One of my first “useractive” learning experiences happened when I was in elementary school, when my class participated in the National Geographic Kids Net acid rain project.
We collected rainwater and tested its PH level using small test strips. We compiled the results, and entered them into a computer. Our teacher used a dial-up modem to submit our results to a national database, and afterward we were able to view graphs and maps of the results we submitted, as well as those from students at other schools across the country.
During this process I learned so much about science: how to collect samples, how to perform a scientific test, and how to record and exchange data across the miles. We were engaged with the scientific method, and putting it into action. We were learning by doing. We didn’t just talk about science, or watch videos about scientists. We were scientists.
Would I have learned the scientific method if I had watched a video of scientists collecting rainwater, testing its PH, and recording the data? I don’t think so. More than likely my eyes would’ve glazed over, my mind wandered, and I would’ve digested just a small percentage of the information presented. Or what if I had been given a computer game where I had to collect water and test its PH that way, never once collecting a water sample or touching a PH strip? That kind of virtual participation would have made for some pretty dry science, not to mention a less than exciting video game experience for the kids in my class. I mean, why play a video game to test PH when we could perform real experiments to do that? And if we were going to play a video game, Mario Brothers was much more fun.
My point is that you really can’t learn skills by passively watching a video, or playing around with a game or simulation. Ultimately, you have to roll up your sleeves and experiment, and use practical examples to help you make mental connections about the way things work.
While videos, simulations, and games can serve as supplemental learning tools, in the end the student has to go out and grab education for himself. As a young student, I didn’t know the proper way to use PH test strips, so a short video demonstration could have been a good way to get started. But this kind of learning continues to have limitations. Watching how to use a PH strip would not take our class to where we were trying to go, though that small tip might have helped kicked off our journey. But in the end, we would need to test the PH ourselves.
At OST we sometimes receive questions from people wondering why we don’t offer video lectures, PowerPoint slides, or flash animations. Our answer is always the same: because we can do better. Instead of providing our students passive resources, we provide real, active, engaging learning. OST students are responsible to make their own learning happen, by diving headfirst into real, never-simulated programming, and hands-on experimentation.
Learning works the same way for all subject matter. All the videos and power point presentations in the world will not turn new students into swimmers, good drivers, chefs, or programmers. Not until a student jumps into the water and takes the strokes, gets behind the steering wheel on the road, or tests a recipe in the kitchen, can he lay claim to that new skill. Programming is no different. To become a proficient programmer, you have to get dirty, program, learn what works and what doesn’t, and in the process, get to where you want to go.
I have fond memories of the experiments we worked on with the National Geographic project. National Geographic seems to have known way back then how learning happened. But little did I know that those elementary school experiments would start me on the path of learning that I would follow into adulthood. Active learning continues to be a big part of my life. It has an impact on just about everything I do, or at least everything I ever succeed at, eventually.
More on the National Geographic Kids Net project visit: