Sunday, October 28, 2007

Herding Cats

One of the students in my professional development class recently shared her frustration of her school district’s policy that not only blocks online videos but also purposely neglects to install sound capabilities in their school’s computers.

The question we need to ask is, Are these technologies blocked for the students' benefit, or for our convenience? In 2001, education technology visioneer Marc Prensky labeled students as "Digital Natives" and those of us who are older than 25 or so as "Digital Immigrants". Teenagers ubiquitously navigate through audio, video, IM, text messaging and many other forms of digital communication on a daily basis. Just because we "Digital Immigrants" don't understand, does that make it useless? or bad?

A study published in August, 2007 by the National School Boards Association found that 96% of students with online access use social-networking technologies. No one taught them how to use MySpace--they learned from each other. Big surprise that many use it inappropriately! There are some obvious parallels we could draw here.

School administrators keep asking me how their schools can use electronic portfolios, and they are surprised when I tell them that their students already are--it's the teachers who need to learn how to do it. Some school districts, like Seattle Public Schools, are proactive, purchasing services such as Medley and providing the requisite training for teachers and staff--as well as instruction for students regarding media literacy, evaluating sources, and other 21st Century Learning Skills.

IMHO we need to accept that our teenagers probably know a lot more than we do about many of these technologies. However, we tend to have a couple things they don't have: experience and judgment. Together, these provide us with the ability to make predictions regarding the potential results of our actions. Students, as the ultimate optimists, rarely think what they do is going to injure them. The side benefit of this optimism is the willingness to learn and try new things. Isn't this the attitude we want to promote in our students? IMHO we as educators spend all too much time and effort in an attempt to control something we don't know about, understand, and are afraid of. And in the end, it's like herding cats. Maybe if we walked among them, we could lead them in a direction that's more appropriate.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ramblings of a Self-Appointed Technology Evangelist

I had the opportunity to attend and participate in the Pacific Northwest/Washington Blackboard Users Group Conference in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday, October 19.

For some reason, this particular conference resonated intensely with me. I gleaned many valuable concepts, resources, and strategies to share with the many groups with whom I am working: Oregon Online teachers, SOESD School Improvement Team, SOESD Ed Tech Cadre members.

The Keynote presentation, by Cable Green, introduced the concept that education should be (is?) in perpetual beta; that is, that our methodology and pedagogy and content should be constantly changing and evolving as our society and technology change. One question that arose is: Are educators modeling lifelong learning if they don't model and integrate the use of technology?

The question we should all ask ourselves is, “What am I doing differently today/this term/this year than what I did yesterday/last term/last year?” If the answer is “nothing”-then Houston, we have a problem. The world has changed since yesterday/last term/last year; what are we doing to keep up with it?

One could argue that it is impossible to keep up with everything. But those of us who have chosen education have a special responsibility: To prepare children for their future. One of the great quotes from the conference is:

“We are preparing children for jobs that don't exist yet
using tools that haven't been invented yet
to solve problems we haven't discovered yet.”

One could argue that education's mission is not necessarily as narrow as preparing students for the workforce. But if we replace the word “jobs” above with “tasks”, it seems to give the quote more of a sense of students as the global citizens who will, in a few short years, be taking our places as the leaders, inventors, entrepreneurs, parents, citizens, and even teachers of the future.

One of the anecdotes I've heard regarding this is about Rip Van Winkle. As we all now, this legendary figure fell asleep for a hundred years. Imagine his confusion when he woke up, wandering the roads and cities, seeing so many unfamiliar sites: skyscrapers, automobiles, television, cellphones, shopping malls. Finally, old Rip wandered into something familiar from 100 years ago: a school.

It would be funnier if it weren't so true. How many classes in how many schools around the nation-the world?-teach in the traditional style of stand and deliver? How many classrooms have desks in rows, seats assigned alphabetically, and work primarily out of textbooks, where students copy down answers to questions that don't matter onto the remnants of dead trees? And how much of our so-called online learning is simply the digital version of this?

What are the alternatives? Cable Green (yesterday's Keynote speaker) labeled the solution “Participatory Learning.” I'm sure he did not coin the phrase. Whether we've heard it before or not, we have all encountered the participatory nature of the new millennium: YouTube, Wikipedia, eBay, blogs-even American Idol. People like to feel that they have a choice and a voice. Are we preparing our students to live in a participatory, increasingly digital, globally-connected world, or are we preparing them instead for the world we grew up in, where we were admonished to color inside the lines, girls played half-court basketball, and people like our grandfathers often worked for the same company their entire lives?

Each of us needs to ask him/herself what he/she is doing to incorporate participatory learning into his/her (virtual) classroom. If you are doing the same things today as you did yesterday, it's probably not enough. Am I advocating that you immediately dive in and overhaul everything you are doing? Not exactly, but I'm hoping that you are all dedicated enough to children and to learning and to education to join with those who are working towards true educational reform: helping the digital natives learn to reason, compare, evaluate, communicate, and make thoughtful choices as they become lifelong learners and responsible global citizens.

I began 20+ years ago as a Self-Appointed Educational Technology Evangelist, and have since gone semi-pro. My mission is to continue to spread the word and to develop ways to model/encourage/nag/support others to join me in the ever-evolving pursuit of making learning more participatory by integrating technology into education.

What does this mean for ya'll? Consider taking one baby step at a time into the world of participatory learning. Begin by pledging to explore at least one new technology/skill/website each week, and to work towards incorporating participatory learning into your teaching strategies. Your students will be glad you did.