Magazine article The Futurist

Education Takes to the Streets; the Promise of Informal Learning Environments

Magazine article The Futurist

Education Takes to the Streets; the Promise of Informal Learning Environments

Article excerpt

The Promise of Informal Learning Environments

Playgrounds, parks, and bus stops can be ideal places for "classrooms without out walls."

A dynamic new concept of a "learning environment" as something other than a classroom aims to make educational opportunities not only more accessible, but also extremely attractive to children.

Learning can take place anywhere. Creating informal learning environments means more than simply breaking down the classroom walls, however. Learning environments in public places would be specially designed to appeal to young people and to provide a solid educational experience that is easily used whenever children choose to learn.

Schools, libraries, and museums will change dramatically. They will become flexible, adaptable learning and information environments. The goal is positive student attitudes toward learning, motivating children by providing educational situations that are intriguing and easily accessible. New types of informal learning environments thus can complement the characteristics and traditional roles of schools, libraries, museums, science centers and other educational institutions.

There are compelling reasons why solutions to some of education's problems are needed. In the United States, students' indifference to science has been well documented; their achievement levels in mathematics are below those of children in other developed countries. Seductive media compete successfully for students' leisure time as well as study time. Corporations must provide remedial schooling for graduates unprepared for basic job requirements, let alone the demands of advanced technology-based industries. These critical conditions must be challenged long before educational institutions will be able to define and assimilate the changing needs of students.

Transitional solutions that help to combat worsening educational dilemmas are needed now. It is possible to develop and deploy new types of informal learning environments in the near term. Doing so will provide educational institutions with the time they need to reform.

Informal Learning Environments

Children should have opportunities to learn informally wherever and whenever they choose to. The public park, playground, schoolyard, and sidewalk - places that children are naturally attracted to - are ideal locations for interactive learning environments. Once they have been drawn into these new learning places, children can encounter a wide range of subjects presented to them in one of three formats: Fantasy, Curriculum Preview, and Discovery.

* Fantasy approach. One approach to designing an informal learning environment is to appeal to students' sense of the fantastic and to engage their imaginations. In this approach, the design of the learning environment itself is provocative and intriguing to the children and entices them to pursue the educational information available to them.

Scenario: Imagine crossing an open field where powerful-looking machines jut out of the ground. Their exotic appearance captures the attention of passersby. Grade-school children are attracted to the brightly hued equipment. High-school students are also drawn to these machines, which resemble the sleek, powerful vehicles- they often daydream about.

As the children approach the machines, they see that they are 'probes' that seem to plunge deeply into the earth. Children of all ages are lured by intriguing designs to use the probes' viewing screens.

Experimenting with the probe's controls, children can watch the screen as the computer simulates views from ever deeper beneath the surface of the planet. The computer then displays explanations of topics such as plate tectonics, or any other aspect of earth sciences, using dazzling computer-generated imagery.

To further heighten the learning experience, the probes feature simulated views, sounds, and vibrations, giving users the feeling that they are powerfully burrowing into the ground to discover the earth's hidden "mysteries. …

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