Seven Ways Technology Can Deepen, Not Cheapen, Place-Based Learning

“Every experience is a moving force. Its value can be judged only on the ground of what it moves toward and into.”

-John Dewey, Experience and Education (1938)


Eighty years after John Dewey wrote about the value of place-based experiences to learning and personal development, current research and a modern world are demanding new skills from students, skills that are often developed through authentic, real-world experiences. In response, schools are integrating more place-based work into the day-to-day life of students, thinking about “leaving the building” as a critical element of, not merely a diversion from, academic work.

A crucial difference between our era and Dewey’s is digital technology. Mobile devices and widespread internet access have embedded technology in our lives in unprecedented ways. In education, this has raised a number of concerns about the role technology should play in our lives, especially in place-based experiences where being present and connected seems to matter the most.

But, does technology ruin experiences?

Certainly it can cheapen them: these days, it seems almost impossible to visit a natural vista, a site of historical importance, or a cultural or political event and not see dozens of people composing the perfect Instagram or Snapchat posts, buried in their devices rather than engaging in their surroundings. The fact that an entire social media campaign had to be designed to raise awareness about how thoughtlessly Western travelers use social media suggests how easily technology can enable the perception of depth without really demanding it.

And it’s depth that makes experiences valuable. As Dewey argues, it’s hard to judge the value of an experience while we are having it; rather, how we reflect on and apply the experience later — what we move “toward and into” — is evidence of its impact. Our concern about technology’s role in place-based experiences is more about ensuring depth than it is about using technology.

It’s easy to imagine why banning technology might make experiences more valuable, but we don’t talk enough about reasons to use technology to deepen place-based learning. These days, the most powerful technology that’s ever existed fits in our pocket. How might we use it to promote and sustain deep learning?

  • Use online portfolios to document and discuss learning. Consider how the Cleveland Clinic moved to a portfolio-based assessment system. As students complete coursework, internships, and labs, moving constantly from specialty to specialty, space to space, they use the clinic’s online space to collect, curate, and organize artifacts of learning. This tool not only organizes the multiplicity of evidence required to demonstrate deep learning, it supports an ongoing conversation where students can share their work and receive feedback from a variety of professors, peers, and mentors, then, importantly, reflect on it.
  • Embed online coursework into place-based experiences. Much as this teacher used GOA’s flex course as a springboard to investigate local history, the wealth of information online can offer students a deeper understanding of the place they’re about to visit and can connect them virtually to other places and contexts, allowing them to compare and contrast.
  • Stay connected. Even if students are traveling to different places or completing different projects, the relational element of place-based experiences is critical. A recent study showed students know how to use social media for personal connection, for self-expression, and for exploration. It’s research like this that reminds us that most students are accustomed to moving freely between online and in-person spaces, and intentional use of social media to communicate while learning outside of school can keep a “classroom feel” to place-based experiences.
  • Give student work an authentic audience. One of the most powerful motivators for deep learning is the knowledge that the work will be published, and it is easier than ever to leverage technology to locate a global audience. The simple act of blogging during a place-based experience helps students process learning formatively and engage others in their work in real time. Events like GOA’s Catalyst Conference treat local experiences as capstone projects. It asked students to explore their communities with a specific prompt: how can you apply what you’ve learned to tackle a local issue?
  • Empower students to be project managers. Place-based learning is becoming about much more than field trips. Innovative programs like THINK Global School’s Changemaker Curriculum focus on student-designed projects, complex efforts that require not just deep thinking, but strong organizational skills. Leveraging tools like Trello or Edio (which THINK Global uses) puts the responsibility for juggling details on the students, but in an easily shareable format that makes their work, if they want, transparent to teachers, mentors, and peers.
  • Use technology to investigate places more deeply. Mobile technology allows for real-time analysis and documentation of learning experiences that is powered by students. Use augmented reality to help students learn the history and context of the places they’re visiting. Use geotagging as a way to collect and pool data.
  • Incorporate mentorship and guest experts. Deeper understanding of a place often relies on an expert. Logistics of scheduling, travel, and cost can often prevent student engagement with mentors from outside of school. Bringing in experts via synchronous video calls or asynchronous collaboration/conversation opens up opportunities that might otherwise have been impossible. Even the simple act of engaging experts from the field in online assessment and recognition of student work exposes students to the idea of doing work that is measured against professional standards.

“The new education,” Dewey writes, “emphasizes the freedom of the learner.” The movement towards more place-based learning in schools is about empowering students to learn in relevant contexts, to give them voice and choice in how they explore the world. Conveniently, we live in a moment where technology has given the individual more power than ever to curate and create their own identities and experiences. Students have never been better equipped to engage the world around them, to learn deeply from that engagement, and to share that learning to help others engage, as well. What better use of our time together in schools than to help students understand the power of technology to make them leaders of their own experiences?

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