Almost daily, a colleague I respect posts a link to some amazing tale of classroom innovation, stupendous new education product or article intended to improve teaching practice. Perhaps it is naive to assume that the content has been vetted. However, once I click on the Twitter or Facebook link, I am met by one of the following:
- A gee-whiz tale of a teacher doing something obvious once, accompanied by breathless commentary about their personal courage/discovery/innovation/genius and followed by a steam of comments applauding the teacher’s courage/discovery/innovation/genius. Even when the activity is fine, it is often the sort of thing taught to first-semester student teachers.
- An article discovering an idea that millions of educators have known for decades, but this time with diminished expectations
- An ad for some test-prep snake oil or handful of magic beans
- An “app” designed for kids to perform some trivial task, because “it’s so much fun, they won’t know they’re learning.” Thanks to sites like Kickstarter we can now invest in the development of bad software too!
- A terrible idea detrimental to teachers, students or public education
- An attempt to redefine a sound progressive education idea in order to justify the status quo
I don’t just click on a random link from a stranger, I follow the directions set by a trusted colleague – often a person in a position of authority. When I ask them, “Did you read that article you posted the link to?” the answer is often, “I just re-read it and you’re right. It’s not good.” Or “I’m not endorsing the content at the end of the link, “I’m just passing it along to my PLN.”
First of all, when you tell me to look at something, that is an endorsement. Second, you are responsible for the quality, veracity and ideological bias of the information you distribute. Third, if you arenot taking responsibility for the information you pass along, your PLN is really just a gossip mill.
If you provide a link accompanied by a message, “Look at the revolutionary work my students/colleagues/I did,” the work should be good and in a reasonable state of completion. If not, warn me before I click. Don’t throw around terms like genius, transformative or revolutionary when you’re linking to a kid burping into Voicethread!! If you do waste my time looking at terrible work, don’t blame me for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.
Just today, two pieces of dreck were shared with me by people I respect.
1) Before a number of my Facebook friends shared this article, I had already read it in the ASCD daily “Smart” Brief. Several colleagues posted or tweeted links to the article because they yearn for schools to be better – more learner-centered, engaging and meaningful.
One means to those ends is project-based learning. I’ve been studying, teaching and speaking about project-based learning for 31 years. I’m a fan. I too would like to help every teacher on the planet create the context for kids to engage in personally meaningful projects.
However, sharing the article, Busting myths about project-based learning, will NOT improve education or make classrooms more project-based. In fact, this article so completely perverts project-based learning that it spreads ignorance and will make classroom learning worse, not better.
This hideous article uses PBL, which the author lectures us isn’t just about projects (meaningless word soup), as a compliment to direct instruction, worksheets and tricking students into test-prep they won’t mind as much. That’s right. PBL is best friends with standardized testing and worksheets (perhaps on Planet Dummy). There is no need to abandon the terrible practices that squeeze authentic learning out of the school day. We can just pretend to bring relevance to the classroom by appropriating the once-proud term, project-based learning.
Embedding test-prep into projects as the author suggests demonstrates that the author really has no idea what he is talking about. Forcing distractions into a student’s project work robs them of agency and reduces the activity’s learning potential. The author is also pretty slippery in his use of the term, “scaffolding.” Some of the article doesn’t even make grammatical sense.
Use testing stems as formative assessments and quizzes.
The article was written by a gentleman who leads professional development for the Buck Institute, an organization that touts itself as a champion of project-based learning, as long as those projects work backwards from dubious testing requirements. This article does not represent innovation. It is a Potemkin Village preserving the status quo while allowing educators to delude themselves into feeling they are doing the right thing.
ASCD should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such trash. My colleagues, many with advanced degrees and in positions where they teach project-based learning, should know better!
If you are interested in effective project-based learning, I’m happy to share these five articles with you.
2) Another colleague urged all of their STEM and computer science-interested friends to explore a site raising money to develop “Fun and Creative Computer Science Curriculum.” Whenever you see fun and creative in the title of an education product, run for the hills! The site is a fund-raising venture to get kids interested in computer science. This is something I advocate every day. What could be so bad?
Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity. Right now, we have 20 lessons created, but only 3 packaged. Help us finish by summer!
My experience in education suggests that once you package something, it dies. Ok Stager, I know you’re suspicious of the site and the product searching for micro-investors, but watch the video they produced. It has cute kids in it!
So, I watched the video…
Guess what? Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity – and best of all? YOU DON’T EVEN NEED A COMPUTER!!!!!!
Fantastic! Computer science instruction without computers! This is like piano lessons with a piano worksheet. Yes siree ladies and gentleman, there will be no computing in this computer science instruction.
A visitor to the site also has no idea who is writing this groundbreaking fake curriculum or their qualifications to waste kids’ time.
Here we take one of the jewels of human ingenuity, computer science, a field impacting every other discipline and rather than make a serious attempt to bring it to children with the time and attention it deserves, chuckleheads create cup stacking activities and simplistic games.
There are any number of new “apps” on the market promising to teach kids about computer science and programming while we should be teaching children to be computer scientists and programmers.
At the root of this anti-intellectualism is a deep-seated belief that teachers are lazy or incompetent. Yet, I have taught thousands of teachers to teach programming to children and in the 1980s, perhaps a million teachers taught programming in some form to children. The software is better. The hardware is more abundant, reliable and accessible. And yet, the best we can do is sing songs, stack cups and color in 2013?
What really makes me want to scream is that the folks cooking up all of these “amazing” ideas seem incapable of using the Google or reading a book. There is a great deal of collected wisdom on teaching computer science to children, created by committed experts and rooted in decades worth of experience.
If you want to learn how to teach computer science to children, ask me, attend my institute, take a course. I’ll gladly provide advice, share resources, recommend expert colleagues and even help debug student programs. If you put forth some effort, I’m happy to match it.
There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.
-Sir Joshua Reynolds
Don’t lecture me about the power of social media, the genius of your PLN, the imperative for media literacy or information curation if you are unwilling to edit what you share. I share plenty of terrible articles via Twitter and Facebook, but I always make clear that I am doing so for purposes or warning or parody. The junk is always clearly labeled.
Please filter the impurities out of your social media stream.You have a responsibility to your audience.
* Let the hysterical flaming begin! Comments are now open.
The following is the program description and proposal for my upcoming “conversation” at Educon 2.5 in Philadelphia, January 26th.
You Say You Want Tech Standards?
Here Come the NITS!
The ISTE Nets (tech standards) are approximately a decade old. They’ve produced endless meetings, cliché-laden documents and breathless rhetoric, but no perceptible increase in student computer fluency or teacher competence. Rather than standardizing, it’s time to amplify human potential with computers. A new diet of computing is required for learners.
There are a lot of computers in schools, but not a lot of computing. The ISTE Nets and their state and local spawn offer an imagination-free vision of school technology use that hardly justifies the investment let alone realizes the potential of computers as intellectual laboratories or vehicles for self-expression. The current crop of technology standards form the basis, at best, for a form of “computer appreciation” being taught in school.
If school leaders demand them, we should offer tech standards worthy of our students based on powerful ideas and a commitment to teacher renewal. We must move beyond the trivial and use computers in a fashion consistent with modern knowledge construction. These new “standards” elevate school computing and challenge traditional notions of top-down schooling.
Let’s call them N.I.T.S. – New Intergalactic Technology Standards.
Gary and his virtual friends, Brian Smith in Hong Kong and Martin Levins in Australia, will share their recommendations for raising our standards to the level kids deserve. Educon participants can argue the merits of these goals and add their own. You should have a lot fewer meetings to attend when your superiors are afraid of our new standards.
Everybody wins! Standards, up yours!
Feel free to add your standards suggestions as comments below…
I’m a curious guy who wonders a lot about the forces and rhetoric influencing education. At the risk of kicking a hornet’s nest and incurring the wrath of being flamed, I wish to raise what I honestly believe to be an important issue. If you are unfamiliar with my work, outspoken opposition to the standards movement, commitment to equity or embrace of computers in education, I humbly ask you to consider the questions posed in this blog post in the spirit with which they are intended – to stimulate thoughtful professional dialogue or at least Google my body of work.
A handful of educators have been blogging now for more than a decade. Countless others have fallen in love with social media. They make conference presentations showing viral YouTube videos and lead Twitter workshops. There is more than an air of grandiosity that accompanies the use of the tools known collectively as Web 2.0. This self-importance is manifest in two ways.
- Frustration that every educator hasn’t joined the PLN/PLC/social network/Twitterverse/blogopshere, because “if they only knew what I know…”
- A few gazillion blog posts and tweets proclaiming the use of Web 2.0 as either already having transformed education or the prediction that it will transform education. A variation on this theme is the threat that social media will destroy, replace or delegitimize formal education.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but I have a very serious question to ask.
In this era of heightened educational “accountability,” why are there so few, if any, demands being made for evidence of Web 2.0′s efficacy in schools?
I have my own hypotheses, but I would prefer to read some of yours.
I bought my first modem and Compuserve account in 1982 or 83 and was connecting via acoustic coupler to Timeshare systems several years before that. The first online conference I participated in was in late 1985 or early 1986 and I was creating online projects for kids a couple of years later.
During the summer of 1997, I suggested to Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology Associate Dean, the late great Dr. Terry Cannings, that Pepperdine offer our MA in Educational Technology entirely online. If memory serves, Dr. Cannings called me a charlatan.
The university had already embraced a 60% online/40% face-to-face format for it’s edtech doctoral program and was experimenting with other hybrid models, but in mid-1997, Cannings thought that entirely online was a bridge too far.
Around Christmas of that year, Dr. Cannings called me into his office and asked, “Can we discuss that online Masters idea again in January?” A meeting was scheduled at the end of January on the Malibu (main campus) to pitch the idea to the Dean. (much hilarity ensued) I created the attached proposal as a basis for discussion.
To put things in a historical perspective, this proposal was written the month the Lewinsky scandal broke and before anyone had heard of Ken Starr (former Dean of the Pepperdine Law School)
I’m sorry that I can’t locate the cheesy “clip-art-rich” cover page attached to the document I printed at 3 AM on my kids’ DayGlo colored printer paper, but remarkably my Mac was just able to open the original documents in Appleworks 6 and print a PDF version to share with you. There is crappy clip-art included in the body of the document.
The Dean listened politely to Dr. Cannings, Dr. McManus, Dr. Polin and myself and asked when we proposed to start this new program? We replied, “this Spring.” She nervously smiled and sent us on our our merry way. After all, universities move at a glacial pace, right?
The Online Master of Arts in Educational Technology (called OMAET, OMET & MALT over the years) was fully accredited by the end of May and our first cadre of students was on campus for what became known as VirtCamp early that July. There are lots of stories about that first Virtcamp, but I won’t share them here.
My hard drive also contains a copy of the accreditation proposal Dr. McManus and I wrote for WASC (the accrediting body), but I am not sure if it would be proper to share that document publicly (I’ll await a more informed opinion).
The reason for all of this nostalgia is that the 15th cadre of students in that program arrive for Virtcamp this week and are being greeted by an alumni-organized reunion of former students, all to mark the 15th anniversary of the program.
Regrettably, after eighteen years of teaching as an adjunct and full-time Visiting Professor at Pepperdine, I no longer feel welcome on campus. So, I’m going to sit out this week’s activities. However, I hope those students and the rest of my friends in the Blagosphere (Rod Blagojevich is also a Pepperdine alumnus) enjoy this documentary stroll down memory lane.
I think we got a good deal right in trying to create a constructionist collaborative learning environment online before PLNs, PLCs or social networking existed.
Happy Anniversary to all former and future OMAET/OMET/MALT students! I’m proud of you!
Other files found on my hard drive:
- An incredibly crappy 3-fold brochure promoting the Online Masters program
- A one-page flyer advertising the new program (further evidence of my design prowess)
- A document outlining the advantages of pursuing a degree online
- Suggested texts for the new program (1998). I suspect that colleagues contributed, but I honestly cannot remember. Many of the books may have been in use during traditional courses.
I often remind teachers that as educators, their role is to educate everyone – children, parents, administrators, colleagues and the guy sitting next to you at the counter in a diner. Educating, like learning, must be 24/7
Every school, teacher, administrator, graduate student or kid I teach gains from the expertise I developed working with every other school, teacher, administrator or kid over the past thirty years. My experiences and the insights gained from those experiences are my most valuable commodity, one I am happy to share.
Much of my work as an educator is spent helping fellow citizens and educators recognize that even in these dark days, things need not be as they seem. This is accomplished through the sharing of anecdotes, examples of work, case studies, photographs and video of children learning in productive contexts for learning that may seem alien or impossible when compared with a school setting. This willing suspension of disbelief is dependent on compelling the case I can make. People may only choose from alternatives they have experienced or seen. A large part of my work is spent collecting the evidence necessary to change minds or creating compelling models of what is possible in a teacher’s own classroom. If one can change minds, it may be possible to change professional practice.
Recently, I led a short professional development session at a school where I showed two videos from Reggio Emilia, Italy; Utopi Quoti (Everyday Utopias) and I Tiempi Del Tempo (The Times of Time) http://www.learningmaterialswork.com/store/reggio_children_multimedia.html
Teachers at the school were able to watch day-in-the-life videos of the extraordinary inquiry-based learner centered environments of Reggio Emilia’s municipal preschools, ask questions and discuss how what they observed might inform or transform their practice in a K-8 setting half a world away. The generosity of the educators, students and parents of Reggio Emilia make such conversations possible, since their videos share models of teaching and learning that may be foreign to us or invisible otherwise.
I have enjoyed some incredibly exciting experiences as an educator this year that remind me of why I teach and of the power computers can play in the construction of knowledge. This feeling of success is confronted by the sense that members of the edtech/ICT community have no idea what I do. I have low expectations for policy-makers and the media, but the edtech/ICT community should know better, right? They should join me in advocating powerful ideas and classroom revolution. Instead, too many seem more concerned with shopping, composing clever platitudes and congratulating each other via social media. It seems that the longer computers are in schools the fewer ideas there are for using them. When my colleagues whine and complain that change isn’t possible, I know in my soul they are wrong.They too could be classroom badasses, if only I could explain what I do and they believed what kids do with me. This inability to have a wider impact makes me feel like such a failure.
