Walking to Learn in a Digital Age

What does walking in a digital age look like?  For many of us, at many times, walking in a digital age means walking while looking down, not at our feet but at our iPhones to read the latest email, text message, Facebook notification, or Tweet. If we’re lucky, we manage not to run into a parking meter, telephone poll, or another person similarly captivated by a tiny, handheld screen. While our walks may be enhanced by whatever information we gain by attending to our devices, our attention to our surroundings, including the people who walk past and alongside us, may be partial at best.

As with our shorter walks, Paul’s epic seven-year walk is not entirely dependent on but is certainly enhanced in important ways by an array of digital tools: satellite telephone, camcorder, laptop computer, audio recorder, solar chargers, GPS devices, etc. These tools help Paul keep in touch with loved ones, gauge his location, and make key decisions about his route. They also allow him to record, upload, and share details of his journey with a wide public, or to send a cry for help should danger or serious illness strike. The National Geographic and Out of Eden websites, including a new mapping tool, allow people from all over the world to follow and interact with Paul.

Thanks to these tools, we can get a sense of what it might be like to walk with Paul. But just a sense. That’s because the heart of the walk is the pure, mindful, physical act of putting one foot in front of the other, smelling the air, listening to the sounds, and, importantly, talking with the people he meets face-to-face and hearing their stories. Related to this, Paul recently shared his ambivalence about having to rely on his GPS device more than usual. As we turn to technology, opportunities to be lost and then to find our way diminish, as does the need to turn to other people along our paths. As Paul put it, when you don’t know where you are  “…you become alive to possibility: a new compass bearing, a new story, a trail untaken. Being a little lost can be a good thing. Being found all the time is overrated.”

In short, whether our walks are short or long, purposeful or meandering, digital devices can both support and hinder our journeys.  The same dualism might be said about learning in a digital age.

What does learning in a digital age look like?  The digital age arguably alters, if not revolutionizes, the who, where, how, and what of learning. Put another way, learning is increasingly understood to be a lifelong enterprise that takes place anytime, anywhere – in an online forum or fan fiction community, in a massively multiplayer online game, and on Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and Twitter. In these spaces, learning is active – gained by doing, making, participating – as in the pre-modern era when the apprenticeship model of learning reigned.

There is considerable optimism in the larger ed-tech community about the rich learning potentials of new media for education. Where school resources and policies allow, educators can leverage an array of digital tools to encourage sharing of content and ideas, interdisciplinary problem-solving, and collaborating with people in far-flung places. When thoughtfully used, these tools can afford more engaging, participatory, and thus deeper learning. At the same time, technology can be (and often is) used in ways that replicate the least engaging modes of teaching and learning (e.g., passively listening to lectures, filling out worksheets, uploading homework assignments to a wiki). Moreover, internet-enabled devices offer numerous opportunities to drift off task, undercutting the focus needed to deeply understand a topic. Also, among the key learning potentials of digital media is to connect with other people, near and far, with different perspectives on the world. Too often, though, the reality may fall short of the promises here.  One-off interactions with other students in distant places in the world may be engaging in the moment, but may engender only superficial understandings of our similarities and differences.

So digital media can enrich and deepen learning, but they are not the end-all, be-all.

What does ‘walking to learn’ in a digital age look like?  In our Walk to Learn community, we strive to use technology in ways that enable meaningful connections and dialogue between young people living on opposite sides of the globe from one another. Yet we also take seriously the enduring value – no, the necessity – of stepping away from the computer screen, putting our devices aside, slowing down, tuning in to our immediate surroundings and seeing in them connections to the wider world.

In the coming weeks, we will launch the Out of Eden Learn platform, a site that will connect young people across the world via rich learning activities that include taking slow and mindful walks of their own.

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero and a Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. With Shari Tishman, Carrie is Co-Principal Investigator of Out of Eden Learn.

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