New Learning Environments

Fundamental Change in educational orientation:

What would our research, technology design, and thinking look like if we took seriously the momentous opportunities and challenges for learning posed by our digital era?  What happens when we stop privileging traditional ways of organizing knowledge (by fields, disciplines, and majors or minors) and turn attention instead to alternative modes of creating, innovating, and critiquing that better address the interconnected, interactive global nature of knowledge today, both in the classroom and beyond?  (HASTAC, 2012)

21st century skils

Credit: Corey Dahl Flickr CC

What changes do we really need in our education system to facilitate the 21st century skills?  The answers are not meant to be easy.  We can perhaps go back to the ideal type of the 21st century learning to help shed some light on the new learning or pedagogical orientation that is called for.    This leads me to two quintessential sources.

Back in 1995, Barr and Taggs wrote an influential article, “From teaching to learning: a new paradigm for undergraduate education.”  In the article the authors clearly laid down the adoption of the Learning Paradigm as the new direction and orientation for undergraduate education.  The authors compared and contrasted the Instruction Paradigm and the Learning Paradigm with a long list of characteristics contrasting the two paradigms.  For example, while the Instruction Paradigm lists “[l]earning is teacher centered and controlled,” “[o]ffering of courses and programs,” and “[c]lassroom learning is competitive and individualistic,”  the Learning Paradigm lists contrasting characteristic, “[l]earning is student centered and controlled,” “[o]ffering powerful learning environments,” and “[l]earning environments and learning are cooperative, collaborative and supportive,” respectively.  Moving forward to 2006,  John Seely Brown wrote “New Learning Environments for the 21st Century: Exploring the Edge.”   Seely Brown’s article gives specific examples of what the Learning Paradigm means in the current digital context.   When I first read the article in 2008,  it was still somewhat too abstract to grasp its real meanings.  After learning to live with a couple of iPhone updates and tablet products,  the article is amazingly compatible with how the society is evolving.  The article succinctly raises important points for us to consider the new learning environments for the 21st century.

The essence of the new learning environments and the learners in the 21st century is captured and articulated by Seely Brown in the video below and nicely supplements his 2006 article.  In the new learning environments, students mutually give and receive with the following key characteristics:

  • To nurture and tinker a germinating idea or inspiration to create something concrete that works in a real life situation.  
  • To participate and involve in a peer-based learning community by:
  • giving and receiving feedback, criticism, and teaching and learning among peers [He says, “You can learn the best by teaching!”  (This is very true.)]; and
  • sharing the result as well as the process of working on a project and creating mutual learning opportunities.
  • To inspire and foster imagination among learners.  [Seely Brown points out that the schools don’t do a good job about this.]
  • To test, explore and assess what one is trying to accomplish.
  • To have the “teacher” to “orchestrate” the learning environments.


Reality Check:

So after over 17 years since the 1995 article by Barr and Taggs, we still generally follow the Instruction Paradigm in higher education.  The recent three faculty survey studies are a case in point:

  • Johnson (2013) published an article, “Technological Change and Professional Control in the Professoriate,” in the Journal of Science, Technology & Human Value and it was reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The common characteristic of these studies is that the use of technology in classroom was treated simply like something to be plugged in to the same classroom teaching practices.  Many faculty members interviewed for the first study, for example, referred to PowerPoint as the tool for teaching, hardly any mentions of blogs, Twitter, wiki’s, other social media tools, not even the discussion forum module of the Learning Management System (LMS).  It was highlighted in the report from the third study that the majority of the faculty use the LMS as an administrative tool to manage grades or class attendance, a convenient space to park their syllabus, class notes or presentations.  There was no significant item highlighting how the LMS added value to enhance learning environments.   It is important to note, however, that the purpose of these three studies is not about addressing technology use by the faculty in relation to student learning or different kinds of student engagement.  All studies instead showed that teaching orientation of the traditional classroom persists in higher education.

In Conclusion:

Designing and providing more student-centred learning environments that accompany the fundamental pedagogical change  is one of the key challenges of higher education in the 21st century.  The ideal type of the 21st century learning environments motivate us and allow us to explore the potential uses of emerging technologies.  It helps us continue challenging the established practices in higher education.  I have included some examples of such experimentation and project in this e-portfolio.


  • HASTAC. (2012). Retrieved April 6, 2013, from (HASTAC is “a consortium of humanists, artists, social scientists, and engineers committed to new forms of collaborations across communities and disciplines fostered by creative uses of technology.”)
  • Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The magazine of higher learning27(6), 12–26.
  • Brown, J. S. (2006). New learning environments for the 21st century: Exploring the edge. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning38(5), 18–24.
  • Brown, J. S. (2013).  John Seely Brown: Chief of Confusion. (2013). Retrieved April 6, 2013, from (Brown curates his books, articles, interviews, and videos at his own web site.)
  • John Seely Brown: Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production. (2008). Retrieved from
  • Johnson, D. R. (2013). “Technological Change and Professional Control in the Professoriate.” Science, Technology & Human Values, 38(1), 126–149. doi:10.1177/0162243911430236