Flat Learning: Finding Our Way


I started coming to Manitoulin Island as a teen. My parents had built a summer home on Manitowaning Bay, and it became the place the family gathered for holidays and special events. One of the reasons people build or buy out here is because it is remote. Not removed or distant, just remote. You can drive onto the island via a swing  bridge and the nearest city of size is not days away by plane or dog sled, but a mere two hours by car. The word “island” also plays into the sense of being remote; the connotation that being on the island is being somewhere different, maybe even exotic, or quaint, charming, and rustic. That’s Manitoulin. With not a big name franchise in sight, not even a Macdonald’s, Manitoulin can feel like a place frozen in time. Or it did, until last December when the first cell tower went up.

Somehow, for many people, including teachers, the Internet never fully represented connection. It was for research, resources, and email. It was for static activities.  The students, too, did not reach out to the world with the Internet. Sure, they used Facebook, but to chat with each other. But now we have Smart phones, and our world is shifting. Teachers, who once banned headphones and mp3 players from their classrooms, are now considering how to use personal devices in their lessons. This in turn has led a number of teachers to request pods of computers in the classrooms for students who don’t own devices. This in turn has led to talk of dismantling the labs and putting the computers in all classrooms. This in turn has led to a realization that we can no longer teach in the way that we did; that learning is more personal and that it can be more personal.

This is where flat learning starts. It begins with a recognition that technology is a tool that can help us accomplish whatever it is we need to do, whether that is to improve students’ literacy skills, teach them senior physics, or develop their learning skills like collaboration and initiative. Flat learning is about differentiation, too. It’s about levelling the playing field for all learners–those who have trouble making it to school each day, those who need extra time to learn a concept or skill, or those who need to move on, now. Flat learning is about self-discovery and personal engagement; it’s about authenticity. It can answer, “What’s the point of this?” Flat learning is about feeling connected, first with each other. It’s about taking down the walls that surround us in our space, and then connecting with others beyond our space.

And flat learning is about hope. Sometimes, when we live rurally and remotely we can feel cut off from the world psychologically. We can think that this is it, that what I see around me is all that I can have. And no matter how many field trips and extra-curricular events we plan for our kids to show them “what’s out there,”  they always come back here. Flat learning and flattening classrooms is about the students learning to find their way out there from here through the technology that they can hold in their hands.

When I was first married, my husband worked very hard to convince me to move to the island. But I couldn’t live in a place that was so remote–few people, no university, no theatre, no book stores. I would surely perish. We did eventually find our way here, many years later, and earlier this month, I virtually attended a conference at which 11,000 people attended from 117 countries.


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