I recently discovered an old photograph of myself as a first-year medical student. I’m sitting at a dining-room table, surrounded by a stack of textbooks, notes and pens and, to one side, there is a human skull. It’s before digital cameras, so there’s no date stamp on it, but I reckon it was taken in 1987 or 1988. Comparing me to my students today, it’s interesting to note what’s missing from the picture. There’s no laptop open on the table and no wireless connection to the Internet. If I encountered something I didn’t know, I had to hope it was in the textbook, because I couldn’t look it up on Google. There was no cellphone, no earbuds and no iPod. And I’m not multi-tasking, sending and receiving texts while I chat on Facebook and cue up the next playlist on iTunes. I’m just studying, using pen and paper to try to drive facts into my brain. I look pretty serious about it, too, and perhaps a little hopeful. I have no idea how much the landscape of teaching and learning will change during my career.
The impact of new technology in this time has been profound and wide-reaching. Today’s students have access to all the information they could possibly need, at any time. Wikipedia has a page on pretty much anything you can imagine, and there are YouTube videos and podcasts, too. Most teachers and institutions are still struggling to catch up to the implications of this revolution in access to information. When I was a student, information was obtained through the library; if a textbook you needed was already out on loan, you were out of luck. The curriculum was set in stone; we all had to learn the same encyclopedic curriculum, even though much of the material would turn out to have little relevance to later practice.
New technology offers us the opportunity to do things differently, to teach in creative ways that we haven’t imagined yet. Students can collaborate and share materials in a way that I never dreamed of. They can quickly find the information they need, and sometimes use that to challenge what their teachers tell them. Technology can help us to become more student-centred, and to start teaching in flexible ways that are convenient to students rather than to schools. Ultimately, I’d like to see us move away from mass-produced education in order to deliver a truly individualized education, providing each student with what she needs to really excel.
The road to this new world will not be entirely smooth, of course. There will be false starts and we will be sure to make many new and more interesting mistakes. There will be many who mourn the death of the textbook, and who decry instant access to information as “superficial learning.” The landscape of Wikipedia, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and crowd-sourcing will be confusing to some; schools will have to get used to sharing learning resources more freely instead of tightly guarding the curriculum. As we empower students with the skills to manage their own learning, the boundaries between teachers and learners will blur. We will need to show our students how to swim safely in the sea of instant information, and how to tell good resources from bad. We must help students develop self-reliance, so they know when to switch their devices off and think for themselves. We must help our students use information wisely to develop the expertise they can apply in the real world.
Ultimately, though, we will harness this new technology to transform education and find new and more imaginative ways of helping our students learn. We’ll mash together ideas from different areas to make something entirely new. We’ll follow where our students lead us, and discover new sources of creativity in our work. In the end, we’ll reach a place I would have longed for as a medical student, a place where students can stop worrying about how they’re going to cover all the material in the syllabus. Instead, they’ll be able to concentrate on what they’re going to do with their lives and how they can contribute to the world. And that will be a place worth going to.