The 21st century learning landscape demands a significant shift in the role, but not the importance, of the teacher. Smart use of relevant technology can help make that shift easier.

In June of 2014, The Atlantic magazine published a piece by David Zweig: “How You Know Where You’re Going When You’re in the Airport.” The piece was a short profile of Jim Harding, a designer who created the “wayfinding system” at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world. His specialty? “The process of designing cues — from signage to lighting and color, even the architecture, anything at all — to help people navigate a built environment.” Harding’s system ensures that travelers can smoothly navigate from point to point in the airport, be it from one gate to another, from baggage claim to the taxi queue, or from security to the nearest restroom. He melds sophisticated technology, like the trains that whisk passengers from terminal to terminal, and small but critical details, like the font on bathroom signs, so they cohere into a kind of invisible hand that gently pushes the traveler around the airport without unnecessary distractions or diversions.

Harding’s work helped me think about the demands placed on learning in the 21st century. Harding does not create the environments in which his wayfinding systems live; he is handed a complex system — an airport, a mall, a hospital — and asked to simplify it for the user. More importantly, he has found that his systems are “most effective when they function as a kind of transient, touching just the most superficial (or perhaps, conversely, subconscious) part of our brains, conveying information without drawing attention to the conveyer.” Travelers’ minds are fixed on their own journeys and destinations, as they should be. Harding’s challenge is to leverage that intrinsic motivation as he wayfinds, creating a system flexible enough so travelers feel they are forging unique paths.

The core demand of 21st century education is that students learn to navigate an incredibly complex global society. This includes connecting across distances, gaining skill with technology, and developing problem-solving skills that can be applied to real-world issues. The system through which students must travel has grown more difficult to navigate. In education, we are accustomed to a certain system, a model defined by the four walls of a classroom, a reading list, a syllabus. Locating learning in these small, controlled environments doesn’t adequately serve our students anymore. Instead, we find ourselves in a position similar to Jim Harding’s: we’ve been handed a complicated system, a bigger and broader and richer learning landscape, and been asked to help our students navigate it.

So, what do we do?

I believe we should be inspired by Harding’s approach: to become Wayfinders, we need to step into the background, not to the front of the room. The essential element of Harding’s work at the Atlanta airport is to empower the Traveler to find his/her own way, to subtly direct the student toward a shared learning goal. The Traveler may not notice the influence of the Wayfinder, yet he/she is constantly being nudged, avoiding dead ends and wrong turns, using well-designed cues to find a particular destination. As teachers, we are no longer needed as the the source of all content and knowledge in the classroom, but we are more necessary than ever when it comes to designing experiences that allow our students to find their own way.

Networked Learning

In her essay “Streams of Content, Limited Attention,” danah boyd argues the long era of “broadcast” media has shifted in the last two decades to “networked” media. “Those who believe in broadcast structures recognize the efficiency of a single, centralized source,” she writes. “There’s some nostalgia here. The image is clear: the 1950s nightly news, with everyone tuning in to receive the same message at the same time.” The internet and the proliferation of content creation tools — blogs, social media, etc. — have quickly dismantled that format and caused decentralization of that content from a few trusted sources to a profusion of outlets that vary in quality and reliability.

Students’ access to information and devices is undermining the “broadcast” model of teaching, where the teacher, and maybe a textbook, are the sole reliable sources of content creation and delivery. Teachers often view this decentering as a threat. Elizabeth Losh, author of The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, fights “the assumption that digital media deeply divide students and teachers and that a once covert war between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has turned into an open battle between ‘our’ technologies and ‘their’ technologies.”

As Losh argues, ignoring technology or using it to reinforce antiquated and crumbling divisions between students and teacher are not fruitful strategies. Rather, we can use technology to embrace a model of “networked learning,” where we design experiences that encourage connection and collaboration in a number of different ways, many of which may leave us more “invisible,” one piece of a larger instructional puzzle. If we use technology to work with and empower our students, learning is shared and, thus, more meaningful.

I will focus on three critical components of networked learning and share a few examples of how technology can help draw them into a teacher’s networked classroom:

  1. Our Students
  2. Our Communities
  3. Our Personalized Learning Networks (PLNs)

Our Students

The Internet and the availability of personal devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets have empowered students to become not just consumers of information, but producers of it. “Making content work in a networked era is going to be about living in the streams, consuming and producing alongside ‘customers’ — consuming to understand, producing to be relevant,” boyd writes. But if everyone is producing, information quickly becomes overwhelming, and boyd expresses dismay that technology that filters and curates and evaluates for the user doesn’t yet exist.

