about World Links what was exciting about it? Is it still going on?

It’s going on with an emphasis on the Middle East. The program left a good legacy of institutional expertise on ICT and education in the countries that we worked in. The most exciting thing at the time and I think it’s still true today, is that this kind of learning really leveled the playing field. Teachers in Uganda were getting the same types of skills, training and connections as the best schools in Washington, D.C. or New York. Together as a community of educators, schools and teachers were grappling with how to most effectively use this technology for teaching and learning and that manifested itself in unique ways in the different countries in which we worked. For instance, in the West Bank and Gaza, the program opened up the world to Palestinian teachers who were cut off from much of the world for a number of years. The program allowed for more of a breakdown in what was a very hierarchical learning culture to one that became a more collegial community of learners in many of the participating schools. In Brazil, ironically, World Links had the opposite effect though no less effective. The structure of the collaborative project gave the Brazilians a template and process in which to use technology for teaching and learning. So, World Links broke down the rigidity in a place like Palestine and actually provided a bit of structure and coherence to Brazil.

Q: What makes a great teacher today?

Good teachers with or without technology will care deeply about their students and try as much as possible to adapt their teaching to student needs. They are very flexible in terms of changing their approach when something doesn’t work, constantly trying new things, being learners themselves, and creating an environment that inspires students to think differently, critically. They look at different pedagogical approaches in which to bring out the skills that they want to develop. I think great teachers can be great without technology and with technology it just expands the repertoire of tools that they can bring in to a classroom to accomplish their teaching objectives.

Q: How can ICT projects be evaluated for educational impact?

All over the world there is a dearth of good assessments and evaluation of impact, partially because technology changes so quickly, partially because costs are constantly changing and coming down, so the cost-impact has been very difficult to get. But, also, most of the evaluations use learning outcomes based on standardized tests as a measure of learning and a lot of these 21st century skills are not well captured on a number of these standardized exams. The private sector led by CISCO, Microsoft, Intel are developing an assessment for 21st century skills that tries to effectively measure what it means to be a good collaborator, what it means to be creative, what it means to be a critical thinker. Some of the assumptions in today’s era if you look at teamwork and collaboration, de facto it’s going to be largely online. It’s essential to understand how to interact with people in a non face-to-face setting, Also, with the deluge of information, it’s important to develop these critical thinking and information resource skills. Because we live in a knowledge age, the premium is on new creative, innovative ideas, being able to create something new is a premium that organizations will look for in their future workers.

Q: With ICT, people usually think only of the sciences. Is there still room for the humanities, writing and literature?

I think there’s a huge scope for the humanities, you look at the non-academic world and how most people are using technology, they’re downloading music, making videos, creating new music, they’re writing and blogging. So there’s a huge natural affinity of creative people to connect with other people, to create new ideas and to express their creativity through various means. Multimedia just provides another outlet to express that creativity.

Q: Given your experience with the World Links projects, what are the major challenges for someone who is about to incorporate ICT in the classroom?

The main challenges to ICT incorporation are capacity, both technical in terms of maintaining equipment as well as educational. The other challenge is that the current incentives in almost all education systems – particularly at the secondary level – do not support the introduction of innovative pedagogies or content. Teachers need to get through the curriculum and help their students pass a test – unfortunately in many cases these assessments wag the dog.

Q: Let’s say I’m a teacher in a developing country with limited education. I just had teacher training with a donor, now they’re bringing in ICT. My plate is already full, how would you transmit your enthusiasm for ICT to this teacher?

A couple of things are needed. One obviously is supporting that teacher through a comprehensive training program and part of this is being able to articulate and communicate the use of ICT for improving teaching and learning. The use of ICT is not to learn computer applications. One needs to engage the teacher on her level to show her this is a tool she can use to become a better teacher. The other point is to make sure she is not alone, so you have to create a support system for her; the other is cultural. Many teachers are used to and feel they are expected to be the most knowledgeable person in the classroom. But, now, there is a need to create a culture that views teaching and learning through a community of learners where teachers and students teach and learn from each other. All of these things are important to getting that teacher comfortable and excited about using technology to do what she’s been trained to do better. The other aspect is ways technology can be used to bring others into the teaching process. What I am alluding to is in many countries there are huge teacher shortages. Can technology be used to connect students to other sources of expertise, to self-paced content, to mentors, to peers who can help them digest and understand concepts when a teacher is not available?

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