Colleagues and friends like to learn about the work I do in classrooms around the world. Sometimes, I even blog about my experiences. Occasionally, I share materials I created for classroom use. Such sharing requires extra work and rarely captures the enthusiasm, joy, social interactions, interventions, epiphanies, powerful ideas or tacit gestures so critical to powerful learning experiences. Perhaps it is so difficult for others to imagine young children programming computers, learning without coercion or being _____ (mathematicians, scientists, engineers, authors, filmmakers, artists, composers…) because they have never seen it with their own eyes.
If a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words, video may be worth a bazillion.
Oh, how I wish you could have seen the 3rd grade class I taught late last week. The kids were programming in Turtle Art, a vision of Logo focused on creating beautiful images resulting from formal mathematical processes. I drew three challenges on the board and then groups of kids, who had used the software a few times before, set off to work collaboratively in figuring out mathematical ways to “teach the turtle” to reproduce the images I shared. I could tell you how the kids demonstrated an understanding of linear measurement, angle, integers, iteration, randomness, optical illusions, naming, procedurality and debugging strategies. However, if video had captured the session, you might have seen the kid who spends half the day getting a drink of water demonstrating impressive mathematical reasoning. You might have seen kids shrieking with joy during a “math” lesson, others high-fiving one another as they conquered each challenge and kids setting more complex challenges for themselves based on their success. You may have also noticed how the classroom teacher joined his students in problem solving – perhaps for the first time, but discovering the role the computer can play in education. Video might have captured how I choreographed the activity with less than a minute of instruction followed by 45 minutes of learner construction.
Alas, there is no such video to share.
I wish you could have seen what happened when I challenged a class of 5th graders to write a computer program in MicroWorlds that would allow the user to enter a fraction and have the computer draw that fraction as slices of a circle. The problem was so challenging that I offered to buy lunch for the first kid or group of kids to write a successful program. The kids worked for days on the one problem.
If I had video, you would have seen students confront variables for the first time by using them. They also employed algebraic reasoning, turtle geometry, angle, radius and speaking mathematically to their collaborators. I wish I could share how I asked the right question at the precise moment required to help a kid understand the problem at hand, how I refused to answer some questions or give too much information and deprive kids of constructing knowledge.
I wish you could have seen how excited the three little girls were when their program performed reliably. I wish you could have seen the non-winners who continued working on their programs regardless of the contest being over. I wish you could have seen the girls showing their program to their teacher and improving it based on aesthetic suggestions. I sure wish I could share a photograph of the 11 year-old female mathematicians arm-in-arm with #1 written on each of their arms held high.
Why should you trust me without evidence? I could post the program they wrote, but it might make as much sense as Swahili to some of you, while others will ask if the students were “gifted.”
My fourth graders are using Pico Crickets as their robotics construction kit. They are currently figuring out ways to bring stuffed animals to life with locomotion, sound, lights and senses. If you could see the class you would immediately appreciate the wide range of expertise and learning styles represented. Some kids have never built anything or played with LEGO while others have lots of experience. There are children very close to programming and reanimating their animal while others are busy building the tallest LEGO tower, giving a stuffed monkey a Mohawk haircut or shaving a teddy bear. Each student is working at their own level in their own way
I wish you could have seen the workshop I whipped together with little notice for seventy high school teachers in an economically challenged region. I wish you could have shared their joy and laughter while engaged in recreating old-time radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 40s. Along the way, they learned to record, edit and enhance digital audio without a bit of instruction. They fanned out in teams across their campus in order to find quiet places to record and discovered a powerful literacy activity they could use with students the next day. They also learned that tech skills could be learned casually in the context of a rich project.
Many schools have an uneasy relationship with photography, video and student identity. Some schools allow photography without the use of student names or the school identified. Others use initials or pseudonyms to indicate student identities. Some schools have prohibitions on publication of photos online. Some schools have no prohibitions whatsoever. Occasionally, I encounter schools that do not allow photography of any sort.
None of this is new to me. The tension over photography often mirrors fears of the Internet My doctoral research was with incarcerated teenagers and required me to take photographs without student faces being visible. I got pretty good at that, but such carefully designed “shots” makes it impossible to show the life of the classroom.
If schools, parents and teachers would embrace photography and video, school would be better for children. I truly believe that.
Here are but a few arguments for classroom photography.
Documents and tells learning stories
Photography and videography may be used to capture learning stories that make thinking visible to teachers, invite other learners to contribute to another student’s thinking, inspire peers to build upon the knowledge or accomplishments of classmates and preserves the intellectual life of the school.
Communicates with parents
Photography and videography provide an authentic way to demonstrate what students know and do for parents.
Honors student work and accomplishments
The publication or even casual sharing of student project-work via media honors their accomplishments without badges, grades or other coercive gimmicks. Citizens are most likely to support schools that provide evidence of innovation.
Beautifies the school
Photos and video displays of students actively learning sets a tone for a school and reminds inhabitants of what matters.
Shares exemplary practices with fellow educators
Colleagues may learn what’s possible and new pedagogical practices if they are able to visit other classrooms vicariously. A fancy formal term for this is called “lesson study.”
Parents should be educated that putting a student’s photo or poem on the Web will not result in alien abduction. They should also be reminded that advocating for a newspaper photo of their kid kicking a goal is of less value than sharing classroom practice as a means to inspire and improve education in their school and beyond.
Photos are useful
In addition to their educational function as documentation that makes thinking visible for teachers planning learner-centered interventions, photos may be used for public relations and school publications.
It’s nice to share
Kim Cofino recently convinced the Head of her international school to blog. Kim reached out to lots of folks and asked them to comment on his first post where he asked for advice. Since I was asked, I shared some of my views on school leadership for the future and on educational technology.
After my comments (below), I add some thoughts I should have included regarding the limitations of blogging. As always, your comments are welcome.
Dear Mr. Macdonald,
Welcome to blogging! Now you are a blogger! That was no big deal, right?
Blogging IS no big deal. It is just writing, but on the Web. Sometimes there is even an audience for what you write. I suspect that you will never receive as many comments as for this post and you may not even get as far as mine. Regardless, I took my assignment from your colleague Ms. Cofino seriously.
Blogging (and its social media cousins) are useful if you have a confessional nature and feel like sharing your thoughts with the world or if you need to have a question answered. It may also serve a utilitarian function in easily communicating with your school community. Blogging, like nearly every other school use of the Web, is essentially a literacy activity. One challenge for school leaders is finding ways to use computers to enhance the rest of what it means to be educated.
For example, Is “math” taught in a Pre-Gutenberg fashion at your school or has computation and the social sciences’ need for number transformed kids’ experience as it has radically reinvented real mathematics?
Regrettably, much of what is done in schools in the name of edtech or ICT is really just a form of “computer appreciation” The true power of the computer lies in its power as a computational instrument for constructing knowledge, the concretizing of formal ideas and the creation of artifacts in intellectual domains that would otherwise be inaccessible to children. This ability to use the computer to amplify human potential is only possible with awareness and teachers’ ongoing development of expertise. Leadership is critical for setting high expectations, asking “so what?” questions, supporting continuous growth of teachers and creating an atmosphere where the technology functions in the ways children expect – free of counter-productive, expensive and hysterical IT practices.
Leaders in the digital age need to redefine “new” and “progress.” New isn’t about what you buy as much as what your students DO. Progress isn’t measured by bandwidth, but when classrooms are less mind-numbing, soul-killing and time-wasting. Leaders need to recognize that young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity and find ways to make school more intense, without making it more chaotic.
So, blogging at least familiarizes yourself with an activity required of students. That’s the first step towards making sound educational decisions. Too many school leaders mandate that children do things that they themselves would never do or may never have even attempted. That isn’t leadership. Leaders also recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants and that computing offers yet another attempt to realize the ideas of Dewey, Papert, Malaguzzi and other progressive educators.
Now, on to the actual nature of your questions…
The greatest challenge facing school leaders is to abandon the notions that 1) education is based on scarcity and 2) learning is the direct causal result of having been taught.
In the 21st Century, there is no reason for school to be concerned with creating winners and losers. Sorting, ranking, grading, labeling and classifying of students are destructive artifacts of a bygone era when access to education was scarce and limited to a privileged few. This is no longer the case. I won’t go into proving the plethora of examples to support this argument. I suspect you can find them yourself.
School in itself is a technology with benefits and consequences – affordances and constraints that dictate the experience of its inhabitants. In the future, your school will NOT have the monopoly on children’s time you currently hold. The challenge is to answer the question of why your students and teachers are co-located in the same space for X hours per day?
Leadership requires serious reconsideration of heuristics like homework, testing, grading and age segregation. These discussions need to be public and your constituents need to know where you stand or how you are thinking.
International schools are blessed with an embarrassment of riches and resources that most educators would covet. However, international schools also suffer from a number of self-inflicted constraints that are on the wrong side of history. Despite their independence, wealth, talent and outstanding facilities, many international schools refuse to innovate because they THINK it will be bad for business. That’s why they too many have discriminatory admissions policies, promise every parent that their six year-old is Harvard-bound and chase IB, AP and every other curricular fads that makes their schools indistinguishable. The prevalent assumption of international schools that kids with mobility will not miss a single day of the US, British or UK curriculum is folly and a noose around the neck of innovation. (The best schools have already abandoned centralized inflexible curricula like the AP while less secure schools grab on with both hands.)
Reflective school leaders know that this homogeneity of approach is ridiculous, unrealistic and ignores the diverse needs, interests and talents of children. Ultimately, it is also bad for the business of international schools.
In many places, you are in the catbird’s seat. If a parent needs a school for their English-speaking child, you may be the only game in town. Yet, far too many international school leaders lack the courage necessary to articulate a unique educational stance and say, “we do things differently for the following reasons…” If you have a waiting list, you do not have to pander.
I truly believe there is a significant market for schools that are not Oxford/Harvard Prep and designed for the children who are good at “doing school.”
Being a franchise of Oxford/Harvard Prep is no way to do good or to do well. That model makes your school more easily replaced by YouTube videos and online testing.
At the very least, school leaders should recognize that people learn differently and invest in some “school within a school” programs where alternative models may be offered to children and parents. Boeing spends billions annually on planes that never fly while schools spend almost nothing on R&D despite the constant rhetoric about innovation. My experience is that whenever parents are offered a chance at a different educational experience for their child, they will seize it. Alternative programs within your school serve as incubators of innovation and may drive future practice in ways you can’t possibly anticipate.
In summary, What if the policy of your school was to make every day the best seven hours of a child’s life?
Best Wishes on your journey,
I wish I had pointed out that it may be difficult for a new blogger to assess the expertise, point of view or bias of a commenter he/she doesn’t know. I should have warned the new blogger about the torrent of clichés and meaningless platitudes that fill blog comments just as they bog down most contemporary discussions of education. I should have warned of the “attaboy” responses awarded for simply blogging. I should have mentioned that most commenters have little or no interest in the thoughts of the other respondents. Most of all, there should have been a discussion of whether or how much the blogger should respond to reader comments.
Education is in desperate need of real dialogue. Social media may be an imperfect vessel for mindful discussion.
The following is a paper I wrote for a conference in 2006. The problems I identify have become more acute since. One day, I’ll revisit this work. In the meantime, feel free to share this or comment below. (Hopefully the formatting wasn’t made too terrible during the move to this blog)
Has educational computing jumped the shark?
Gary S. Stager
Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology
Presented at ACEC 2006 – Cairns, Australia – October 2, 2006
Incremental approaches to classroom computer use have been slow to produce significant educational benefits. Criticism of educational computing is often validated by a lack of compelling models created in the absence of vision or adequate leadership. However, this paper departs from critics who suggest that computers should play little or no role in the intellectual lives of children by arguing that the opposite. Computational technology needs to play a much greater role in the learning process and is essential to the sustainability of schools.
Despite the societal shifts resulting from widespread access to computers and the Internet, schools and other educational organizations remain committed to outdated notions of computer literacy instruction. Such efforts, along with the allure of online delivery and assessment, serve to centralize curriculum at the very moment the identical technology could be used to revolutionize the learning process. Individuals once at the forefront of the learning revolution promised by the widespread availability of powerful computational and communications technology now preside over the use of that technology to reinforce the least effective educational practices of the past. This leads inevitably to a lowering of educational standards and a diminution in the learning opportunities available to young people.
This paper is not offered as an exhaustive review of the literature regarding the current state of educational technology use in schools around the world. No one paper could possibly do so. It is intended to stimulate discussion among members of the academic and practitioner community regarding current trends and their possible consequences. The author bases his observations on work as a teacher educator, consultant, teacher, researcher and educational journalist in schools across the United States and Australia, in addition to recent efforts in Canada, Brazil and India. The author speaks at more than a dozen educational technology conferences annually, consults with industry and writes a magazine column read by approximately 100,000 educational leaders each month. These various activities afford the author a rare perspective from which to identify patterns of rhetoric, policy-making and pedagogical practice.
Some of the evidence presented in this paper may strain credulity. However, the practices and products in question all exist. Alfie Kohn said, “In education, satire is obsolete.”[i] The confluence of magical new technology, an increasingly high-stakes educational system and the capitalistic desire to profit from this tension results in strange, but real challenges for schools.
This paper attempts to alert educators, members of education-related industries and policy-makers to trends that while at first glance appear to indicate progress, especially since they involve high technology, may actually result in expensive detours, distractions and disasters.
Critics (Alliance for Childhood, Cuban, Oppenheimer) often assert that computers do not belong in school for a variety of ideological, financial or developmental reasons. However, I agree with Seymour Papert that computers are today’s primary instrument for intellectual work, and central to the educational enterprise. If for no other reason than the fact that computers are already a part of the world of kids, we must respect the role they can play in children’s lives and develop ways to maximize the potential of technology. I have spent the past twenty-four years helping students use computers in intellectually rich and creatively expressive ways that defy current notions of curricula or educational standards.
After four decades of advocacy for computers in education, Seymour Papert corrected the record by suggesting that, “Computer scientists weren’t supposed to bring computers into classrooms. They were supposed to bring computer science to children in classrooms.” (Papert 2002) Papert contends that the failure to use computers in new ways as an instrument for educational progress is the result of an imagination gap. (Papert 1997)
Soon after bold creative teachers began tinkering with computers in their classrooms, schools embarked on the well-documented process of assimilating them. Computers were corralled into odd “lab” arrangements and children made an occasional field trip to the lab for the purposes of being taught “computer,” often by a teacher possessing few qualifications. Special computer literacy curricula was developed to meet the needs of inexperienced lab teachers and limited student access. Trivial work done during lab time failed to inspire other teachers to integrate computing into the life of their subjects and motivated teachers were quickly discouraged by too little access to too few computers. Educators with little or no technological fluency are asked to serve on committees where they use a crystal ball and develop “tech plans” not yet invented and students they have not met.
