Residents of Diepsloot, a township in Johannesburg, South Africa, live in poverty —many in shacks without electricity and running water. Yet every morning, a select group of students hustles off to the non-profit LEAP Science and Maths School to soak up a rigorous curriculum of science, math, English, and 21st century digital skills courtesy of a high-tech collaboration to empower mobile classrooms.
In partnership with the VMware Foundation’s Good Gigs Service Learning program, the LEAP (Language Enrichment Arts Program ) school built out a robust IT backbone and mobile computing lab while enabling a new curriculum based on digital learning and immersive content. Students who once lacked access to modern-day digital tools are now fully exploiting the Internet, interactive apps, online courses, and computing technology as part of their daily lessons, opening doors to new opportunities and a promising future.
The potent combination of globalization and digital transformation is upending the requirements for tomorrow’s workforce, underscoring the need for programs like the VMware-powered curriculum at the LEAP school. Such digital learning initiatives shift emphasis away from rote book- and lecture-style teaching to interactive experiences focused on collaboration, personalized content, and hands-on problem solving. The ability to leverage core IT infrastructure such as virtualized servers, networking, and storage, in concert with mobile technology, enables students in remote communities from Diepsloot to rural America to participate in digital learning experiences to which they previously had no access.
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“It’s really about creating opportunities for students and teachers,” says Jessamine Chin, director of the VMware Foundation, who participated in the Good Gigs Trek with LEAP Science and Maths School. “We see that digital learning is really changing the way classrooms operate. Technology gives students and teachers [in less developed areas] access to the same kinds of opportunities that people in more urban settings tend to have access to.”
New learning prototypes are critical as the accelerated pace of change disrupts traditional business models and creates new 21st century jobs that demand different skill sets. According to a World Economic report, 35 percent of core workplace skills will change between 2015 and 2020, with complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration in high demand. At the same time, the report found that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t currently exist, underscoring the need for new skills training using hands-on and exploratory learning techniques.
Current instructional approaches are no match for the new skill sets because they fall short in their ability to engage students, foster retention, and apply learning to real-life scenarios, research found. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other noted think tanks, touts next-generation learning paradigms as the future of education and the best means to teach new digital-age skills. Specifically, the foundation says technology-driven learning practices deliver a variety of benefits, including access to high quality, relevant content in multiple forms; support for flexible class time and structure; diagnostic tools for directing the pace and format of individualized instruction; and the ability to reach out to those who have been historically underserved.
Next-generation learning models will rely heavily on technologies like VMware’s cloud and software-defined data center portfolios. Such platforms deliver the on-demand computing, storage, and network horsepower and anytime, anywhere access demanded by such new teaching approaches as Massive Open Online Classrooms (MOOCs), simulation, and virtual reality instruction, among other forms of connected learning. Such learning methods don’t just benefit disadvantaged students. While these technologies can help level the field in terms of educating students in remote and impoverished areas, they can also raise the bar for students in wealthier urban and suburban areas, as well as being leveraged to transform corporate training applications.
Popular consumer tools like smartphones and handheld tablets, in combination with Web services and mobile apps, will support new types of learning styles and educational content, including game-like instruction, 3D simulations, and augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences. These new technologies plunge students into the subject matter and encourage a level of hands-on discovery that isn’t possible with traditional classroom instruction.
Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data analytics will raise the bar even higher, allowing educators to personalize content to meet an individual student’s needs while serving up metrics to ensure specific goals are met. Using such digital experiences to complement traditional classroom learning is particularly critical for helping at-risk students achieve significant gains, according to a report from the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.
Digital Learning at Work
For the LEAP school in Diepsloot, mobile technology labs and new digital instructional experiences are already doing wonders to improve students’ quality of life and empower them to pursue professional and community service paths that were once the stuff of dreams. Graduates of the VMware-backed collaboration expect to become teachers, activists, and business owners, giving back to their communities and helping to lift up the economy of South Africa. VMware Good Gigs Trekkers researched relevant software and digital content to help devise the next-generation curriculum, training more than 30 LEAP teachers to expand the use of computer technology in the classroom, particularly for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) topics. In addition, the Good Gigs team helped train the LEAP school IT manager in the VMware infrastructure technologies, including new storage capacity and backup and recovery capabilities.
“Free from administrative paperwork, teachers can spend more one-on-one time to personalize learning for students,” Chin explains. “For students, there’s an ability to expand their mindsets and widen their worlds without having to travel.”
Closer to home, 48 states and the District of Columbia are also supplementing traditional classroom-style instruction with virtual and online learning, while a variety of states, charter schools, and private companies are providing access to online schools as a learning alternative for K-12 students. At a higher level, there is a growing number of open educational resources, including well-known MOOCs such as Khan Academy. In addition, universities including MIT are offering online options and intensive supplemental materials to assist students in the genre of MITx, an online learning platform where faculty can author interactive tests, post videos, and create virtual lab work.
There are also efforts underway to combine online capabilities with intensive instruction to allow students to benefit from hands-on learning for particularly complex subject matter—for example, in the sciences. Amino Labs, a startup hailing from the MIT Media Lab, is taking this approach to engage K-8 students in complex STEM topics such as synthetic biology and bioengineering. Co-founder Julie Legault, an MIT graduate, herself had trouble digesting this subject matter through traditional books and online courses. This experience motivated Legault to come up with a better teaching mechanism as part of her thesis research and post-graduate work. Her solution: Amino Labs’ series of award-winning biology minilabs and kits that take a learn-by-doing approach to encourage exploration and innovation. The kits, which Legault and crew liken to “Easy-Bake ovens” for biotechnology, come with everything students need to engineer bacteria, make fragrances, and play around with DNA—all practical exercises that allow them to develop an intimate understanding of these complex topics.
“We wanted to make it into something everyone can be inspired with … so using colors and fragrances touches the emotional and artistic side of students and non-scientists,” Legault says. “Now, folks who might not like science class have something they can enjoy and see that STEM has really creative applications.”
While the current generation of Amino kits stand alone, the company sees cloud infrastructure and mobile apps in its future. These tools could be useful in enhancing application-based and open-source learning by harnessing computer horsepower to process vast amounts of experiment data or to facilitate supplementary 3D simulation and AR/VR experiences, Legault says.
Even without that cloud-based component, Michael Hirsch, science teacher and lab manager at the Acera School in Winchester, Mass., credits the Amino Labs kits and hands-on instruction as a game-changer for encouraging students to enthusiastically embrace complex topics like molecular biology. While most of the experiments are fairly simple and not flashy—for example, adding small amounts of liquid to different small amounts of liquid—the results have been impressive, he says. It’s too early for quantifiable results, but Hirsch says use of the CRISPR DNA starter kit, for example, engaged students by connecting a newsworthy topic with hands-on exploration, making the gene-editing technique part of their everyday discussions.
“I think that in order to really understand what cells are capable of doing, students have to experiment with them and learn the subtleties of the science,” Hirsch explains. “For so many, science feels stodgy, but it's so much more vibrant than that. It is so cool to see students talking about science like it's video games or Pokemon, and I think that the kits are integral to making these advanced concepts seem more relatable.”
Whether it’s hands-on kits or connected learning experiences, these new learning methods are helping to bridge the digital divide while also becoming a critical force for prepping workers for a continuously evolving digital future. Says VMware’s Chin: “In addition to enabling opportunities and access to information, digital learning also ensures students’ skill sets are more equally matched to the needs of the workforce, given that technology changes so rapidly .”