Teachers DO exist, though. Here, then, is a concrete manifestation of the new Wayfinding:

supporting students through a process of consuming, creating, and filtering content on the internet in a way that gives them ownership of their learning while also teaching them essential curation and critical thinking skills.

I have wrestled with becoming a Wayfinder throughout my career, but never more than now, as I teach an online course for Global Online Academy called “Advocacy.” The premise of the course is that a student designs a campaign around a social justice issue about which he/she is passionate. I chose this premise to prevent my own interests and expertise from driving the content and learning activities; instead, I tried to design a process with a clear trajectory and benchmarks, intersections on the students’ paths towards personal learning goals. At these touchpoints, my hope is that students will bring what they have found, share what they have learned, and teach each other about effective practices in advocacy and activism. This decentering of my position relative to my course and my students can be scary: I cannot predict every single problem or outcome. I have faith, however, in my students’ motivation to pursue personal lines of inquiry. They are traveling with a destination in mind, which should make it easier for me to help them find their way.

Our Communities

In January 2015, I presented at a conference for experiential educators, and we found, a bit to our mutual surprise, that we had a lot to learn from each other. Since John Dewey wrote Experience and Education in 1938, experiential educators have been advocating for more student engagement beyond the walls of a school. This “progressive” model of education has become mainstream in the last twenty years as schools reevaluate the design of their physical spaces and invest in learning that encourages engaging “the real world.”

Experiential education is about exploration of communities and environments, and technology — especially the online learning space — has made this exploration more possible and more meaningful. As we have seen in the last decade, with perhaps the 2009 Iranian elections serving as a watershed moment, anyone with a smartphone and a social media account can become a kind of citizen journalist, navigating communities and documenting what they find. Rather than rely on media created by a few institutions (boyd’s “broadcast model”), students can find their own way, generating understanding through exploration of their community on their own terms. These local perspectives can very quickly aggregate into a multifaceted global experience. Tools like blogs, wikis, and social media can encourage global connections and draw a global audience to this work, not to mention leverage what Darren Kuropatwa calls “The Audience Effect,” where providing students with a larger audience than the teacher incentivizes well-curated and thoughtfully presented material. Your community can be not just your resource for learning, but also your audience for its presentation.

Personalized Learning Network

The complexity of the task before teachers is impossible to tackle alone. Wayfinders lead teams of collaborators, engage a wide variety of resources, and utilize many different tools. Building and sustaining this network of people and ideas is hard work. Wayfinders are curators, choosing not to create content from our own minds, but to seek out rich content authored by others. As Heather Bailie writes in her excellent essay, “Curation as a Tool for Teaching and Learning,” curation is best done as a networked effort. Teachers don’t just become curators, they find and follow other curators to streamline the process. It’s through this process of building a Personalized Learning Network (PLN), that teachers come into contact with resources they can trust and use.

Technology, and especially online learning environments, can help not only enhance your personal network, but turn your PLN into a tool for networked learning. Connecting to and inviting experts in your discipline into your course via video chat or asynchronous discussion (like a Twitter feed or chat room) is often easier than organizing an in-person visit. Engaging your students as part of your PLN and using their experience as content consumers to curate resources is another underutilized method. Audrey Watters has written about the danger of personalization “machines,” and I would stress that when it comes to learning, technology should be merely a medium through which we make human connections and join networks of people. Just as Jim Harding works with a team of architects, artists, engineers, security experts, and designers, so must teachers view teaching and learning as communal work enhanced by a diverse group of collaborators.

A Humble Process

Towards the end of his piece on wayfinding, Zweig takes on a tone of incredulity: as an invisible designer, Harding rarely receives positive feedback, and Zweig wonders how he stays motivated in a job where silence is the sole indicator of success. Harding’s response is lovely, and it gets at the shift in perspective teachers are confronting: “What keeps me going is just knowing internally that a job was well done. And enjoying the process of the work itself.” Harding’s dedication to the process speaks to the ongoing, and perhaps increasing, importance of the teacher in the 21st century. Imagine being dropped off at an airport with no signs, no pathways, no modes of transport, no visible sources of information or cues. What does a space like that say about the airport’s respect and care for the traveler? Learning is complex, and pathways and signs need to be created for students. Who better to help them than those most dedicated to the process of learning?