Smart learning environments, and not so smart learning environments: a systems view | Smart Learning Environments | Full Text

This is a new article from me about smartness in learning environments. The originally submitted title was ‘stupid learning environments’ but the reviewers rightly felt that this didn’t accurately reflect the main points of the article. It’s worth dwelling for a second on why I chose it, though. I created the original title in homage to Cipolla, whose definition in ‘The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” resonates through the paper:

“A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.”

In the paper I describe how traditional educational systems can be (and, without much effort, usually are) not just a bit unintelligent but, in Cipolla’s sense of the word, positively stupid, because they can (and by default do) actively militate against effective learning in a number of important ways. It’s not the first paper in which I have mentioned this curious fact, nor the first one in which I have suggested ways to overcome the problem but, in this paper, it is really just intended as an illustrative example of how learning environments can result in unwanted behaviours, and not the main point of the piece.

The main point of the paper is that typical definitions of smart learning environments in existing literature, that talk only of digital tools embedded in or overlaid on an environment, make little sense because smartness in an environment is not a consequence of smartness in its components, but of how they work together to support learning. An individual brain cell is not smart, but systems comprised of lots of them, connected in the right ways, can be. Equally, an individual professor might (occasionally) be very smart but, without a lot of coordination and/or connection, a collection of them is no smarter than a collection of cats. The point is that smartness in an environment is a systems issue that, generally speaking, has little to do with the pieces of digital technology we embed in it (a distributed model) or that we overlay on top (a centralized model). Most importantly, perhaps, a model of a smart learning environment that ignores the most intelligent and dynamic parts of it (the learners), or that only looks at a tiny fraction of the environment, makes no sense whatsoever. The paper is thus an attempt to shift the focus away from digital tools and towards the roles that they and other smart things (like students and professors and cats) can play in the broader learning environment. To do that it meanders a bit around a bunch of related issues, integrating a number of ideas I have written about before such as orchestral perspectives on soft and hard technologies, the gestalt nature of teaching, and the value of connectivist patterns of thinking, leading to a few suggested strategies for building smart learning environments (not just smart tools), and a conclusion that the smartest learning environments are “inhabited spaces that provide the richest opportunities for people to connect, engage, support, and challenge one another to learn”.

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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