Thursday, December 27, 2007

From the Trenches

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It's the Technology, Stupid...

OK, I don't even let my own kids use the word "stupid" around the house (if my 9-year old says that someone used the "s"-word, she means "stupid"), but for those of us who remember the 1992 presidential campaign, the phrase reminds us of the importance of focusing on what really matters.

For the last year or two, I've been in an internal dilemma over the importance of technology versus pedagogy, and I think I've just reached a breaking point. There is just no question in my mind now that we are witnessing the initial phases of a social, cultural, and scientific change that will rival--and likely eclipse--the advent of the printing press. And it is not because of the pedagogy. While this change confirms some core beliefs that many of us have with regard to teaching and learning, and reopens the door to implementing them, the cause of this dramatic change is technological, specifically the read/write Web (or Web 2.0). It is the use of the Web as a contributor as much as a consumer of information.

Last week I was in Denver, attending a KnowledgeWorks Foundation small-group brainstorm "Re-imagining Teaching for the Future." Through a series of exercises intended to construct scenarios about future forces that would affect the roles of teachers, we tried to imagine what teaching and learning will be like in 10 - 15 years. I suggested that the depth of integration of technology into formal education would be a significant factor in teachers' roles, but was told that in this particular kind of scenario building, that technology is almost never considered a critical force, because it can be assumed it will be adopted.

I beg to differ. I'm not sure we can make that assumption. Mike Huffman from Indiana calculated that his state had spent a billion dollars on computer technology over ten years, with the less-that-stunning result that each student had access to a computer for 35 minutes a week. Using a bottom-line approach to computing, with the goal of actual classroom and curricular integration, Mike and his colleague Laura Taylor have been helping to provide low-cost immersive computing in Indiana--but I get the feeling they still fight every day to keep their program. Our inability in our own small worlds to see the larger picture of dramatic change taking place because of the Internet and the read/write Web threatens to keep us on a path of continuing to see computers as an accessory in the classroom. I'm personally not convinced that schools are ready to adopt the computer as the new learning medium. They should, however, and the longer it takes us to recognize this important reality, the more we will wonder why we didn't act sooner.

I'm unsuccessfully trying to remind myself to be patient. Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of the blog (see It's actually the 10th anniversary of the word "weblog," as there have been forms of communication that were blog-like that preceded that day in 1997 when Jorn Barger coined the word. However, I think we can all agree that the blog has only recently burst upon our collective consciousness, and many of the other Web 2.0 tools can only be categorized as being in their infancy. But for anyone participating in Twitter, or Ning Networks, or any of a hundred other social technologies that create dialog and conversation, there is an amazing sense that we are in the middle of something of huge human significance. Ten years may not be that long, but if we have to go through ten more years of debating the value of computers in education, we're in trouble.

Yesterday I interviewed Lindsea (16), Sean (16), and Kevin (17), three of the youth bloggers who have started Students 2.0 (see David Jakes recent post). Sean was in Scotland, Lindsea in Hawaii, and Kevin in Illinois--all on Skype. I've posted the 25 minute interview on my site (along with a previous one by "Arthus" that generated quite a comment firestorm at, and it's well worth the listen; but here I'm fascinated by the role of technology, in this case, in promoting student voices and their perspective on education.

From Sean: "What's happened over the past few years, and in society, with technology and the web becoming a lot more important, I'd say that the stuff I'm doing at home [rather than at school] is right now a bit more relevant, in terms of the skills I will need later in life.... At the stage at which we are at school, I would say that we are not dumb, we've matured a bit, and I think we should have some form of say in what's happening... "

From Kevin: "It's an interesting model, the way school continues to operate, as opposed to the infinitely more learning that we can do outside of the classroom... I think that technology is a very important part of education today, and because of that the shift from the traditional student-teacher model is creating a whole bunch of new possibilities. The web is not the only method by which that will happen, but it is a very important one as well... At the core of everything else, all the technology usage, it's all about creating learners, not just students who are able to interpret the facts that the teachers just preach to them in the classroom... There are 300 - 400 teachers in my school district, maybe only a a handful, I can probably count on one hand, who actually read blogs, let alone write them." -Kevin, 17 years old, Illinois, USA

(Lindsea had less to say because she had to leave the interview early to get to class. She was on a world-wide Skype interview from her computer at school, cool as a cucumber, with all of the noise of a school campus in the background.)

