Our students are like beacons, a bright light on the horizon, but with some way to go. Our educational methods that bring them safely into harbour have seen the test of time, but do we allow them enough freedom and creativity to sail their boats in the climate change of the digital era? Our students are chosen because they are smart and capable and we hope will bring credit to our institutions, but do we maximize their potential educationally? We need to go back to the future to begin to consider this.
If we imagine a future that is monochrome, writing laboriously with chalk on a blackboard and filling the room with dust, we are enacting the past (Figure 1). Go from a negative to a positive, and the white board is colourful and interactive - a large internet connected screen which students can capture any amount of information for their personal and networked study. It is not just the affordances of technology that is changing, but the learning spaces and the personalisation of learning (1, 2). Our tablets need not be made of clay when we can each make meaning out of using touchscreens - just like young children try to do - or even use them to communicate as telepresence robots (3).
The advent of technology-enhanced learning (TEL) has been a bumpy ride, compounded by technology so often driving education in many Higher Education establishments, when knowledge of best pedagogical practices is often studiously ignored. The study of the barriers to TEL is well known (4), yet our students live in a technology-mediated world, and they use tools for play that could be used for education. Serious games, for example, are now being used to support learning (5). Social networks are often accessed by students for sharing knowledge with all the attendant issues of digital professionalism (6).
Innovation and outcomes
Innovation is too often seen as a peripheral or add-on activity, but innovation is not just crystal ball gazing. We should positively encourage this skill to embrace new ideas for research and development. In education, staff and students can critically help problem solve many of the current burning issues in our own profession. We might well ask, for instance, whether the design of our curricula adequately and seamlessly prepares the student for their future practice. An example of a nine year attempt to harmonise dental education across borders was given by the major European funded dental education project ‘Dented’ that ran until 2007 (7). Beyond the expected outcome of consensus across borders globally over best practices in an undergraduate dental curriculum, four somewhat unexpected observations accrued:
A strong network of peers grew, many of whom are now leaders in their own Schools, who now work collaboratively. For example,The University of Brescia in North Italy has hosted 12 annual colloquia, more latterly considering innovation in education (8).
Student attitudes were global and very similar across borders;
Teaching staff were notably dedicated, but were often limited by their local and/or national regime;
The rekindling of the European Association of Dental Students (EDSA) facilitated future sustainability. This is something that Zagreb University, School of Dental Medicine, has done very well recently. The Summer Camps and four Virtual World Congresses run by the EDSA students from Zagreb for a global audience, are testament for this (9).
Educational challenges and opportunities
There are huge opportunities for education generally, through understanding best pedagogical practices of the affordances of technologies. In Dentistry, the advent of the use of touch through haptics (the sense of touch) is gaining pace with new simulation opportunities in 3D (10). The appreciation of visual literacy is becoming apparent – a picture paints a thousand words (11). However, it is important not to think that there is one ultimate solution. An example of this is the sudden interest in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) (12). Although many schools are signing up to these market driven courses, the outcomes may be quite different – for instance the innovative use of videos in medical education (13). Seamless connectivity of TEL tools with quality assurance, security elements and analytics, underpinned by the best pedagogical principles that ensure the student experience is maximised, is not a pipe dream. It has already been realised with a UK Government funded project - UDENTE (Universal Dental e-Learning) (14). But so often advances are driven by market forces, not academic advances that frequently set sail in seas of political discontent. But history does have a habit of repeating itself – good and bad. Fortunately good ideas and innovations that are before their time, are very likely to be re-invented – like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, someone else with carry the torch.
Back to the Future
So let’s go back to the future. What is clear is that we have learnt from Plato that moving from an oral tradition to writing, even on papyrus, is powerful, as knowledge is powerful. Gutenberg and Caxton’s presses brought print to the population in the 15th century, and this revolutionised education through books. The digital era is doing the same (15). The public expectation is changing - they can freely access the information highway. We need to make sure that our students can navigate well in this very deep mobile ocean, avoiding large sharks and smaller stinging creatures. Most will agree that an evidenced base approach, especially to analytics (16), is valuable to justify and reach conclusions. This is achieved using today's accepted tools and instruments but we should not forget the important role of qualitative research methodology and descriptors. There will be more transformation changes and cultural shifts in education, as we manage data, information and make new meanings. Assessments are already changing from summative rote-learning tests towards a more formative approach, for instance. We need to measure outcomes of learning, not regurgitation of facts (17).
We will leave a legacy to our diverse student body, but they may be more prepared for the future than we think. Mostly born in the ‘Net- Generation’, they are already technologically savvy and able to embrace new virtual visual and tactile literacies. They write by rote because we train them to. We should learn from the past but our practice should be contemporary and visionary – why use sextants when we have GPS (Global Positioning Systems)? Our teaching should be student-centred so that we roots of learning lead to a solid trunk - then giving rise to branches that grow and blossom to spawn the next generation. It would be a shame to lose students who will sow seeds in more fertile ground elsewhere. We are also role models and should not lose sight of the evidence of the value of a blended approach (face-to-face combined with TEL) to modern educational methods and good learning design. Connectivity means that the globalisation of education is already here.
This Journal has been a leader in linking the old with the new, an open publication with international peer review, but also available in the older technology of print. The medium is the message (18). Basic physics and history tells us that water finds it's own level, rocks will sink, amphibians will emerge and fly. Mammals will succeed dinosaurs.
Our students are our future, we have a duty to inspire their destiny.