Features

XVIII.4 July + August 2011
Page: 64
Digital Citation

Rethinking education in a changing world


Authors:
Paloma Díaz, Elisa Giaccardi, Ignacio Aedo

Our relationship with computing is changing so rapidly and producing such a profound impact on our social and professional lives that many in the educational community are questioning how to prepare a new generation of students to address the challenges of this world under rapid transformation. What are the fundamental challenges of living in a digital world, in which human beings, material artifacts, and digital services are increasingly interconnected and interdependent? What knowledge and skills will students need to be able to envision and pursue new contexts and roles for digital technology in the society of the future?

In March 2010, 25 international experts from academia and industry met in Madrid, Spain to participate in a two-day workshop promoted by the Digital Living Initiative of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M). The goal of the event, co-organized by the Institute of Culture and Technology (ICyT) and the Interactive Systems Lab (DEI), was to develop a set of recommendations for a new masters program in digital living to be offered at UC3M. Participants in the workshop were from many different countries and backgrounds, including engineering, social sciences, humanities, art, and design.

The event was an opportunity to consider the educational challenges of the digital living paradigm. Participants expressed different opinions, but they were virtually in agreement on recognizing the need for more flexible curricula and a new kind of competence: one that enables students to balance critical thinking and creative action, act locally while thinking globally, and ultimately be reflexive and adaptable. While participants agreed on the importance of learning about the relationship between information, people, and technology, they also highlighted the fact that our changing relationship with computing means that understanding and shaping what this relationship will be requires that students learn to learn. Even more important, it requires that students learn to be engaged citizens and entrepreneurs by acquiring the skills necessary to play active roles in the digital world.

In this article we summarize this debate, grounding our discussion in the issues raised by the participants, as reflected in the workshop’s report [1].

Digital Living

The expression “digital living” usually evokes a futuristic image of home automation, replete with sophisticated technological systems for lighting, heating, and security. It is the image of a world populated with the latest technology for work and home, from immersive entertainment options, to slim and shiny interactive surfaces for the distribution of news feeds and multimedia content, to pervasive, natural interfaces all around the house, along the highway, in shops, and even at the bus stop. Such an idealized projection depicts a scenario in which we will be able to access and generate information at any place and at any time, downloading and uploading with the ease of a gesture.

In a world in which we are not simply using digital technology but living immersed in it, how do we design for human experience? Increasingly, designers are challenged to understand what makes us human, to make judgments about how new digital technologies will affect us, and to envision how the use of technologies may unfold and change [2]. As educators who face these challenges, we are increasingly asked to nurture critical thinking and creativity in a lifelong learning process in which theory and practice go hand in hand, to make schools and universities places where students and teachers engage in creative thinking and learning by doing, and to support innovation that contributes to prosperity and sustainability [3].

Although there are several programs around the world offering interdisciplinary education focusing on (and beyond) the field of human computer interaction, the most notable academic movement in terms of scope and impact is the information school (iSchool) phenomenon. iSchools bring together a mix of disciplines, which usually includes library science, information retrieval, computing, and social sciences (namely psychology, sociology, and anthropology). The core vision of this movement is that information, technology, and people are considered to be of equal significance, and that the design of information systems requires expertise in all of these domains. But what does it take to shift the emphasis from digital information to digital living, from the design of information systems to a design centered around the human experience of people living with and through digital technology?

After discussing the offerings of existing iSchools and other innovative programs across the world, we began to reflect on how to shape a more transdisciplinary approach to education that may open new knowledge spaces and professional opportunities. The main thread of the discussion emphasized the increasing importance of the liberal arts within a context in which technology and design are thought of in relation to human experience and social practice. It also stressed how flexibility and reconfigurability should be implemented at all levels (from physical spaces to the faculty and the curriculum), and it high-lighted the need for a methodological and ethical “grounding in place” of research, teaching, and learning within the local community as well as the larger global context.

Based on this debate, we articulate a set of recommendations for those who, like us, are engaged in developing new curricula for educating students in digital living.

Which Students?

