Maximizing learning in the digital age

New minor promotes use of emerging technologies in different fields

October 27, 2015
Remi Holden
Remi Holden

These days, Remi Holden, PhD, says, the average student walks into a classroom with more knowledge in their pocket than in their teacher’s head. Whether in elementary school, high school or college, a student is only a smartphone query away from an answer to any problem. So what is the role of the teacher in a world where knowledge is so easily accessible?

“Teachers need to be good facilitators,” Holden, an assistant professor in the School of Education & Human Development, says. “We need to filter knowledge, ask powerful questions and show students how to navigate these new venues of learning that are all around us. We never want a mobile device to replace a teacher. Rather, we need to retool our ways of thinking about teaching.”

Holden has spent his career thinking about learning—about how it has changed with new technologies and how teachers can become designers of meaningful learning experiences. Now he’s joined SEHD’s Information and Learning Technologies program to help more students question their assumptions about what learning looks like.

In spring 2016, SEHD is launching a new undergraduate Digital Media and Learning minor, open to students from any discipline and designed to promote the use of emerging technologies in students’ chosen majors and careers. Holden has been a key player in launching this minor, which will help students explore how new media, storytelling, mobile learning, games and networks can be leveraged to solve problems, advance civic engagement and design more participatory futures. In preparation for the launch, Holden described three things students and teachers need to understand about learning in a digital age.

We learn through civic engagement

Holden’s first experience in a formal classroom was as a middle school math teacher in the South Bronx. He was a self-described terrible math teacher, largely because he did not explore ways to connect math to his students’ everyday practices, cultures and commitments to social justice. That all changed when Holden became a director of civic engagement programs for high school students across New York City. His students’ classroom was no longer inside a school building—it was the city of New York itself. Instead of completing exercises in a textbook, his students began researching community-based and interest-driven issues that they cared deeply about, like access to healthy and affordable food. Investigations of food security featured his students interviewing store owners, conducting food security audits and connecting this real-world issue to mathematics practices such as data collection and analysis. Then, Holden’s students presented their quantitative and qualitative research findings to city council officials and members of the mayor’s office to advocate for policy change.

Today when you go to New York, you will see green carts with affordable fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods. That’s partly because Holden’s students took advantage of their learning environment, presented their findings to civic officials and helped change legislation. That’s a math and civics lesson his students will remember—a lesson that never could have happened only in a classroom.

Remi Holden

We learn across settings

Holden comes from a family of educators—both formal schoolteachers and academics, as well as artists, dancers and personal trainers who teach in informal settings. Much of his own learning and early teaching occurred outside of school at a summer camp.

“Whether in the classroom, on the shores of a lake, in a forest or on an urban street corner, we have learning environments all around us,” he says. “They all have opportunities that can allow for deep learning. Students’ learning doesn’t stop when they walk in and out of the classroom, and we should take advantage of that and forget the confines of a traditional classroom.”

Holden will promote learning across settings at CU Denver in his new role as creative research collaborative fellow with InWorks, CU Denver’s “academic skunk works” committed to interdisciplinary innovation that addresses complex social problems. The inaugural team of fellows with very diverse expertise will advance mobile technologies research to better understand how people participate in civic conversations across everyday settings.

We learn through play and games

People also learn through unstructured play and the constraints of games. Holden says many theorists and researchers have already demonstrated how games become transformative learning experiences. Therefore, he is passionate about encouraging teachers to incorporate more gaming and playfulness in their classrooms, including games that are co-designed with students.

“Schooling tends to limit the ways in which we play with ideas,” he says. “Games are a structured way of reintroducing playfulness, a sense of exploration, curiosity and creative expression in a formal learning environment.”

Holden teaches a graduate-level games and learning course, and his students play games every week—card games, online games, board games, all kinds of games. As they play, new lessons and insights always emerge. The lessons are always memorable and cause students to question, though a critique of game design, how other learning experiences may be created and enacted.

“What we know about games and learning, whether it’s video games, tabletop games or theatrical improvisation, is that games allow players to accept a new, temporary set of rules. You cannot pick up a golf ball and dribble it like a basketball down the fairway to the hole. Players accept an arbitrary but enjoyable set of rules to create meaning during play. If we take that as an operating assumption about how game play works, we can then begin to extrapolate lessons about how we experiment with the voluntary constraints of learning, identity development during play, how players solve problems and how we express ourselves in everyday circumstances.”

Technology, a passion for civic engagement, the many environments outside the classroom and games can all be tools to amplify learning, and, Holden says, it’s time to start using them.