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Big Ideas Fest Makes You Think

As promised, here's some of the best ed-tech concepts from the Big Ideas Fest, which I've been tuning into on a live audio feed. The event, centered around modeling ideas to transform education from kindergarten all the way through graduate school, wraps up today in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

The Open Era

A clear theme emerging was the importance of creating and using open resources to achieve contemporary educational goals.

That means not only open source software, but also open copyright licensing, open academic standards, and open communications processes, said Mark Horner, a Fellow with the Shuttleworth Foundation of South Africa, which gives grants to those it identifies as leaders of social change. And while open resources, as those are known collectively, reflect a view of modern education as increasingly collaborative, they may also make possible keeping up with the quickening pace and growing cost of education.

For example, said Heather Joseph, the executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, open source access to texts and journals is necessary to combat prices that are rising much faster than the cost of living.

"There's no library on earth whose library budget has gone up at that pace," Joseph said. "So we're left with a huge gap," without open resources, a cause her coalition is forwarding.

Imagine Isaac Newton on YouTube

Despite warnings from the ed-tech masses about layering technology over already deficient processes, good teaching doesn't necessarily have to be significantly altered to reach more people via the Web, said Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, a nonprofit that provides video lectures and other resources for free to students around the globe.

"Educational content is unbelievably scalable," Khan said. "It's actually more scalable than the software. If Isaac Newton had done Calculus videos on YouTube, I'd have no job, assuming he would be good."

Khan noted that one or two key lectures could become the standard not just for a school, but for a nation, for any particular academic concept. He also said that, while common assumption is that students would still be more captivated by a compelling, in-person lecture, his own relatives said they preferred Khan's video lectures to his live ones.

The Physical and Symbolic

Even staunch ed-tech advocates have expressed concern that some uses of technology can hinder children's interaction with the physical world.

But Dave Merril, co-founder and president of Sifteo, a company that is developing computing devices that respond collectively to physical manipulation, says that doesn't have to be the case.

Merrill's company is building a table-top platform that consists of several "siftables" that are part toy block and part computing device. The siftables react to being shaken, turned, or placed next to each other as users attempt to build words, solve equations or play games.

"By making this action more physical, we felt like we had a chance to make it more natural," said Merrill, who likened using the Internet with a laptop computer and a mouse to building a Lego structure using only one fingertip. "It's a physical realization of a symbolic reality."

Is It Just a Game?

Using computer gaming for educational purposes has been gaining traction for some time now.

But University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Constance Steinkuehler said it's important that playing games feels like, well, playing games.

She pointed to a failed prototype in her own research, where students in the upper grades were brought to an after-school program designed to give supplemental instruction through gaming. The original model of structured play facilitated by teacher instruction, she said, was tuned out by students.

"I thought what I was doing didn't look and feel like school at all, but for them, it did," said Steinkuehler, who then adjusted the program to make it a loose, free-flowing session where students were in charge of their own time. Students' in-class performance improved.

"What we ended up realizing is that interest is driving the learning, not the technology, not the game, not the narrative," Steinkuehler said. "It was the fact that they were interested in the first place."

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