Below is an article I first published in an Australian newsletter back in 2001. I cannot believe how many of the concerns raised in this article remain with us today. I hope you enjoy the first of what will be a series of articles exploring how we grow as a professional community and who we choose to learn from.

Sloppy language, sloppy thinking

Terms like school reform, change, child-centered education, professional development and authentic assessment have become meaningless in an educational climate favoring systems, buildings, ideology and processes over children. Lingo-slinging administrators, politicians eager for the quick fix and educators too beaten down and overwhelmed to take a breath and reflect upon their best practices, have irrevocably devalued the currency of such terms. Textbooks, curriculum software and high-stakes tests deprive students of experience with primary sources.

Too many teachers do not read “real stuff” either. The big ideas of Piaget, Montessori, Dewey, Vygotsky and Papert are ignored or reduced to bumper sticker slogans. To some constructivism is when a teacher pauses to pass out the next worksheet. Balance has become the watchword of educators unwilling or incapable of taking a stand.

Many of our colleagues know that schools are dysfunctional so they search for new words to describe futuristic processes rather than step-up and do the right thing. Medical science has changed constantly over the years yet the practitioners are still called doctors. If the art and science of education are living processes we should expect leadership from teachers, not facilitators or coaches.

We speak of a shift from teaching to learning, but are unwilling to give up the hierarchy of teacher and learner despite the enlightened rhetoric. I’m hard-pressed to see evidence of such a shift in practice. There are just too few examples of coequal learning in current schools.

Have you noticed that learning has become a noun rather than a verb? I have been reading a growing number of articles and advertisements saying things like: “we must increase access to learning,” “the new test measures the learning,” or “teachers must improve their students’ learning.”

Education is still something adults do to children. Perhaps we shouldadmit that verbs like training, teaching, testing, assessing, grouping and administrating describe unnatural and invasive procedures.

Where in the world is educational computing?istock_000008573212xsmall
As a community of practice, educational computing is at best dysfunctional or at least learning-disabled. Twenty years after microcomputers, a medium with the potential to revolutionize education, entered classrooms the educational computing community continues to focus its energies on the dubious goals of curriculum integration and professional development.

Theoretically these sound like lofty aspirations while in reality they are code words for paralysis and the status quo. We are cursed by an absence of vision and expertise.

In addition to curriculum and professional development, the two unspoken goals of educational computing are fund-raising and shopping.

Despite the rhetoric about preparing kids for the digital age, schools are grossly underfunded and professional educators are continuously distracted from their primary duties to shamelessly suck-up for more hardware. Educational computing conference programs are full of sessions about grant writing and schools of education are compelled to teach grant writing in their educational computing degree programs.

The hype regarding the rate of change spurred by computing causes educators to equate innovation with the purchase of a new software package. Educational computing conferences have become flea-markets rather than incubators of knowledge. It is much easier to buy a new software package than to change the goals, practices and outcomes of schooling – even if the society is demanding such growth.

The mantra of curriculum integration is really a call to limit the enormous potential of computational technology in order to support questionable educational content and pedagogy. Curriculum integration is offered as an alternative to the previously dopey goal of computer literacy instruction. Imagination-impaired educators can now say, “we can teach kids about hanging indents while preparing boring assignments they have no interest in writing rather than the old-fashioned way when we just taught about hanging indents without the exciting context of writing a book report. We’re motivating the kids to learn by connecting tech skills to the curriculum.”

This phenomenon may be more dangerous than the old-fashioned ways in which we use to lie to children in the name of curriculum. Contemporary children live in a computer-rich world in which personal computers and the Internet are natural extensions of their environment. Using these technologies in a dumbed- down way to impose inauthentic learning objectives on children is asking for trouble. They will undoubtedly react badly to the use of their beloved computers as tools of their own oppression. This is especially true when the offending adults have less fluency with the medium than do their students.