I postulate that the educational technology challenges associated with teacher professional development, inadequate funding and the demand for standards are not our primary problems. They are symptoms of an imagination gap and shortage of honest reflective practice that threatens to rob children of the potential afforded by advances in communications and computational technology.
Some may view this paper as a cautionary tale. Others may find that it affirms their tacit concerns while some will disagree violently with my hypotheses. This paper should not however be misconstrued as an argument against the widespread of use of computers and related technologies in appropriate ways across all subjects and grade levels. Many critics of educational computing alert us to the trivial ways in which computers are used. If school computers are used in dubious ways, the solution is not the abolition of computers, but more thoughtful practice.
It is remarkable that there remain proponents of a view that computers should play no role in education despite the transformational impact they have had on nearly every other aspect of society. Like many other educational innovations, the use of computers in schools may be dismissed as a failure before it was seriously attempted. It is well known, but seldom mentioned, that most children touch a computer for minutes per week in school. It is ridiculous to assign failure to the computer when access is so meagre and a vision for its use eludes most educators.
JUMPING THE SHARK
This author’s body of work challenges conventional arguments against the use of computers in school based on concerns over funding, child welfare and alternative priorities while joining Seymour Papert in offering optimistic scenarios in which computers may create efficacious opportunities for knowledge construction. However, recent observations of educational technology practice within American and Australian classrooms, as well as the changing rhetoric found in professional publications and conferences leads me to conclude that educational technology may have “jumped the shark.”
It’s a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now… it’s all downhill. Some call it the climax. “We call it jumping the shark.” (Jon Hein – www.jumptheshark.com)
In this case, jumping the shark applies to the possibility that we have reached the tipping point where even exuberant proponents of educational technology must question whether the system’s implementation of it is now causing as much harm as good. This radical view goes beyond Papert’s predictions of assimilation in which the school system will naturally attempt to use new technology to support old practices and the “assimilation blindness” (Papert 1977) in which critics simplistically compare the computer to other classroom objects. At first glance the proposition that “educational technology may now do more harm than good” would seem to agree with critics of computers in the classroom. However, the common ground is limited to concerns about the quality of education afforded children.
While much criticism of educational computing is concerned with an erosion of control, uniform curriculum, traditional assessment instruments and industrial notions of efficiency, my fear is that educational technology is now being used to strengthen such instructionist tendencies at the expense of children. In other words, the current trajectory of educational technology is dominated by practices and objectives that succeed in making schooling much more like the desires of the technology critics and therefore squanders the enormous potential to revolutionize education that inspired so many ed tech pioneers for more than a generation.
Much of the rhetoric now embraced by an increasing number of people who previously advocated exciting visions of children using computers in personally liberating ways treats students in an instrumental fashion subordinate to the goals of the system. What some in the past may have deemed the utopian aspirations of educational computing proponents have now been silenced by classroom practices more inflexible and reactionary than before microcomputers entered schools.
These Are Not Happy Days
Unlike in the television show, Happy Days, when Fonzie jumped a shark while waterskiing in a leather jacket, the precise moment in which educational technology began its decline is not easily identified. A number of trends, marketing triumphs and political conditions converge to create the current malaise. Anyone of these variables alone would be troublesome, but together they create an alternative educational reality where friends and foes do little to realize the transformative promise of learning technology.
Just a few of these variables will be explored due to space constraints.
The Dominance of Information Technology – Our Homemade Straightjacket
Educational computing has experienced a semantic sea change over the past fifteen years. In fact, the word computing is hardly mentioned in the literature. Educational computing gave way to terms like informatics, ICT, information technology and just technology. When the vast capabilities of computing are reduced to, “just another technology,” we are then safe to make comparisons to a zipper or Pez dispensers.
It was the educational technology community, not external forces that debased the language we use to describe our efforts. Computing is a verb connoting action, technology is a noun – one more checkbox on an arbitrary list of curricular objectives. The C in ICT is at best cosmetic when the vast majority of students remain unable to email, collaborate or publish online despite the lofty (and readily ignored) goals of official technology standards. Our noble profession is increasingly referred to as “the industry.” Language matters. It shapes practice.
Since the widespread deployment of the Internet in schools during the mid 1990s, the function of the school computer has been reduced to that of information appliance or worse. Contemporary literature, popular and academic, focuses almost exclusively on the use computer for information retrieval and the occasional regurgitation of that information in the form of PowerPoint presentations or web pages. The false complexity associated with designing a web page or slideshow lulls spectators into believing that the students were engaged in an intellectually meaningful activity, when that assumption is often incorrect.
Recent doubts about such activities have not led to wide-scale challenges to the practice of digital book reports. Instead a new pedagogy of information literacy has emerged, complete with workshops, workbooks and literature attempting to fortify and justify the use of computers to support dubious educational practices. Edward Tufte, Seymour Papert and very few others outside of the practitioner community, have taken the unpopular step of revealing that this emperor has no clothes. The genuine effort expended by children creating such products is difficult to disregard, but the context of those efforts and the validity of the task needs to be challenged.
Another unintended consequence of this IT imbalance is the emphasis placed on student research. Actual research in the spirit of the work conducted by historians or scientists is an enormously valuable intellectual enterprise. The process skills associated with authentic research should be a universal part of every child’s education. The Internet offers unparalleled opportunities for students to engage in research in ways never before possible, particularly the ability to publish for a limitless audience and engage in collaboration with others across time and space. This is where the majority of the Internet’s power as a new learning medium resides. However, schools tend to focus on “looking stuff up,” delivering content and monitoring student progress. These uses are not only antithetical to the extraordinary power of the Internet, but their dominance creates unintentional consequences regarding Internet safety, censorship and security.
Simply stated, if the dominant metaphor for using a computer is looking things up, then it should come as no surprise when children look up in appropriate stuff. This eventuality consumes scarce resources and diverts our attention away from using computers in ways that ennoble a creative and intellectual renaissance in children. The hysteria caused by both fear of using the Internet and the fear of not using the Internet causes schools to employ legions of network managers who are given unprecedented budgetary and educational discretion, along with very little oversight. Teachers wishing to do the “right thing” are often precluded to using the school network in educationally justifiable ways due to policies and technical obstacles created by non-educators with unilateral power.
The Total Cost of Dependency
I call this phenomenon, the total cost of dependency. It relates to the unintended learning costs of over-promising and under-delivering reliable Internet functionality and subsequent benefits. TCOD also applies to situations that result from settings in which the network functions perfectly. Educators accustomed to unreliable network access abandon the use of computers and those lucky enough to have access to fully functional networks too often focus on the use of the Internet to the exclusion of other forms of computing. The popular advertising slogan, “the network is the computer,” is inapplicable to K-12 education.
Proponents of the network-centric view often tell educators that as soon as there is enough bandwidth, everything they ever dreamed of will be possible. There is plenty already possible for learners to do with computers and the fixation on the Internet is depriving too many children of those rich experiences. If there ever is limitless bandwidth, computers will be television, not a constructive medium for active learning. For children trying to make a movie, program a robot, animate a poem, build a simulation or design a video game, regular ubiquitous access to a sufficiently powerful computer is far more important to both the job at-hand and a student’s intellectual development, than is net access.
