DAILY INSIGHT: What Should Learning Look Like?

By Rob Mancabelli, CIO Advisor

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) surprised many last week when it named Joichi Ito as its new Director of the Media Lab. The hire was unexpected, since the prestigious Media Lab is a higher-education nexus for groundbreaking technology research, and Mr. Ito doesn’t have a college degree. Although he studied computer science and physics at two of the nation’s top colleges, Mr. Ito dropped out of both because the learning there was uninteresting to him. As he remarked in one example: “I once asked a professor to explain the solution to a problem so I could understand it more intuitively. He said, ‘You can’t understand it intuitively. Just learn the formula so you’ll get the right answer.’ That was it for me.”

Instead, Mr. Ito’s learning is fueled by an active mind, a large network, diverse life experiences and ubiquitous access to the Web. He lives his life publically – posting his travels to his website and participating in myriad online activities and discussions. In short, Mr. Ito is a passionate modern learner – someone who uses a global web of connections to learn what he wants, when he wants. The results? He’s become a venture capitalist and a disc jockey, an entrepreneur and a “guild master” (in the World of Warcraft online fantasy game) and, now…the Director of the prominent MIT Media Lab.

It’s startling to juxtapose this snapshot of Mr. ito’s learning with Alfie Kohn’s latest portrait of the poorest U.S. schools. As Mr. Kohn writes in Education Week, in poor schools “Not only is the teaching scripted, with students required to answer fact-based questions on command, but a system of almost militaristic behavior control is common, with public humiliation for noncompliance and an array of rewards for obedience.” It’s rote memorization of facts for standardized tests. No passion. No personalization. No connections. It’s the kind of education that Kohn says “simultaneously narrow[s] the test-score gap and widen[s] the learning gap.” And, as far as I can see, although this system is most prevalent in the poorest schools, they don’t have a monopoly on it. Many wealthier schools have inherited the same legacy of a century-old, lecture-based, factory model of standardized instruction that ignores the incredible networks available to modern learners.

Let’s be clear: No one is saying that leveraging the power of Web is the only way to learn – or that it’s easy to connect teachers and students to this global network of people and information. It’s harder. Much harder. But if schools want to fulfill their missions today, we need to acknowledge that learning should look different in 2011 than it did when we went to school. It should look more agile, more customized and more engaging. It should look more social and more interactive. It should look like a blend of the best of our constructivist aspirations with this evolving online ecosystem that is available 24/7/365.

It should look like the kind of place that Mr. Ito would never want to leave.

Weigh in at www.mancabelli.com