Make no mistake; kids can do marvelous things with computers. They may delight and impress us with their abilities. However, the learning potential of children is severely limited by the talents, curiosity, knowledge and expertise of the adults in their care. Most kids do not discover computer science, nor even know what might be within the realm of possibility without access to accomplished adults.

Professional development has become an obsession of schools and for-profit corporations desperate to develop expensive strategies for begging, bribing, cajoling, tricking, enticing, bullying, inspiring and threatening teachers to touch computers. While kids are widely believed to have more natural fluency with computers and the net, there is still much they could learn and be inspired to construct if led by imaginative modern educators. A quick survey of American culture would show that toddlers recognize www before the golden arches and senior citizens represent the fastest growing segment of the Internet-using public.

No after school workshops, technology coordinators, philanthropy or acts of Parliament were required to get Grandma online. She just wanted to talk with her children and grandchildren more regularly [and perhaps check on her prescription drugs].

So, let’s review the evidence Kids get the stuff; seniors get it and folks working in most professional and even blue-collar jobs use computers. The last group of professionals to embrace computers as a useful tool
is teachers. Henry Becker’s research tells us that being a school math teacher is a statistically significant predictor that a person DOES NOT use the Internet. One would hope that workers charged with the development of intellectual capital would embrace the most powerful medium for the development of ideas and creative expression in history.

The current state-of-affairs is the result of low expectations, educational leaders without vision, false prophets/profits and an anti-intellectual society in which powerful ideas are rejected in favor of expediency. All of these problems have to do with expertise. Let’s explore them.

istock_000008537013xsmallLow Expectations
I often joke that the difference between a novice computer-using educator and an expert is a two-hour workshop. Our expectations for what teachers might actually do with computers are so low that those goals are easily achieved. Well, one would think so. Human nature suggests that the less we expect of others, the less they will actually achieve. The goals of simple word processing, web surfing and strapping kids to a drill and practice program seem hardly beyond the reach of a living-breathing teacher, yet even these modest goals remain elusive. One look at a state or national educational computing conference and you would have to conclude that ‘cutting and pasting’ represents the post-doctoral level of the field. The banality of most conference programs would suggest that the ceiling for learning with and about learning with computers is low indeed.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that we should not expect teachers to use computers in more creative intellectually empowering ways if they are incapable of achieving the most pedestrian of objectives. This line of reasoning misses two fundamental variables – motivation and scarcity of resources. Inspiring teachers by the limitless potential of computers to empower students to learn and express themselves in previously unimaginable ways requires a different manifestation of expertise, leadership, and a community’s desire to embrace the construction what’s new. Experience would suggest that schools excited by the potential to engage more kids in rich learning adventures would challenge teachers to ‘think different’ and provide the support necessary to support such motivation.

The organizations charged with promoting educational computing are often guilty of contributing to the imagination gap by failing to create, sustain, recognize and promote outstanding models of 21st century learning. When I heard Board members of the California Computer-Using Educators (CUE) sharing their horror at the new state mathematics standards in which computer-use is strongly discouraged, I was outraged by their reaction. CUE after all has tens of thousands of members, commands a substantial budget and employs a lobbyist. “How could this be a surprise?” I thought.

I later realized that the problem was much deeper than if they failed to speak-up at a meeting. If that organization had been offered an opportunity to advocate a different policy direction, would they have been able to present models compelling enough to change policy? If not, then we must work harder to close the imagination gap by taking bolder actions and celebrating new ways of teaching and learning with great clarity.

Expecting teachers to support all kids in the use of computers as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression requires different kinds of fluency and old- fashioned ideas of creating a rich learning environment. While schools focus on teaching word processing and the use of scroll bars over a 4-year scope and sequence, we forget that the existing technology allows even the youngest kids to produce movies, engineer robots, program video games, build simulations, conduct sophisticated scientific explorations and compose symphonies.

The dirty little secret of educational computing is that it has failed to make a significant impact on learning not because there are too many computers in schools, but rather too few. What good does it do to motivate teachers to think about teaching and learning in new ways if their students get only minutes of computer access per week or if the computers are stored in a bunker down the hall? (My kids in a southern California public school system have not used a school computer in at least six years.)