Hooked on Office
A web browser and Microsoft Office are the most used software applications. Both applications represent critical tools for personal productivity and communication. However, learners should also use computers in constructive ways – as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. Adults seem amused by the sight of children playing Donald Trump dress-up, “Look how cute she is! She’s wearing mommy’s heals and using Excel!” However, the dominance of Office applications in schools places a disproportionate emphasis on using computers to get “work” done[ii], versus using computers to learn. While the two goals are not mutually exclusive, I assert that the balance of educational experiences should tilt towards learning and process rather than product.
It is impossible to predict which specific technologies or pedagogical practices that will withstand the test of time. However, there are several technologies popular in schools that warrant review.
The growing assault on public education led by the Bush and Howard administrations is manifest in the obsession with testing, data, standardization and punishment. The dissection of learning into sequential bite-sized decontextualized fragments directly benefits the textbook, testing and integrated learning system companies. These are divisions of the same multinational behemoths. These conspicuous relationships advocate for Orwellian schemes like, “No Child Left Behind,” and have expensive technological “solutions” at the ready.
The market for inexpensive drill-and-practice software evaporated long before the enduring fantasy that if you get the software just right, every toddler will master long division subsided. Today, expensive instructional management systems are sold to poor schools terrorized by the threat of sanctions accompanying low performance on standardized tests. Although these systems have not changed much in forty years, they are no longer seen as a window onto the future as much as a life-saving attempt by desperate underprivileged schools.
The folly of teaching machines, personalized learning and continuous assessment date back to the invention of computers. Bad ideas are timeless. Government policies and easy-to-produce high-profit teaching systems from well-heeled corporations create a perfect storm for using computers in low-level disempowering ways.
Early advocates rebelled against CAI when excitement about computers in education was infectious. Today is different in that that these pioneers now make purchasing decisions and create a climate in which these systems dominate the landscape. Today, membership organizations purporting to represent educational progress, such as ISTE, are engaged in “monetizing” the testing craze and rushing to create “high-stakes” computer literacy examinations.[iii] Every child must now be above average every minute of the day.
Such regressive practices are no longer typified by children sitting at banks of computers wearing headphones or in the back of the classroom playing Math Blaster. Teaching systems have gone wireless and centralized simultaneously.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S LESS!
Two categories of such systems dominate the marketplace and classrooms; “smart” boards and “clickers.”
“Intelligent” white boards may appear as cost-effective strategies for advancing a school’s technological capability, yet these Pre-Gutenberg technologies may ultimately reinforce the worst of existing classroom practices. They reinforce the dominance of the front of the room and omniscience of the teacher. Facilitating increased lecturing and reducing education to notes on a board represents a step backwards. We should question the widespread appeal of these products. The sales success of clever furniture is undeniable, but its actual use is less clear.[iv]
Classroom as Game Show, Teacher as Huckster
A new category of products has hit the educational technology market and enjoys remarkable sales. The more academic-sounding acronym, classroom performance systems (CPS), has been created to bestow. With a CPS, each child watches typically unattractive multiple-choice questions displayed on a screen in-front of them and on-cue punches what they think is the correct answer into a handheld remote-control device. The software can then present the teacher and class with the correct answer and a tabulation of student results. Such a system requires learning be reduced to its simplest, most binary form and gives aid and comfort to the misguided notion that continuous assessment is synonymous with teaching.
Teachers report to me that their “colleagues” find it difficult to design their own quizzes for these systems. The result of this difficulty marketing agreements with textbook publishers who happily provide, for a fee, questions that require little more than a smile from the classroom teacher. This contributes further to the deprofessionalization of educators and does little to help them embrace the constructive use of computers in their classrooms.
One vendor, eInstruction, reports sales of 1.8 million “response pads”[v] and is suing a rival over their patent entitled “System and Method for Communicating with Students in an Education Environment.” That’s funny; I didn’t realize that teachers need remote control devices in order to communicate with students.
One corporation, Qwizdom, announces on its website that “Instant data just got even faster!” What’s faster than instant? Qwizdom refers to being part of the “audience response industry.”[vi] There is no illusion that teachers are more than performers and students spectators. Furthermore, emphasis on faster instants does violence to the promise of personal computers as incubators for project-based learning and deep intellectual engagement.
David Thornburg, reminds us that a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is allowed to think about a problem, poll the audience or phone a friend before pulling the trigger on her answer. CPS systems prohibit such thinking practices.
Both “intelligent boards” and “clickers” reduce education to the delivery and regurgitation of information and make it simple for centralized authorities to monitor classroom activity and reduce individual students to data.
Australia’s greatest contribution to the world of computing was the pioneering embrace of laptops in education. Back in 1989-90, MLC and the State of Queensland embraced laptops as personal knowledge machines that brought the theories of Dewey and Papert to life. Today, laptops are no longer about powerful ideas, personal responsibility and the decentralization of knowledge, but tools for information delivery, constant assessment and global competitiveness. Some schools now promise that when they implement 1:1 computing, they will not change the curriculum at all. This is not virtuous; it’s idiotic and a waste of money.
Politicians propose laptops for teachers as if they were not the last workers in society afforded such luxury. Teachers performing clerical tasks and other chores, not transforming education, justify the investment.
The Governor of Maine needed to allow local schools to decide whether student laptops could go home as a matter of petty political expedience. Now other jurisdictions slavishly debate the merits of laptops going home as if this were a reasonable issue and 50% of Maine schools expand the digital divide by tethering mobile computers to the schoolhouse. If one student in one classroom looks at an inappropriate webpage, skittish vendors will render laptops useless in order to sell them to a school 2,000km away. Policy should not be predicated on historical accident or local politics.
It took more than a decade before defeatist language like pilot, initiative, project or experiment followed “laptop” in discussions of school computing. Now it’s the norm. This implies that the decision to embrace ubiquitous computing may have been a mistake rather than on the right side of history.
Schools are increasingly purchasing large quantities of student laptops without any constructive software, like MicroWorlds, and doing so with the encouragement of computer manufacturers. Some student laptops don’t even have a paint program installed. This is a brilliant strategy if the school teaches the humanities only. Mathematics and science learning stand to gain the most from the problem solving and computation afforded by the laptop, but such innovation is impossible in many schools.
Hardware manufacturers peddle laptop carts and governors propose a laptop on every desk fifteen years after thousands of students responsibly cared for their own portable computer at home, school and in the community. The metaphoric, as well as physical, locking-down of student laptops disempowers students and frustrates teachers needlessly. This hysteria represents a systemic backlash to the unprecedented creative and intellectual freedom bestowed upon learners.
One American school district had more than sixty million dollars (US) in-hand for student laptops. The educational goals accompanying the laptop purchase were so unimaginative and incremental that one politician was able to derail the entire initiative. Too little was done to excite the hearts and minds of citizens who want the most for children. (Stager 2005c)
Many new laptop schools pretend they invented the idea and disregard the lessons of their predecessors. They will recklessly change platforms just to get mentioned in the newspaper. Many Australian independent schools realized that changing their blazer colour was as useful a marketing ploy as integrating student laptops and didn’t require any institutional effort. The endless demands for evidence that laptops “work” demonstrates our community’s lack of capacity for growth and resistance to progress.
