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College Planning & Management


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21st-Century Learning Environments

By Kenneth A. Gruskin, Michael Searson

In contemporary society, new technologies support profound learning experiences across an array of environments. Visitors to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, can use an augmented reality app on their smartphones and see skeletons of mammals magically transformed with accurate renditions of skin and fur. An inexpensive pair of Google Cardboard virtual reality lenses allow viewers to experience three-dimensional views of Australia’s great barrier reef from anywhere in the world. Wearable fitness monitors make recommendations about optimum behavior for ideal health. Yet, we have made little progress in integrating such tools into formal learning environments.

While many institutions claim to have incorporated new media into their programs, few actually have done so in a meaningful way. Other than “tolerating” students’ use of mobile devices, for example, are they employed as tools to support rich dialogue and inquiry in learning environments? Do faculty seize the opportunity to use such tools as real-time response systems? Do learning spaces that support ubiquitous technology look and feel like computer labs or Starbucks? Are virtual-reality goggles seen as no more than gimmicks, devoid of meaningful educational value?

In the end, truly innovative learning environments can only be achieved through the seamless integration of pedagogy, technology and space, empowered by a supportive professional development program.


Preparation for the 21st-century workforce demands that educators shift the authority for learning to the students. After all, today’s workers are expected to function in collaborative and horizontal environments, as opposed to the “factory” driven, top-down, solitary worker spaces of yesterday. Therefore, contemporary learning environments should lean heavily on collaborative spaces, supported through personalized learning technologies. Good pedagogy encourages student engagement through complex collaborative projects based on real-world problems.

Leveraging today’s technologies would allow students from across the world to address complex, collaborative projects. For example, students outside of New York City and Shanghai could use tools that easily interface with their smartphones to collect, analyze and share data on water quality in the Hudson and Yellow Rivers, respectively. Then, using the same mobile devices, the students could engage in synchronous and asynchronous discussions on the implications of their data collection. Some actual examples include a U.S. Department of Defensefunded project that allows U.S. students to work with peers in Pakistan and India as they develop proficiency in Urdu and Hindi. Another comes from a Spanish professor who uses an off-the-shelf video game to allow students to put themselves into a virtual movie while using the target language they are studying. ...

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