Designing for Learning in the Second Machine Age


Apex International Academy and Innova Academy are two new schools being developed by ‘Origins Education’ and planning to open in August 2017, challenging themselves to reimagine education in the ‘Second Machine Age’ by designing engaging physical and virtual environments that support forward thinking pedagogies and build dynamic learning communities.

We see technology not just as a tool, but as a part of our environment that needs to be thoughtfully designed into the concept of our learning communities.

We aspire to design a physical and digital ecosystem that nurture humans as inquisitive, thinking, creative and collaborative social beings, and to blend the unique qualities of physical environment, the strengths of both human beings and technology to transform learning’ and engage the next generation of passionate, innovative and caring individuals.

That’s easier said than done – so we have created a couple of blog sites that allow space for us to reflect on the roles of technology and environment in our schools and to focus on the each of these highly interconnected niches, one focusing on the designing and creating the physical and virtual domains.

For me this has been a long personal journey that really got serious when I was at Western Academy of Beijing. In 1999 we brought in the first generation of  wireless Apple ‘Airports’ and set up the first school wireless hotspot in China and realized the paradigm shifting power of the technology. At the same time I was involved in designing and building the school’s new campus which opened in 2001 and continued in phases til 2006. Since then, and with tech infused new school projects in Jakarta at Sinarmas World Academy from 2007 to 2012 and now again in Beijing I have worked with teams of dynamic educators pushing the agenda of environment and technology and searching for better ways to make it all fit together to improve learning and build communities. Along the way we have had a couple of goes at designing virtual learning environments using all the new tools that kept coming our way, but this is the first time we have tried taking on this huge topic in one breath starting with the ‘Why?’ and at documenting some of the journey and putting it out to all our friends who share these challenges and have been tinkering with every opportunity that comes along.

Ultimately, our satisfaction comes from shared effort and inspiration, and the journey of collaborating with our friends, building on past experimentations and the contemporary thinking. Our success will be measured by how well we prepare our millennials for the brave new world that they must be empowered to own.

Technology the Fourth Teacher
Today the Regio Emelia idea of ‘Environment as the third teacher’ makes even more sense, but I would suggest that with the disruption and opportunities of technology over the past 15 years and the challenges ahead it is time to think about a fourth teacher – technology. Or perhaps more accurately a sub-set of the same three – parent, teacher, environment – with environment being thought of as being interdependent, interconnected, parallel and intersecting with the physical and digital or virtual dimensions, together with the skills, attitudes and abilities required to thrive in this environment. As such technology is not only a teacher, but a vital part of the environmental infrastructure or environment that empowers human ingenuity and compassion.

Designing Environments
In today’s world – our environment is both physical and virtual and the two interconnect – so it’s natural that when considering establishing a new school or reflecting on existing schools, that we should spend time and resources designing the virtual, just as we do the physical, and that we should consider design flexibility a natural part of this and be prepared to redecorate and renovate the virtual environment from time to time – just as we do the physical.

Defining Environment
Environment should not just be thought of as the built space i.e. classrooms and hallways but all spaces and resources and the community.

  • Built environment
  • Natural environment – gardens, parks
  • Community – Social and Society
  • Cultural environment – respect for and valuing community culture, local culture, heritage/s
  • In the 21st century all of the above environmental components exist in the physical and virtual dimensions and that these two dimensions are symbiotic and interconnected, and consist of all the resources contained within (human, physical, digital). Using technology tools and infrastructure that connects humans and empowers thinking and creation are at the heart of the 21st century school environment challenge.

Modalities of learning/ Spaces for Learning:
For a long time we as teachers have thought about space within our classrooms in terms of different groupings of students for different purposes. In ” 5 Minds for the Future”, Gardner (2008) describes the types of learning that “we” will need thrive in the world in the coming eras, while Fielding and Nair (2013) describe learning spaces that support a variety of modalities of learning in their book “the Language of School Design – Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools.”

  • Whole or large group – teaching, sharing, lecture
  • Small group – collaborative spaces
  • Individual – cave, quiet time to work uninterrupted (today this can be in an open space with headphones!)
  • Village green – piazzas, lobbies, cafes, lounges
  • Studios – Workshops
  • Camp Fire – discussion, reflecting
  • Mountain Top – sharing
  • It could be argued that technology centric learning is a new modality of learning, it certainly is becoming a preferred way of learning for many, but that learning fits into the above functions or virtual spaces and purposes. Later on we will look at design for these spaces, and how these can be reflected in the virtual environment.

About Technology and Learning
Technology is enabling life long learning – and its happening outside of school and despite school. So what about in education?

  • So are machines going to take over teaching, our jobs?
  • The reality is that machines can do some things better than humans can do
  • Machines in education
    • In the info age – Google, Wikipedia have replaced the teacher as the source of knowledge
    • Machines don’t sleep and are good at ‘on-demand’
    • YouTube is an awesome teacher
    • Machines are great at data and tracking stuff
    • Machines don’t get bored and really good at repetition

But human teachers do things machines can’t. The challenge is to optimize the strengths of our humanity, and empower our ingenuity through the power of technology, digital skills and the way that it enables us to access information and collaborate with each other.

Yong Zhao in his book, Never Send a Human to do a Machine’s Job (2016), focuses on the role of technology to enhance teaching and learning that can be summarized below:

  • Learner
    • Personalize learning
    • Enhance access to learn, question, info
    • Communicate & Connect & bridge language
    • Empower creation and productivity (production)
  • Teacher and Support Staff
    • Automate some teacher and organizational functions that aren’t high value that take up human time
    • Maximize teacher human value and interaction, guidance, mentor etc
  • Life & Work
    • Enhancing life and work of teachers and learners – make work easy, more fun, professional, effective

Environment Goals (Physical &Virtual)
In designing learning communities and environments we should be clear about our goals and guiding principles. We have drafted the following to help guide us.

The learning environment should impact and shape learning and teaching and should –

  • Redefine learning
    • Inquiry
    • Innovation and creation
    • Sharing goods and services
    • Entrepreneurial
  • Empower learners
    • Follow interests, develop expertise, discuss, interact with teachers and peers
  • Redefine Teachers
    • Professionals teachers, para-professionals and industry experts – technicians, scientists, engineers, authors, movie makers, artists
  • Empower teachers
    • To mentor, guide, challenge, interact
    • Free up teachers from mundane tasks, empower teaching, shift pedagogy
    • Provide powerful digital tools for teaching and learning
    • Record us at our best!
  • Redefine Access and Time
    • Authentic primary source
    • Connected regionally and globally
    • Access to authentic and meaningful info, resources and people
    • More opportunities to interact meaningfully between teachers and students
    • More opportunities to collaborate, create, share, publish

Environment Design Principles (Physical & Virtual)

We should design, develop and reflect on these environments in terms of whether they –

  • Facilitate innovation in learning and teaching
  • Remain flexible, adaptable
  • Optimize the strengths of humans and technology
  • Enhance access
  • Empower collaboration, sharing and celebration
  • Empower Communities – local and global
  • Blend a harmonious, symbiotic ecosystem incorporating the built, natural, human and virtual elements