Rethinking Free Learning

| July 28, 2010

Arora, P. (Forthcoming). Hope-in-the-Wall? A digital promise for free learning. British Journal of Educational Technology.

Dr. Arora graduated from TC in 2009 and was a student of Professor Herve Varenne who gave a talk at the Edlab on everyday learning. This article comes from Arora’s six-month fieldwork in India investigating how public and informal learning happen during and the sustainability of the famous U.S. funded international project named Hole-in-the-Wall (HiWEL). HiWEL embedded computers in the wall of school playgrounds in slum areas in India. A touchpad was built into the wall and a digital camera was placed on a nearby tree to record children’s activities with the purpose of finding how the local children would use the device without instruction or guidance. While the award-winning HiWEL achieved many compliments on the informal e-learning opportunities it brought in the past decade, Arora, in this first study which brings a different voice and challenges the HiWEL approach, raises up some challenging questions: Is collaborative learning a natural or a taught process? Is informal and public learning inherently more equitable and democratic? What kinds and depths of learning are achievable? What, if any, is the role of the teacher and/or mediators in this process?

Arora’s findings indicated the co-existence of collaboration, competition and discrimination during HiWEL’s project in India: 1) collaborative learning not necessarily leads to domocratic or egalitarian, especially among children; and 2) the “ideal” image of free learning projected by HiWEL was not realized in the Indian site visited by Arora: the learning stations were referred as “play stations” by the local community, which created a further disconnect from schools; the “play stations” were usually dominated by the same group of boys playing basic computer games, which further created an inquitable access to the spaces between girls and boys.

From a Freirean learning perspective, HiWEL’s assumption is that children are empowered via the use of computers and will organize themselves into leaders, connectors, and novices. However, the reality of HiWEL’s application in the Indian school incurs further discussion on the degree of “freedom” in free (informal) learning, the role of teachers as moderators, and the possible instruction and curriculum that might need to be permeated into such free spaces while seamlessly using an innovative pedagogy via new technologies. Can free leaning replace formal school learning, like the British “free school”, with the assistance of digital technologies in the future? How might formal curriculum and teaching vary among different grades to support informal learning? How much connection should educators make between students’ formal and informal learning? Can informal learning be “trained” as the way we develop a habit?

EdLab Connections

Technologies have brought 21st-century new literacies, as well as opportunities for rethinking both formal and informal learning. Can a tool be developed to track students’ informal learning, like Stanford’s eye-tracking system, on portable devices? Such tool/research might help demystify the types of activities students do informally and how they learn in an informal environment via digital technologies.

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