Designing a transdisciplinary program that fulfills the promise of fostering social and technical innovation by teaching the critical and creative skills necessary for digital living is clearly a big challenge. Making the program worthwhile for both students and their future employers is an even bigger challenge and responsibility. Anyone designing such a curriculum would want bright, ingenious, and resourceful students who could embody and promote the vision. The challenge is not only whether you can get the right students, but also whether you can guide these students in the journey to target and refine, day by day, the set of knowledge and skills that will end up characterizing your program and making it unique.

The first recommendation is to attract and enroll the right students. Finding a balance between considering prospective students’ prior knowledge, skills, and attitudes and setting up flexible entry requirements is the first critical step. We need to ask: What does the student know? And even more important: Why does the student know what she knows? Asking prospective students to submit a portfolio rather than a written application would enable educators to assess actual skills and competence, and opportunistically match them to the expected yet evolving outcomes of the new program.

A second recommendation is to create an environment where all faculty and students can be united by a common ethos. Besides a shared understanding of the educational objectives of the program, students and faculty should be united by similar attitudes and manifest similar beliefs and aspirations. At the same time, students should learn to value the richness that comes from the different disciplinary backgrounds and cultural milieus, and they should learn to become critical and engaged members of society. Such a common ethos should gradually develop through students’ engagement in collaborative activities of learning and doing and “wrap” the competence that students will mature during their studies. The point is: It is important not only who you bring together, but also how you bring them together.

What Competence?

What does it take to become competent in digital living? It requires learning about and learning to be. The competence necessary to critically and creatively engage a world made more interconnected and more complex by digital technologies must develop through a course of studies oriented at teaching students how to continuingly learn new computing skills, how to think and inquire through design, and how to ethically engage with different communities and human geographies.

The first recommendation is to bring students up to speed as soon as possible and then to facilitate teams “hands on with minds on.” Attractive, leveling courses should be offered in the first year to bring everybody up to speed on the same knowledge and skills, and to help students appreciate their peers’ knowledge and skills in familiar areas of expertise. Through their studies, students should learn to understand and critique the many infrastructural layers of digital living (technical, political, social, cultural, historical, economic, and so on) as well as learn to explore and create with different materials and digital components (including software), especially when resources are limited. More important, they should learn to do so collaboratively in problem-based situations, so that students can reinforce each other, diversity can flower, and new knowledge spaces can open up for discourse and intervention.

A second recommendation is to strive for openness and flexibility within a robust infrastructure. This means an open faculty, a flexible curriculum, and reconfigurable environments. The program should follow an open faculty model, in which different departments collaborate in teaching and research. It will be important to consider where teachers come from and what pedagogical approaches they bring. It will be equally important to ensure the content of their courses has been adapted to the scope and objectives of the program and not simply transferred as is from previous courses in their parent departments. The curriculum should be flexible and yet robust enough to allow students to acquire basic skills in digital living and to specialize, all while building on their individual backgrounds, previous knowledge, and skills. A curriculum structure consisting of core modules and additional, selective modules is crucial for a successful implementation of the program, as it has the advantage to remain adaptable to future trends and evolutions.

A third recommendation is to get students to know themselves and talk to each other. Becoming competent in digital living requires that students know themselves. Students should be able to recognize their own knowledge and skills, know what these are useful for, and know how to express them so they can better sell themselves in a project and in a market where changes are rapid. But knowing yourself is also the glue that combines learning to know (by building bridges across different disciplines and practices); learning to do (by acquiring a profession, but also a flexible mindset); learning to be with others (by accepting plurality, but also respectfully standing for our convictions); and learning to be (by discovering how we have been conditioned, and testing the foundations of our convictions). Social activities can be offered regularly and promoted using social-networking tools. These gatherings will help foster a shared “we feeling,” provide spontaneous ways for students to develop a common language, and help knowledge to naturally sink in.

A fourth recommendation is to get students to engage. Becoming competent in digital living also means learning how to frame and address problems of societal relevance as an active participant. Students should be encouraged to engage with the real world through sociological and anthropological research methods (in particular, ethnography and social action) and methods of public accountability (including demos and exhibitions).

What Pedagogical Strategies?