Kids like Kevin and Lindsea and Sean are flying metaphorical jet planes overhead, while we're largely using computers in schools as the equivalent of earth-bound tricycles. And then we're wondering why the computer hasn't transformed or improved education. As Connie Weber has written about an encounter with another teacher in an amazing series of notes about the evolution of her homeroom class, "I got the feeling she thinks 'computers' are a 'subject' and that there should be a lesson on 'computer use' with a beginning, a middle, and an end, then perhaps a test on topic coverage. Oh dear." (Connie's candid notes about her journey into a new paradigm of teaching that started with a social network for her class are on my must-read list for anyone interested in the future of education and learning.)

For some reason that my wife has never understood, I saved every paper I wrote in high school and college. They are still in a box in my attic. "Why?" my wife keeps asking. In my heart, I think I know why. Because I had something significant to say, and I could never bear to throw them away because I never really felt that what I had to say was heard. (Chalk one up to profound insights while blogging.) Most of them only had one other reader than me: my teacher at the time. When our youth write today, their audience can be so much broader and so much more real. It may not be a huge audience, but even if it's a few others scattered around the country or the globe, their writing is much more about communicating effectively with others than mine was. As content producers as well as consumers, their relationship with information is so much richer than mine ever was at their age. I don't want my children to be attic-box writers. I want them passionately, actively engaged in learning and communicating--like they are more and more in their use of the Web, which takes place largely outside of any formal educational setting.

Do I feel shy about advocating increased use of technology in education because of curricular, administrative, teaching, safety, and financial impediments to adoption? Yes, a little. But when I re-frame the context, and ask if I am willing to devote my passion and energy to a complete rethinking of education in light of the impending read/write renaissance brought about by the Internet, it's an unqualified yes. Bring on the revolution.


The members of Students 2.0 are a stellar example of what could happen when motivated young adults are allowed to articulate their ideas to a broad readership.

Unfortunately many (most?) of their peers are not as motivated as Lindsea, Sean, Kevin and crew. If we can't offer them some guided practice as part of their school experience, all of their voices will be lost.

Learning need to expand to fit the needs of the learners.

Absolutely, Diane. Part of the difficulty for me is seeing how we get to where we want to be from where we are--within existing frameworks and mindsets. I'm just not sure there's a clear path between the two--that the new world will be so radically different than the old that we can't migrate from one to the other seamlessly, as though we're just implementing one more program. It's hard for me to imagine my own kids getting much guided practice in these technologies at school, even if I extend out some years. I feel we need a bold new vision, a clarion call to get a "man on the moon" in education--something that will so galvanize us that we're willing to go through radical change.

This is so refreshing! We are on the verge of something so big I hope we are able to keep the vision. To the unknown.

Great post and great interview, Steve. It's nice to see somebody taking "the kids" (sorry, but I'll continue opposing that label, even though well-intended, as one for the dustbin until I end up in that dustbin myself) seriously.

Diane's point about motivation and the need for guidance is well-taken, but to me points to the need to create more authentic publications spaces, with more authentic audiences for students that, like Students 2.0, require quality to reach that audience.

There are obviously other possibilities for such spaces, besides a student edublog, that might motivate students to "embrace the revolution" in their own education.

Music, film, photography, and writings on a broader range of subjects than education are a case in point.