Scarcity is a major obstacle to use!
How many after school workshops should a teacher attend before they can get a printer ribbon (yes, many schools still need ribbons) or a few extra minutes of time in the computer lab? The ‘one computer classroom’ may have been not only a cute marketing slogan, but perhaps even a useful set of classroom strategies in the mid-eighties when microcomputers were less ubiquitous. However, it now represents a most cynical corporate strategy to maintain the status quo and support the supremacy of externally imposed curriculum at the expense of children.

Equally virulent ideas include the often touted 30/50% rule that suggests we spend 30-50% of our technology budget on professional development and the latest excuse for inaction, total cost of ownership. Spending even one penny of the hardware budget on professional development is a cheap accounting trick. We don’t pay for art teachers out of the crayon budget, not should we pay for teacher education out of the computer budget. This only devalues the importance of computers as instruments for the construction of knowledge and avoids the cold hard truth that the obstacles to successful computer use may have much more to do with issues associated with good teaching than computers themselves. The idea total cost of ownership, (TCO) has been recently introduced into the educational debate. While fiscal responsibility requires schools to plan for all of the costs associated with computing, the high costs presented by TCO advocates are unrealistic and will scare schools away from investing in computing.

The Leadership Abyss
It is not only school leaders who fail to realize, articulate and nurture the potential of digital technology. Elected and self-appointed leaders of the educational computing community appear to be as ineffective. School leaders without personal computer fluency can not possibly understand the power and possibilities of computing. The confluence of the insane demands being made on school administrators and the above mentioned imagination gap is causing an alarming number of school leaders to abdicate their leadership to others. The need for someone to ‘understand this stuff’ and ‘go shopping’ has created a new profession, school computer coordinator. In many districts, excellent educators are removed from the classroom in order to supervise the purchasing, inventory and installation of computer. The boom in the number of technology/computer coordinators is unprecedented and institutionalizes the notion that computers are precious, mysterious and beyond the comprehension of school administrators. (It would be fantastic if great educators could be rewarded for continuing to work with children and create inspirational models of great teaching with computers.)

The increasing complexities caused by the hysterical pace and paranoia regarding school networking has led to an even more dangerous trend than the creation of computer coordinators. Schools anxious to bulldoze their lawns and pull cat-5 cable through their walls are not only hiring seventeen year-olds with Lee Harvey Oswald personalities to manage the process, but are making these non-educators network administrators.

Since qualified networking professionals are a rare commodity, schools can only afford to pay the least experienced candidates. If they do a poor enough job, they may be rewarded by hiring all of their low-skilled friends. In far too many schools the network administrator has consolidated power and holds the entire educational process hostage.
This is especially ironic since many schools require highly qualified computer-using educators to earn administrative credentials before they can be a computer coordinator, yet place unprecedented power in the hands of non-educators. School administrators place unprecedented budgetary discretion, policy-making and curricular influence in the hands of these folks due a different type of perceived technical expertise. This is a worrisome trend that must be slowed. Alternatives may be explored at http://www.stager.org/articles/takingbackthenet1.html

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False Prophets/Profits
The low-regard in which our society holds education requires school leaders to seek the wisdom of non-educators. Rather than work hard to realize the dreams of Dewey, Piaget, Papert and Holt, school leaders are forced to memorize the simplistic decontextualized platitudes of ‘experts’ from the business world. In many cases the only accomplishment of these men and women is measured by the wealth they accumulate in the act of selling clichés to those craving simple solutions to complex problems. I am tempted to write an academic paper in which I seamlessly intersperse the accumulated wisdom of Peter Senge, Don Tapscott and Suzanne Somers. There isn’t a dime’s bit of difference in substance (or lack thereof) between Tom Peters, Anthony Roberts or Richard Simmons. None offer constructive advice for making schools better places for kids and teachers to learn. I expect that we will soon be sending school principals to football arenas in which they can channel the spirit of Madeline Hunter.

