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Introducing more technology into schools does not necessarily enhance learning. So what does? Thats what a team from the University of Haifa hopes to discover in a project designed to optimize learning in todays networked society

Ilan Yavelberg
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Have you ever wondered how your childs classroom will look in the future?

Instead of traditional lecture-style instruction, will students learn through new media as they collaborate with children from other parts of the country and even other parts of the world?

One thing is clear: In the information age, which is transforming our world, education, too, must change. Nowadays, information is at the fingertips of every learner, and networked learners can create knowledge, working with others, regardless of where they are physically located. Consequently, the physical space of the classroom is becoming only one of many spaces where learning occurs.

This change must be taken into consideration when we design curricula and the physical and digital spaces in which we seek to foster learning, says Prof. Yael Kali, the director of the Israeli Center of Research Excellence (I-CORE) on Learning in a NetworKed Society (LINKS), based at the University of Haifa.

Until now, many educational reforms have suffered from techno-centrism, or a technologically-focused approach, with a lot of hype over the incorporation of computers and mobile telephones in schools and a belief that they are a magic solution to educational problems. Today, we are witnessing a new phenomenon, which U. of Haifa Prof. Dani Ben-Zvi calls space-centrism.

One of the main criticisms of techno-centrism is that despite the introduction of technology, traditional teaching and learning approaches have stayed the same (for example, traditional books and worksheets have remained unchanged – they have merely been digitized). The new trend of space-centrism refers to the innovative educational architectures popping up everywhere. But once again, this trend does little in the way of reforming the way people teach and learn. It is vital to consider the pedagogy, technology, and space as inseparable elements in the design of learning environments, says Dr. Yotam Hod, director of the Future Learning Spaces (FLS) project at the LINKS Center.

Given these changes brought about by the information age, surprisingly very little research has been conducted on Future Learning Spaces and their potential to lead to significant reforms in education. The LINKS Center strives to study various aspects of the ways people learn in the networked society, including the notion of FLSs. The center brings together researchers from University of Haifa, Ben-Gurion University, the Israeli Institute of Technology (Technion) and the IDC Herzliya. They study the networked society from a range of disciplinary perspectives, including education, the learning sciences, information sciences, knowledge management, communication, anthropology, law, and health sciences. This range of specialties and the interdisciplinary links between them reflect the idea that to study innovation, one must also be innovative.

The FLS project is directed by Dr. Hod, Prof. Ben-Zvi and Prof. Tamar Weiss, along with a vibrant group of research students. Their point of departure is the assumption that current technological advancements can and should offer new and exciting possibilities to encourage the type of learning that is required in the 21st century. One principle that guides the design of FLSs is to promote classrooms in which students go back and forth between acquiring knowledge individually and working as part of a whole class. In such a scenario, the curriculum and activities are driven by big questions on a subject like climate change, which has various aspects that students can explore based on their interests. The space and technology can support this by providing multiple, large interactive displays around the room so students can get up and move around, manipulate digital objects, explore resources, and write documents together. As students gain knowledge about their part of the puzzle, the space turns into a gallery that shows the individual knowledge pieces so students can develop a deep understanding of the big picture.

Currently, an FLS is being constructed at the Faculty of Education at the University of Haifa. It will echo these ideas, and serve as a national model for researching and studying learning and instruction in the information age. In parallel, collaborations between the LINKS Center, international research partners, and various Israeli schools and organizations are underway. For example, a collaboration between the LINKS Center and the international educational organization World ORT Kadima Mada will lead to the establishment of FLSs in 200 schools throughout Israel.

 These collaborations allow FLS researchers to assess the innovative ideas as they are put into practice in schools; learn from the teachers and students experiences; and jointly develop FLS curricula and learning models that can equip learners with the skills and knowledge required in todays networked society.

The writer is the spokesperson of the University of Haifa