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Preparing for the information society

June 2, 2011

EnchaveHarbourTowers from iliveisl on Flickr

It’s a great pleasure to be invited to be a contributor to the Future-Proof Learning blog and to offer ideas on Web 2.0 and the information age.  In this, my first post, I want to explore something that I’m increasingly facing in my work on technology in education and management: what needs to be learned before you can function effectively in an information society.

One of the calls I hear on a regular basis is that graduating students have insufficient science and maths skills to operate effectively in the workplace, regardless of whether they are working in engineering and traditional science professions.  While it’s clear that all management students, for instance, need sufficient maths education to be able to read financial statements, and to analyse market research and sales figures, there has not traditionally been a need for more maths and science in education, so it’s generally been dropped along the way.  But in this increasingly technology-driven society, maths and science education is increasingly necessary in order to gauge the value of investment in emergent technologies, the environmental effects of their use and the means by which business can improve productivity.  So it would seem entirely rational for students across a range of areas to adopt more maths and science in their learning to improve their ability to use and adapt technologies in their professional careers.

Here’s the problem: maths and science education is (counter-intuitively) one of the least likely areas to adopt technology in education.  Mathematics education in particular, has been extremely slow in adopting technology for educational purposes.  Beyond the calculator, maths educators have seen ‘no point’ in using the internet in the classroom and have focused instead on formulae and mathematical laws.

But there is another way to improve education in maths and science without resorting to traditional principles-based learning.  It involves the playing and editing of games.

While it’s been long-established that case-based learning has been an effective way of learning about management, it is only beginning to be understood that games based learning operates similarly to case-based learning, in that it stimulates thinking through experience, and allows a range of variables affecting the potential ‘success’ of an experience to be evaluated concurrently.  When in comes to electronic games, the experience of games-based learning is both appropriate, in teaching technological literacy for the information age, and it’s also ‘natural’ for learners who are engaging with games outside the classroom.  But even more profoundly, allowing games participants to edit and contribute to the experience of game-play forces them to acquire a sophisticated level of logic programming and mathematics in order to operationalise their ideas.  This is an entirely new method of acquiring maths and science skills.  Unlike formulaic learning, it contextualises the use of maths and science beyond engineering and traditional science careers.  And it enables students to apply learning from other disciplines into their experience of game play – everything from design and communication, to politics and economics.

As someone who found maths and science education rather difficult in school (in spite of coming from a family of scientists), I am encouraged by the possibility of introducing new ways of teaching maths and science and making them more engaging and relevant across a range of disciplines.  I just hope that the various campaigns for improving maths and science in education don’t simply revert to formulaic teaching.  Because if we’re going to prepare adequately for an information society, it won’t help to have students barking back forumale and unable to use the very technologies that their maths and science learning was supposed to deliver.

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