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Facebooking in the classroom

Dies morning symposium on the future of Problem-Based Learning

Usually, Maastricht University benchmarks itself against Harvard and Oxford, but nowadays the strongest competitor of universities is Google, argues Professor Wim Gijselaers. He was one of the speakers during the Dies morning symposium ‘PBL for the next generation’.


The world has changed dramatically in the digital, globalising era, but does this hold for education as well? Not at all, declares Henry Levin, professor of Economics and Education at Columbia University. Levin was the keynote speaker at the Dies symposium and one of the five laureates to receive an honorary doctorate in the afternoon.

“Imagine that Martians visited the earth in 1915 and described what education was like back then, and did the same in 1995. In fact, they would have plagiarised each other. Because fundamentally, nothing changed. In 1915 there were no computers, of course, but they are nothing more than decoration. Education is a conserving force, meant to reproduce our values, our society. That’s the way we’ve always done this; it’s an important rule in school culture. The real turning points in history took place in the nineteenth century, when compulsory schooling was introduced. It was a confluence of different groups like citizens, experts and politicians that agreed on some ideas and constituted a social movement.”

The principles of education may still be the same, but the world isn’t. “Ten years ago we took our bike to borrow a book from the library”, says Gijselaers. “Now there’s Google, the main source of information. And there’s another sleeping giant: IBM. This company is selling courses which are being bought by business schools all over the world. A package of 300 top courses costs €90,000. That’s less than my annual salary. Google and IBM are the companies with which universities must compete.”

What’s important is that universities like UM adapt to new technology. Look at what’s happening in classrooms: students are texting or facebooking on their laptops, says Gijselaers. “We mustn’t ignore these new media which enable students to learn and connect to this new environment.”

Harm Hospers, dean of the University College, was one of the two deans playing the role of opponent: “Yes, students are texting and facebooking, but I used to play cards during lectures. How much has changed really? What I do think is that we don’t listen well enough to our students and fail to see how their real and virtual worlds interact and how interwoven their personal and professional lives are.”

The other opponent, Rein de Wilde, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, stresses the importance of continuity. “We’re part of a tradition, of an education system in which we don’t behave as consumers but as producers of knowledge. In my faculty we plan to try to understand the evolution of PBL [in the education innovation project Back to Basics –ed.] and we want to learn from it.”

Later, during the panel discussion, De Wilde says: “Implementing new technology is always a challenge. As with e-learning, there’s a strong urge to use it, but the challenge is how to use it, how to stimulate learning? There’s never an overall solution.”

Students of the University College show one of the ways PBL can be updated, called Think Tank. These students worked on a multidisciplinary project in which the PBL problem – population decline – came not from a book but from a real client: Parkstad Heerlen. One of the classrooms served as an office, accessible day and night. The students appreciated the freedom. “You don’t feel forced to take responsibility, but you’re willing to take it.”



Maurice Timmermans



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