Computers are remarkably flexible devices capable of use in a wide range of contexts. A recent article in Technology and Learning Magazine profiled what the magazine’s editors determined to be the ten best returns on school technology investments. Not a single recommendation involved a learner doing something with a computer. This is a historic opportunity to seize powerful technology to help reinvent the nature and diversity of learning. We should embrace every opportunity to do so by keeping our “eyes on the prize” and avoiding detours. The needless focus on superficial planning, support for retrograde technologies, information addiction and welding laptops to furniture are symptoms of conservatism, ignorance and fear. Not long ago, the educational technology community were the warriors boldly leading schools towards an uncertain future filled with unprecedented learning opportunities for the children they serve. Somewhere along the line we have become reactionary and distracted by self-interest and costly detours.
We are duty bound to create compelling models of innovation and must define our terms, challenge accepted norms and set a course that amplifies the potential of children.
- The Alliance for Childhood. (2004) Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology. Available online at http://allianceforchildhood.org/projects/computers/pdf_files/tech_tonic.pdf
- Cuban, L. (2001) Oversold and Underused. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Harel, I., and Papert, S., editors. (1991) Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.
- Kafai, Y., and Resnick, M., editors. (1996) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Kohn, Alfie. (2000) Transcript of the talk “The Deadly Effect of Tougher Standards.” The Harvard Education Letter. March/April 2000. Available online at http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/2000-ma/forum.shtml.
- Mclester, Susan. (2004) Top 10 Returns on Investment. In Technology and Learning Magazine, November 2004 issue.
- Oppenheimer, Todd. (2003) The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can be Saved. NY: Random House.
- Papert, Seymour. (1990)“A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future,” MIT Epistemology and Learning Memo No. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory.
- Papert, Seymour (1981) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. NY: Basic Books.
- Papert, Seymour (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.
- Papert, Seymour. (1997) Why School Reform Is Impossible” In The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-42. Available online at http://www.papert.org/articles/school_reform.html
- Papert, Seymour (2002) “Papert Misses ‘Big Ideas’ of the Good Old Days in AI,” from a press release published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. July 10, 2002. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2002/papert.htm
- Stager, Gary. (2001) “Computationally-Rich Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” In Computers in Education 2001: Australian Topics – Selected Papers from the Seventh World Conference on Computers in Education. McDougall, Murnane & Chambers editors. Volume 8. Sydney: Australian
- Stager, Gary. (2002) “Papertian Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” In the Proceedings of the 2002 National Educational Computing Conference. Eugene, OR: ISTE.
- Stager, Gary. (2003) “The ISTE Problem” In District Administration Magazine, February 2003 issue.
- Stager, Gary. (2005a) “Gary Stager on the State of Ed Tech.” In District Administration Magazine, January 2005 issue.
- Stager, Gary. (2005b) “Gary Stager on Effective Ed Tech.” In District Administration Magazine, February 2005 issue.
- Stager, Gary (2005c) “Laptop Woes. Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale.” In District Administration Magazine, October 2005 issue.
- Tufte, Edward. (2003) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, LLC. Information available online at http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint
[i] Kohn has repeated a version of this quip in numerous contexts. One is available online at http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/2000-ma/forum.shtml
[ii] Despite the often underwhelming quality of such “work”
[iii] I am in possession of a December 2004 email sent by ISTE’s Washington D.C. office asking state ed tech directors to contribute to the creation of a “high-stakes” computer literacy test that ISTE would then sell back to them on behalf of a corporate partner. After months of denials, the ISTE CEO admitted to scheme at NECC 2005 and indicated that regardless of the propriety of the initiative, his membership organization needed to monetize this trend before others did. You may read the memo at http://www.stager.org/istememo
[iv] According to a March 30, 2006 press release, one manufacturer, “Smart Technologies,” has sold more than 250,000 whiteboards in every U.S. state and 75 countries.
New Trends, New Learning Opportunities
As we approach the new millenium, technology – and its use in schools – continues to evolve
© 1998 Gary S. Stager
Published in Upgrade, The Magazine of the Software Publisher’s Association
As the cost of computing decreases rapidly, children continue to enjoy increasing access to computers and the Internet . However, lower cost is not the only trend in learning with computers and communications technology. A few of the trends may seem quite obvious. Others are more provocative and will change the nature of teaching, learning and software development. The trends include:
- Lower cost hardware and software
- The locus of technological innovation shifting from school to home
- The Internet
- A sea-change from software predicated on passive instruction and entertainment to an expectation to use computers as vehicles for intellectual construction
Many of these trends are interdependent and support one another. The overlap reinforces the changes taking place.
Lower cost hardware and software
Moore’s Law continues to hold and the educational promise of the Internet has caused millions of new computers to be purchased by families, while schools rush to “get wired.” There is an enormous demand for sub-$1,000 computers and the success of Apple’s iMac provide evidence of the increasing availability of low-cost, powerful, “Internet-ready” computers. The couple of years will see computers approach the price of a few pairs of Air Jordans.
This phenomena will cause more homes to own personal computers and allow for more telecommuting and learning outside of school than has been possible in the past. Schools will find that the level of access demanded by students, coupled with reduction in cost of computing will have a profound impact on the nature of teaching and learning. At the simplest level, ubiquitous computing will move computers out of specialized labs and in contact with every aspect of schooling.
Equity will improve as the cost of computer ownership drops. Several studies already conclude that socioeconomic status no longer determines a child’s level of computer literacy – at least the modest level desired by traditional school computing curricula.
Increased access to powerful, less expensive technology is also creating new ways of learning and expressing oneself. MIDI keyboards and software allow fifth graders to compose and perform original musicals while $50 drawing tablets and digital cameras provide children with new palettes for expressing their artistic talents. Such technology is welcome news in an age where art and music education is in serious jeopardy.
Challenges to the profitability of the software industry
One concern for software developers is the public’s demand for products with higher production values at lower prices. Many customers no longer perceive the value of software priced at $499, but they don’t understand why it costs forty-nine dollars when a home video of Titanic costs $9.95.
Whether due to high-volume licensing or the availability of increasingly powerful shareware/freeware on the web, the price of software increasingly approaches zero.
Increasing access to powerful computers, expressive software and the Internet has shifted the locus of technological innovation from school to the home. There is no way for schools to catch-up. They are likely to have less powerful computers and connectivity than some of their students have at home. This presents educators with a challenge and opportunity to view the home more as a learning resource than a place where kids do trivial homework assignments and stop learning until they return to school.
While parents will continue to purchase software designed to drill their children in specific skills, kids are likely to ignore these tasks in favor of controlling the computer to achieve more personal and complex objectives. Just as shooting down math problems are less interesting to kids than “surfing or chatting,” making things to share with the world will consume more computer time.
Much has been said about how the Internet offers learners of all ages with unprecedented access to information. This fact alone has revolutionized learning, however the greatest impact of the net lies in its ability to democratize publishing and expand opportunities for collaboration.
While schools assimilate the Internet by using it as a way to find discrete facts or deliver information to sometimes unwilling students, kids at home are beginning to use their personal computers to create web sites, collaborate in online communities of practice and express themselves in new ways. This should come as no surprise as schools struggle against the clock, irrational fear of Internet abduction and the institutional expense of providing students with sufficient access. The home provides learners with a level of freedom, contemplative time and computer access necessary to construct knowledge.
