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Opinion: Peter Burrows on the DNA of the learning environment

As school districts across the country lead a push to create more engaging learning environments, technology has been cited as a critical component in improving student engagement and making learning accessible. From new online programming to interactive software to one-to-one initiatives, there are thousands of ways that the digital world can find its way into classrooms.
Within education, an offshoot of this very clear need to design learning within students’ digital lives has been a misunderstanding of how to work within this new digital landscape in the classroom. Often, we have looked to technology to be an instant fix, an engagement tool that may or may not push students to further inquiry, analysis and learning. Technology can become an end in itself.
I think it’s important that we fundamentally embrace an understanding that digital learning is a central expression of our students and how they frame their identity and make meaning in their lives. Technology and media are not something to be layered onto our learning environments. They are part of the DNA of the learning environment. To reimagine and view technology and learning in a substantively different way is central to building a future that moves us to a real shift in our learning environments.
So what does a reconceived approach to technology that does not make it an “other” but rather a central part of real change look like? I believe it starts by understanding where our learning systems need to shift to increase student engagement and agency within the classroom. Necessarily, we need to understand our learners and how technology functions as a foundational reality in their identity and learning.
We have to watch how students learn in their own time, how they connect to and engage with the world; with this information, we can move toward building systems that are personalized and structured to allow the digital world to be a seamless tool in student expression, thought and learning. Our new learning environment requires students to think, to use information and analyze, support and adapt it. It requires the use of technology as a form of respiration to shape new conceptions, analyses and arguments that bring new insights into the world. Digital learning is, by default, largely a self-guided and autonomous endeavor, enabling learning to be independent, continuous and asynchronous, moving well beyond the walls of the school setting.
A deep personalized learning environment will not be fully realized until we allow students to build meaning and become agents of their own learning. To do this, students will need to use technology as a medium and a pathway. Most importantly, they will have to grapple with how it’s used, how it can express their arguments and thoughts, and how it creates meaning. The new learning environment requires both greater autonomy for students’ use of technology as well as greater structure to support it.
If we are truly committed to a personalized, student-driven learning environment, then we must build a deeper understanding of this environment and how it’s impacted both by technology and by our students’ technological identities.
Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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