Bridging theory and practice and learning from one another are critical to the lifelong ability of learning to learn. This requires situations in which both students and teachers can participate using their knowledge and expertise. But learning from one another also means being grounded in place within both your local community and a larger, global context.

The first recommendation is to nurture a learning process in which theory and practice go hand in hand. However, assessing this balance is difficult. Asking students to keep a portfolio of their work can help assess on a case by case basis how students balance theory and practice, and how this balance contributes to their learning processes and shapes how well they’re able to learn to learn. From this perspective, the portfolio is an important pedagogical tool with which teachers can experiment, deciding what students should include (for example, outcomes of classes, capstone projects, blogs, and embedded labs), why it should be included, and how it should be evaluated.

A second recommendation is to foster co-apprenticeship. This means that faculty and students should learn from one another. For example, digital natives can be particularly skilled with certain digital technologies and thus might be ideal teachers in those contexts, presenting their previously acquired skills to a class. Faculty and students can also learn from each other when different lecturers provide students with different viewpoints of the same course content—ideally not as alternate lectures, but as parallel discourses.

A third recommendation is to regard teaching as a context. This includes student projects, workshops, and internships. Seminars are important to reflect on modern phenomena and broaden students’ understanding. Similarly, workshops can be critical to integrate teaching and research. For faculty, workshops can represent a space where teaching is regarded not as a function but as a context in which teachers participate with their own expertise and knowledge. Additionally, practitioners or experts can be brought in for shots of specific domain knowledge required by students’ projects through artist residencies and talks with guest speakers. As for internships, these should be supported and facilitated early on, so that students can make informed decisions about possible venues and contexts for their future careers.

A fourth recommendation is to ground teaching and learning in place. Everyday outreach and a sense of grounding are critical to digital living. Whenever possible, teaching and learning should be brought outside of closed labs into public spaces and embedded labs; embedded projects are keystones to help students and faculty connect and engage with the community. Creating embedded labs has many benefits, as it helps students to assess their ideas in the real world and explore new working relationships, even though it requires a lot of effort to set them up and maintain them. Another way to bring students outside of the walls of the lab and thus make it porous is to conduct and present research in publicly accountable settings. For example, demos and exhibitions could be used to practice presentation skills, disseminate and advertise the program within the larger community, and recruit future students in public venues and settings.

This set of recommendations is a reductive but hopefully representative summary of the many indications received and discussed in Madrid. More reflections are needed to rethink education in a changing world, but experimentation will be vital to move toward a new curriculum for digital living. At UC3M, in a local context characterized by the Mediterranean culture and lifestyle, we have started our own journey.

Acknowledgements

Many people contributed to the ideas discussed in this article. We are indebted to all of our workshop participants: Liam Bannon, Jack Carroll, Elizabeth Churchill, Rogerio de Paula, Alan Dix, Marco Fanciulli, Gerhard Fischer, Javier Iglesia, Alex Jaimes, Monica Landoni, Alessio Malizia, Joaquín Pinto, Jesús Ramirez, Antonio Rodríguez de las Heras, Mary Beth Rosson, Miguel Ángel Sánchez-Puebla, Lucia Terrenghi, Mika Luomi Tuomola, Ron Wakkary, and Peter Wright.

References

1. Díaz, P., and Giaccardi, E. Digital living: Creatividad e innovación en el mundo digital. Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Spain, 2010.

2. Sellen, A., Rogers, Y., Harper, R., Rodden, T. Reflecting human values in the digital age. Comm. ACM 52, 3 (Mar. 2009).

3. European Commission. Manifesto for creativity and innovation in Europe. 2009; http://ec.europa.eu/news/science/091113_en.htm

4. Olson, G.M., and Grudin, J. The information school phenomenon. interactions 16, 2 (2009), 15–19.

Authors

Paloma Díaz is a professor in the computer science department at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, where she runs the DEI Interactive Systems research group. Her research interests include Web system designs that combine software engineering and HCI methods.

Elisa Giaccardi is an associate professor at the Institute of Culture and Technology, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. She is currently editing a book for Routledge on heritage, interaction design, and cultures of participation.

Ignacio Aedo is a professor in the computer science department at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. His research interests include hypermedia, interactive systems in education, and Web systems and IS for crisis situations.

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