Experiments in Experiential Learning

Three projector screens showing three simultaneous Keynote presentations running on three laptops makes for one visually stimulating talk – not to mention a fascinating sneak peek into the future of teaching.

On Friday, Professor Shigehisa Kuriyama gave a talk entitled “The Geography of Ginseng and the Strange Alchemy of Needs” under the aegis of the Reischauer Institute Japan Forum.  Professor Kuriyama is the Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History, and the Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. Tracing the many shifts in international trade, hygiene, and cuisine that centered around ginseng, a medicinal root whose powers have been celebrated for millennia, Professor Kuriyama cast his presentation as a convoluted story with a simple conclusion: the way we read, study, and learn history is contingent on how we frame it. As he spoke, he manipulated the three laptops arrayed before him like a virtuoso organist, opening and closing virtual curtains on the three screens to make transparent the roles that framing played at each moment of the talk.

During the Q&A that followed, Professor Kuriyama reflected on the potential that his ambitious and tech-savvy presentation style holds for the classroom. Students, he argued, need to experience facts and ideas, not just receive them. The multimedia collection of clip art and spoken word, animation and sound, historical documents and maps so integral to his presentation on Friday constitute one possible path to a more active learning experience for his students.

This path may not prove immediately accessible to all teachers – Professor Kuriyama is legendary for his Keynote prowess – but technology here is the means, not the end. As Matthew Mugmon pointed out in his recent post, there are many ways to encourage hands-on, experiential learning, whether in lecture or section. Like Professor Kuriyama proved Friday, it’s just a matter of throwing three screens to the wind and experimenting.

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