The internet as a third space for learning

In my roles as both teacher of English and head of teaching and learning at at federation of schools in Cambridge UK, I have become more and more aware of how the internet and digital tools like the iPad have created a new space in which to learn. We should now think of this as the third space for learning: the first being the traditional school, and the second the social spaces of home, leisure spaces, and as we mature, work spaces. These second spaces are not necessarily geared primarily for formal learning, but are still places where we can seek new knowledge, skills and understanding.

Today, young people inhabit this fluid third space as readily as they do the physical spaces around them: it defines them almost as much as their home or school. The rise of social networks has seen a connectivity that we have never seen before: you only need to look at the way in which the mobile device is never out of their hands to realise that these new tools are an intrinsic part of their networked identity. It is not an exaggeration to say that this networking is not simply an optional extra: it is an integral element of anyone born in the west in the last 30 or so years.

Those in their teens and early twenties (even younger in some cases: I have seen young children using iPods and iPads as readily as their elder siblings) are now wired into new networks that makes it vital that in our role as educators we inhabit this third space not simply as a minor addition to what we do in the classroom, but as a whole new space for learning in itself.

iTunes U and other online learning spaces have gone some way to address this, as have institutions like Yale and MIT, who now offer virtually their entire lecture series’ online. However, we need to go beyond this, looking at how we can move both the delivery of content and those learning interactions up into this third space.

I am not advocating the abolition of the traditional school: far from it. Some of the most powerful learning still takes place in the classroom, so we should never overlook its importance as the first space of any child’s learning journey. However, we would be doing our children a great disservice if we did not meet them up in the spaces in which so many of them feel most comfortable, feel like they belong. These third spaces of learning are there for us to inhabit, and to bring the learning to them in new ways that excite and interest them, using the tools that they feel inherently comfortable with.

We brought iPod Touches and iPads into the world. It was not our children. We created the internet and in so doing opened up this new, infinitely expandable space for all to use. Let’s not kid ourselves that it’s their fault they are glued to their screens all day, and instead give them the option to attend a new type of learning institution, one that can sit alongside their day to day schooling and their social spaces, augmenting what they already use in ways that can help them prepare for the future.

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