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Will STEM and flipped classrooms lead the e-education transformation?

At regular intervals I like to report on developments in e-education. As far back as the 1990s I earmarked the education sector as one of the major beneficiaries of the new developments in digital technologies. I even predicted that this would be one of the first sectors that would take advantage of the transformational aspects that these developments had to offer.

I am sorry to report that I totally failed in that prediction.

In the late 00s e-education also featured high on the agenda of the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development. At that time I discussed with some of my international colleagues the slow progress of e-education and it was around this time that we concluded that it didn’t look like as though the education revolution would be led from inside the sector. In this respect the sector has behaved just like others that faced massive changes forced upon them by the digital revolution. And where the vested interests failed to act others outside the affected sectors started to disrupt the status quo.

A eureka moment occurred when we realised that, rather than looking for the sector to embrace e-education as a transformational tool, it would be better to start looking at where such a transformation would have the maximum effect. Self-education with the assistance of smartphones, the internet and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were earmarked as the areas where such changes would be welcomed.

A term that is becoming increasingly used in the context of educational transformation is the ‘flipped classroom’. This is an instructional strategy and a type of blended learning that reverses the traditional educational arrangement by delivering instructional content, often online, outside of the classroom. It moves other activities, including those that may have traditionally been considered homework, into the classroom. In a flipped classroom, students watch online lectures, collaborate in online discussions, or carry out research at home and engage in discussion in the classroom with the guidance of the instructor.

It is only now that at least some of the leaders in educational transformation are looking at this model. The focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) is certainly helping this process. Since the late 00s there is an increased interest in promoting STEM education throughout the existing education system, but specifically in primary education. STEM education is ideally suited to the flipped classroom concept. The STEM movement received massive support from all the key leaders in ICT, and others such as President Obama, and this movement has made significant progress and is being adopted worldwide; in turn this is now also driving some of the changes that need to take place in the education system.

And, sadly for the traditional education sector, most of these developments are coming from outside. If STEM gets this stimulus from disruption in the education systems, what is to stop others from looking for their own disruptions?

For example, when studying early colonial history why can’t there be an online old colonial town where students can walk around, using 360-degree videos, and listen to and watch the people that they are interested in? Some historical sites already have tablets that let you walk around and, with virtual and augmented reality, see what those buildings and their surrounds looked like all those centuries ago. With good quality broadband all of this can be made available online.

Many children in primary school now learn some Japanese or Chinese; here again, why not use teachers in those countries who at the same time can share other parts of their culture with the students?

The big push for self-education received a massive boost with developments such as the Khan Academy. That organisation provides self-learning tools through YouTube videos and has about 2.5 million subscribers. Their videos have been viewed more than 762 million times.

The Hour of Code is another interesting development in this sector, aimed at promoting computer science – again to a large extent by allowing students to master skills through self-education. They have an annual global event and last year about 20 million people participated, and over 600 million lines of code were written. Aside from the many ICT companies involved, the Lego company is one of the commercial organisations that is contributing to this new form of education

So where are we now in the education revolution?

With all of these new developments going on the results are still a mismatch. In many primary schools, high schools and universities life continues (in some cases) as it has since the Middle Ages.

Many universities still have hundreds of students forced into their lecture theatres where people have to listen to lectures that could easily be provided through video services. The level of interaction in such a massive theatre is always minimal, as the setting doesn’t encourage true interaction. By letting students utilise self-education and then have follow-up sessions with the lecturers in smaller groups and in environments that are more conducive to interaction, the quality of education would improve and a far more efficient use of valuable educational resources could be developed.

Some universities, of course, fare much better, particularly the smaller regional universities and the open universities. However trying to get the old institutions to change remains often an uphill battle.

With all of the above going on it was disappointing to hear from a young 23-year-old recently graduated teacher that she had never heard of flipped classrooms, the Khan Academy or the Hour of Code. What hope is there for an educational revolution or educational transformation if we don’t start by leading the changes that are needed from the teacher colleges?

Paul Budde