In my own senior classroom, I've been pursuing an "authentic blogging pedagogy" (no html allowed here, so: that throws out prescribed curriculum altogether, and requires only that my students identify a passion-based path of inquiry and/or production, and pursue that through connective reading-and-writing, and through showcasing their own creative pursuits on their blogs.

After a few frustrating months of watching them flounder, I'm finally seeing signs that give me hope. One student had a "mission moment" in which he identified that his blog would henceforth be the space in which he published and discussed his own musical compositions, with the aim of producing a full CD by the end of the senior year.

Others have similarly chosen photography and design as their missions, and are advancing down their own paths in those directions.

I started Students 2.0 out of frustration with all the excuses we read for not pushing authentic learning with web 2.0 forward in education. Sean's old English teacher in Scotland, "Mr. Winton (," put his finger on my ultimate hope for this enterprise when he wrote,

"This attempt to give students a genuine forum where they can give an end-users view of Education2.0 is, I hope, the thin end of the wedge."

The "thin end of the wedge" indeed. We can, all of us, create more spaces that students want to earn their way into. The less "schooly" and egalitarian, the better - because maybe those unmotivated students Diane mentions are not motivated precisely because the types of publication they are offered online, in the end, still feel as inauthentic as the hallway displays of yore.

Thanks for taking these young people seriously, and not just giving them a pat on the head. I know I've been snarky on a couple occasions in comments on other posts about s2oh, but it's precisely because those posts seemed to both miss the weight of the moment, and to coopt the revolution by taming it into a lower level of status in the edublogging caste system. It's nice to see you and Ryan Bretag (he wrote about s2oh on TL first, as far as I know) avoiding that tone.

It's early days for s2oh, and they have a learning curve ahead of them, but trust me: for engagement and motivation, and care for their work, they get an A+ for their work so far.

Or would, if this had anything at all to do with grades. The amazing thing, of course, is that it doesn't.


Thanks so much for adding your voice. I was very keen to see how you'd react to the interview.

I guess the bottom line for me is that I believe the technology is going to open some doors that pedagogy can't right now. Which I hope is different than saying that pedagogy is not as important as technology, but just more powerful (I'm struck by how many good things are done in education that don't lead to larger change.)

I also think that new pedagogies are going to arise because of the changes in how we communicate, collaborate, and create in the new medium of the read/write web--so maybe the bonus for me is that my belief that technology is going to create some dramatic changes also leads me to believe that we are going to be forced by this moment in histsory to have some really important discussions about learning and education, discussions that an entrenched system tends to resist.


Simply OUTSTANDING! Passionatley frames the issue and should serve as the "clarion call" to educators of every ilk.

The outside of the classroom experiences (Kudo's to the digitally enlightened students among us!) signal the identification of a significant trend with regard to the familiar educational "rigor, RELEVANCE, relationships" factors. In other words students will seek relevance where THEY find it. And if not in the classroom, so be it (see students testamonials)!

This is the seminal driving issue with regards to the current work of the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative.

Every champion of evolved digital education and true 21st Century Digital Learning Environments should become familiar with this emerging body of work.

Additionally, we are developing a small "pilot" study program to research, investigate and create technological pedagogically DESIGNED digital learning environments (sorry for the mouthful) composed of some of the issues you have so artfully articulated, within the context of an NSF ITEST STEM GRANT beginning January 2008. The baseline research element of this granting intention addresses the American Competitiveness initiative and attendant follow-on K-12 STEM IT based solutions.

Your patience is to be admired and your anxiety is shared and understood.

With regards to the "BIG PICTURE" here are three words that have served well in several similar social/cultural, industry technological disruptions (Graphic Arts, Industrial Design, Film & Video, Corporate America IT, etc.), of the past couple of decades. CHEAPER, BETTER, FASTER! I believe in combination they are the catalyst and the "great-leveler" of all playing fields if you will, AND they are on the immediate U.S. educational horizon.

Please stay your impassioned course, you are not alone and are spot-on!



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