Reimagining Learning Environments

Transcript: Reimagining Learning Environments

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Nathan Holbert: One thing that I hope that we can remember is the freedom of what is possible when you open up your mind to what learning can look like, right? When we don't think of learning as a thing that has to happen in a school or has to happen in the classroom. Or we don't think about learning that even if it's delivered by a webcam, it has to be delivered from a teacher directly to a student, right? When we instead think about learning as something that can emerge from the current conversations that are out there in the world or can take place whether it's in a living room or whether it's on a sidewalk or in a park.

So during that first week, I tried to think a lot about, well, what do my children need to know about the world? So for example, my son's worksheets were mostly, you know, doing sums and things. So we didn't find that terribly interesting. And so instead we would think about, well, if we want to explore multiplication, for example, how could we do that in a compelling or an interesting way? One example of an activity that we did was, you know, at the time the coronavirus was still pretty new. And one of the hypotheses was that it was an exponential spread. And so I started teaching my son about this and I asked him, hey, if we tried to figure out how many days would it take for 1 million people to be infected by the coronavirus if the number of people infected doubles every day, how many days would that take? It's kind of a morbid question in some ways, but it was, it was a topic that was really, really important to him. And he was able to figure out how many days it would take for a million people to become infected. And that led him to become really surprised at how it started slow, but then it grew really, really fast. And so we started saying, Well, how long would it take for everybody in the United States to be infected? How long would it take for everybody in the world? And, and this kind of led to an additional set of questions that he could explore that were letting him use mathematics to answer something he genuinely cared about.

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I had that opportunity because I happen to be on spring break that week. Most parents were still having to work every day all day, right. And sometimes in multiple jobs. So this was not a not an equitable situation at all. It was as an opportunity that happened because I had the privilege to let it happen. The inequities that emerge from doing fully online learning are, are quite vast. And even if you have an Internet connection, if you live in a small apartment, it's really impossible to find a quiet place to, to have those meetings and to have those conversations. And I think we should consider that as we think about, well, should we expand these kinds of technologies? Should we expand these kinds of learning opportunities? We can do that, but we need to do it in a way that leverages the affordances of the medium. And we need to understand that when we do that, we're not actually addressing issues of inequity that are, that are systemic in our educational systems.

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Despite the fact that it was overwhelming, and despite the fact that the amount of time that that my wife and I had to sort of devote to what our kids were thinking about and doing during the day, before school kind of returned in this online form, the space of possibilities of what they could explore was wide open. The space of possibilities of how they could explore it was also wide-open. We could come up with all sorts of crazy interesting ideas for activities that the kids could do or conversations they could have or projects that they could make. I think we actually had a really exciting opportunity to try that out at the beginning of this pandemic. And we saw little flashes of that, you know, in individual families or in individual pods or in maybe some communities. But the nature of the crisis that we were all facing, the nature of the balancing of work and home life that was really impossible for most families across the world, and the fact that school has a tough time of thinking of learning beyond the usual resources that we find in classrooms and school buildings, that all kind of reasserted itself. And so what we're left with when we think about online learning or remote learning is something that resembles a great deal kind of the more traditional classrooms that we find, well before the pandemic, and unfortunately will probably return in [♫ piano music ♫] full force once school returns after this is over. That's what I want us to remember–that learning isn't dictated exactly by the nature of a classroom or the nature of a school. It can be so much more than that.

Black and white headshot of Nathan Holbert
Nathan Holbert

Nathan Holbert is a dad who designs stuff and builds stuff. He also plays a lot of games. He’s quite lucky to be able to design, build, and play as an Associate professor of Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design at Teachers College, Columbia University. Nathan likes to build and study playful tools and technologies that help kids make things they care about or ask questions about the world around them.

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