Not long ago I visited a museum that was advertised as highly interactive. And interactive it was. One could hear the words of history from the participants themselves. Technology was brought to life through video, touch screens and “intelligent tables.” I found myself presented with a history that I never knew, and reinforcement of history that I was already familiar with. In the three hours that I spent there, I learned a lot. But only later when I discussed my experience with the other people in our group did that knowledge truly come to life and deepen my understanding.
Just this week I toured a state-of-the-art academic building. Technology was everywhere. Holograms displayed essential information. Relevant data bases were accessible from numerous locations throughout the building. Faculty could retrieve information for the entire class and display it in various formats, and students could communicate with others around the world in real time. A truly remarkable technological achievement. Yet I was struck by the thought that deep learning will occur only as those interactions of people with technology are enhanced by significant interaction of people with people.
Technology is a fabulous tool. But it is a tool. Effective communication and understanding must have an emotional component to it as well. And that component most readily comes from personal interaction, from the simple task of transforming what one knows into concepts that have relevance. Partly this understanding comes from effective pedagogy. But on the university campus, a good part comes from informal interactions. Therein lies the dilemma.
No residence hall, student union or classroom building is considered state-of-the-art unless it is technologically sophisticated. Rare is the college student that doesn’t have multiple devices to keep them connected. In many ways, it enables communication, provides more and unique ways to study and collaborate, and opens worlds of opportunities to gather information and search ideas. Yet the most effective learning environment also recognizes that society benefits from face-to-face interactions that advance understanding of cultures, encourages interactions from multiple perspectives and values critical reasoning about enduring values and social traditions. Technology cannot do these vital tasks for us.
Our buildings must connect people just as they connect technology. The residence halls, labs, classrooms, student centers, parks and gardens create the framework for discussions, arguments and creating relationships. It’s where students can learn those essential skills coveted by employers – such as critical thinking, effective communication, listening – and discover the character values, like fairness, honesty and thoughtfulness that will be a foundation for future success. Students need to do the heavy lifting, but design firms must create environments where that can happen. We cannot depend on technology to provide a short cut.