Transforming Education Through the Virtual Classroom
"...learning can, and does, occur wherever we happen to be."
THE title of this column is "David Nunan's Global Classroom." But what does this really mean? How can a classroom be “global?” Before we address this question, we need to decide what the word “classroom” really means. To paraphrase the dictionary definition, it refers to a room, typically in a school, in which a group of students are taught. If this is the case, then adding the adjective “global” before “classroom” would seem odd, or even downright contradictory. In this article, I want to argue why we can no longer think of a classroom in the traditional sense as a space simply defined by four walls, a ceiling and a floor, inhabited by a teacher and students, and created for the purposes of acquiring knowledge.
Of course, the physical classroom still exists and provides important locations for learning. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that learning only happens within the confines of these traditional spaces because learning really happens in the head. Therefore, learning can, and does, occur wherever we happen to be. It may even happen accidentally, or it may happen deliberately.
Intentional learning can happen through a self-study program devised by the student. Intentional teaching (and hopefully learning) occurs when a teacher and one or more pupils gather together for the purposes of mastering a new skill or a body of knowledge. However, intentional learning can also happen without the mediation of a teacher. For example, a friend of mine decided she wanted to learn Spanish. Instead of simply enrolling in a Spanish class, she moved to Lima, Peru and learned the language through self-directed study and interacting with the locals in their native language.
Due to the technological revolution and the wonders of the Internet, the gathering of teachers and those willing to learn does not require them to occupy the same physical space. They can come together virtually, and this type of teaching is becoming increasingly common. In my work as an educator at Anaheim University, I have had the opportunity to teach students from all over the globe.
The virtual classroom is changing the nature of education in fundamental ways. Students can access content as well as opportunities to develop skills whenever or wherever, rather than at a set time and place determined by a teacher or institution. The virtual classroom provides a private space where they can make mistakes as they master their craft. For many Asians who may be embarrassed when they make mistakes in front of others, having this private space is particularly valued. They also have the ability to practice a particular exercise or skill as often as they want.
It has long been recognized that students learn in different ways, and this has led to the notion of individualized instruction. In an individualized curriculum, pupils will be given choices over content, how they want to learn it, the location of their studies and how they wish to be assessed. In a traditional classroom containing 40 learners, the option for an individualized curriculum is limited. With the virtual classroom, it is not difficult to tailor a course of instruction to 40 or even 400 learners. Even in a curriculum with a structured format, learners can find multiple pathways to interact with the material. In fact, exploring non-linear pathways such as using the Internet to exploit the incredible riches available online is a natural way for users to access information.
It has been asserted that the new forms of media are rewiring our brains in the same way as the spread of mass literacy changed the thinking of our forebears. There is even some research to support this assertion. Studies using magnetic resonance imaging suggest that multitasking and carrying out searches on the Internet for information may develop and improve brain function. However, some critics argue that multitasking can have negative outcomes for learning, including shorter attention spans and memories, and less capacity for deep thought.
While it remains to be seen exactly how the virtual classroom will change the way we think and learn, there is little doubt that it is changing our brains and that this will fundamentally change the nature of education. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.