Even when schools begin to discuss online learning, the reflexive response is to scan everything they have ever used in a traditional classroom in preparation for “pouring the information down the pipe” and into the computer of the online students. A “push” mentality permeates the discussion, rather than viewing learning as the act of “pulling and shaping understanding” in the mind of each individual learner. You can lead a school to the I-Way, but you can’t make it think.
The Concord Consortium (http://www.concord.org) is dedicated to creating rich online environments for learning math and science by doing. Their collaborative projects include Haze-Span, a project in which children are collecting and analyzing important scientific data and sharing that data with interested scientists, and the Virtual High School in which students explore areas of mathematics and science in ways beyond the school curriculum.
Pepperdine University (http://gsep.pepperdine.edu/online/) is perhaps the first university to offer accredited online graduate programs in educational technology, based on constructionist principles of learning. Educators enrolled in the Pepperdine master’s and doctoral programs use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous technologies to build community and construct knowledge within a personal context. Guest speakers, faculty members and even other classes of students join discussions of powerful ideas in virtual settings in which every member of the community is a learner. Access to classmates and faculty members is available virtually around the clock. Pepperdine is working to invent the future of learning and teaching without relying on an old correspondence school model.
Mamamedia (http://www.mamamedia.com) is a unique Internet start-up designed to provide children with a safe, creative and intellectually stimulating place on the web. Mamamedia extends the traditional notion of the 3-Rs, by adding the three Xs, “Exploration, Expression and Exchange” as the design philosophy of their site. Mamamedia founder Idit Harel’s goal is to “sell learning to kids” in an environment they will wish to return to over and over again. Anything children can use may also be collected, created or manipulated by the child. The future development of the net has to not only include faster bit delivery, but greater opportunities for users to construct things online.
Educast (http://www.educast.com/) provides educators with a free screensaver that is updated with timely news, views, resources and teaching ideas based on a push technology similar to Point-Cast. The system is optimized to make the best of slow or infrequent net connections.
Every Internet user is depending on software and hardware engineers to increase bandwidth and more intuitive tools for web publishing. Web design still requires too much “monkey work” and “two percent” of users understand the process of uploading a page to a web server.
Learners of all ages have the unprecedented opportunity to not only “look things up,” but use the Internet to publish their ideas in all sorts of ways – from dancing poetry, special-interest groups and TV/radio broadcasts. The web is full of places where you can publish your work for free and powerful tools for expressing your ideas. As the courts and educators are discovering, school know longer has sole jurisdiction over what goes on in a kids’ bedroom, personal computer or head. For an increasing number of kids, “high-tech means my tech.” (Idit Harel)
From passive to constructive computing
Recent research demonstrates that computer use is most effective for learning when students use it to “problem solve.” Inside and outside of school, the thing computers do best is provide learners with an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self expression. Children need better, more open-ended, computationally rich tools than their parents in order to sustain their interest and leverage the potential of computers for making connections between powerful ideas.
Five year-olds ought to be able to see themselves as software developers by using MicroWorlds to design a video game. Children should be able to collect data, perform experiments and discuss their conclusions with other children and experts. Kids who build and program LEGO robots may use physics, measurement, feedback and perhaps even calculus in a meaningful context. Seymour Papert and others point out that children who have had such deep learning experiences will demand much more of school.
Miniaturization and mobility
Computers are not only getting cheaper and more powerful, they are getting smaller. I have enjoyed working with Australian schools in which every child has a laptop for more than eight years. Approximately 50,000 Australian children have had personal laptop computers and the number of American school districts embracing truly personal computing is growing as well. The Australian pioneers viewed laptops as a way to make learning more personal and as a catalyst with which teachers could rethink the nature of teaching and learning. The ability to use the computer as your own portable laboratory and studio has had a tremendous impact on the social, cognitive and artistic development of children. Learning can not only occur anytime and anywhere, but new deeper forms of learning have become possible.
Students with laptops need two essentially two pieces of software, an integrated package for doing work and environment for messing about with powerful ideas and learning. This is why so many schools use ClarisWorks or Office for writing, calculating and publishing and MicroWorlds (http://www.microworlds.com) for designing interactive multimedia projects that may be run over the web. The software requirements for laptop schools include: being open-ended, non-grade specific, inexpensive and have a life-span of at least three years. Developers need to begin thinking about how they will distribute and license software to schools in which every student has a personal laptop.
High schools have been embracing low-cost graphing calculators for several years. These devices cost less than one hundred dollars and have been used to help students visualize mathematics that was previously abstract. A new innovation, calculator-based labs (CBL), allows students to connect scientific probes to the graphing calculator and collect experimental data. This data may then be analyzed and shared in ways never before possible. These probes place students in the center of their own learning and enriches mathematics education by making tangible connections to science.
Nicholas Negroponte once joked that we need to “melt crayolas down into Crays.” He meant that toys would become more and more computationally rich. The recent Tamagotchi craze offered creative teachers with a tool for connecting student toys to curriculum topics like: senses, life-cycle, probability and artificial life. New twelve dollar HotWheels cars have computers in them capable of measuring velocity and distance traveled. Perhaps the most exciting new product is the LEGO Mindstorms programmable brick set that allows children to construct autonomous robots of their own design.
These trends provide parents, educators, developers and children to enter into a new discussion of the nature of learning. If we trust the natural learning inclinations of children, provide them with rich open-ended tools and don’t do too much to get in their way, we will witness an explosion of learning in the very near future.
Gary S. Stager is a contributing editor for Curriculum Administrator Magazine and editor-in-chief of Logo Exchange. He has consulted with LEGO, Disney, LCSI, Compaq, Tom Snyder Productions, Netschools, Universal Studios and Microsoft. Gary is an adjunct professor of education at Pepperdine University, a frequent speaker at conferences and has spent the past seventeen years helping educators around the world find constructive ways to use computers to enhance the learning process. Gary may be reached at http://www.stager.org.
- Alfie Kohn’s, “How Children’s Play is being Sneakily Redefined.” (terrific article – will inspire provocative discussion)
- “Hard Fun” a newspaper column by Seymour Papert. (high priority read)
- “Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning ,” Seymour Papert’s exploration of gaming, fun and learning.
- Vivian Paley, “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,” profile from This American Life. (12 minutes – audio)
- The Journal of Play
- “I Wonder…” 2008 short article by Deborah Meier
- “What Happened to Play?” 2006 short article by Deborah Meier
- Tinkering Resources compiled by Constructing Modern Knowledge
Books (click on author’s name for other books)
Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground by Deborah Meier, Brenda S. Engel and and Beth Taylor
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by M.D., Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan
Constructing Modern Knowledge 2012 celebrates computing, creativity and children by adding blog, YouTube and MakerFaire sensation, Super Awesome Sylvia as a guest speaker and faculty member at CMK 2012, July 9-12, 2012 in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Sylvia’s enthusiasm, curiosity, ingenuity and passion have inspired hundreds of thousands of children and adults to tinker with cutting-edge technology. Her videos share wisdom and whimsical ideas for projects. This pint-sized pedagogue also teachers viewers about art, science, engineering and technology with remarkable clarity.
It will be super awesome to have Super Awesome Sylvia as a co-learner at CMK 2012! I can’t wait to see what we make together!
- Super Awesome Sylvia’s web site
- Gary Stager’s article, Super-Awesome Sylvia in the Not So Awesome Land of Schooling
- Constructing Modern Knowledge’s amazing guest speakers and faculty
- One of Sylvia’s recent instructional videos (below)