Like any other industry, educational computing is full of ‘experts.’ Some of us may lead us to a brighter future. Others may just make us feel good or bad for an hour.

We should celebrate the visionaries, like Seymour Papert, who paint bold loving portraits of learning in a digital world as well as the classroom teachers who heroically work miracles every day and have great stories to tell. However, these folks are often marginalized for causing trouble, challenging us to do better, requiring additional resources or for offering complex solutions to timeless dilemmas. (Find books by thoughtful educators here)

Our anti-intellectual culture favors sound bites over powerful ideas and messy problems. As a result, the educational computing literature and conferences promotes different kinds of experts. I often think of these experts as vaudevillians traveling from town-to-town on a modern high-tech chitlin’ circuit. The following is a guide for spotting some latter-day experts. Some may be tricky and combine elements of different species.

The Flaky Futurist
Tell teachers that some day they will have computers in their corneas and suggest that they are on the verge of disintermediation. The strategy is to overwhelm audiences with predictions about the future and invoke inaction due to fear and a lack of specific suggestions for preparing for that future. Many flaky futurists have a decidely 19th- century technology, the workbook, for sale at the end of their presentation.

The Salesman
The salesman is often former president of a tire company, but now CEO of an educational software or hardware company. The notes written by subordinates on their teleprompter reassures them that they are indeed educational visionaries – especially since they sponsored the rental of projectors at this conference.

The Counter
Counters are academics anxious to demonstrate their counting abilities by reviewing tables of data regarding the number of computers in schools and percentage of teachers who do this and that with them.

The Whiner
The whiners enjoy great applause for complaining that the government pays $500 for a toilet seat and yet you can’t afford a district-license for Dipthong Bomber or Gerund Blaster.

The Human Interface Guy
These folks assure the audience that educational software is all crap, except for the stuff their graduate students have been working on for eleven years. All of our educational problems will be solved as soon as they figure out just the right place to place the button on the screen or they receive more NSF funding – whichever comes first.

The Hipster
These folks met actual kids and have spoken with several of them. Now they want us to hear their message.

The Yuckster
These presenters have a million and one Microsoft jokes!

The Populist
The populist is a non-educators who make a big splash by attacking the use of computers in schools by setting up false arguments between funding priorities or by making simplistic arguments that computers retard learning. Their observations are often accurate, yet they lack any sense of a brighter alternative.

The Teacher Basher
With the passing of Al Shanker it is up to Alfred Bork and a handful of governors to entertain a room full of educators by telling them how incompetent he believes them to be.

© 2001 Gary S. Stager

wwadio-cover-pages_page_1

wwwadio-article_page_1I have a special fondness for this article I wrote back in 1998. It was one of the first articles I wrote for Curriculum Administrator Magazine before enjoying a ten-year run as an Editor of its successor, District Administration. The article also chronicled some joyful work I did with students who demonstrated competence and good citizenship. This eleven year-old article also describes working in a laptop school (1:1 environment), the timeless hysteria over network security, the trustworthiness of students AND the article is about podcasting before podcasting was cool or even existed. In fact, few schools in the world were online at the time that these kids and I produced a digital radio show on the World Wide Web.

WADIO
Published in the November/December 1998 issue of Curriculum Administrator

© 1998 – Gary S. Stager

“Put on your virtual helmet and goggles! I’ve never tried this before and have no idea if we will be successful.” These cautionary words began my recent work with thirty-two eighth through tenth graders at Melbourne, Australia’s Wesley College.” I then explained to the unsuspecting students that we would spend the next four hours producing and broadcasting a digital radio program on the World Wide Web.

Radio provides a terrific vehicle for the development of writing, editing and oral communication skills without all of the technical vagaries associated with video production. Great radio requires great writing and RealAudio provides remarkably high transmission quality over the inadequate bandwidth found in most schools and homes. Low-cost digital technology allows every classroom to be a radio station.

We began the session with a discussion of the advantages of streaming audio over traditional downloading and a bit about what compression is. Next, we brainstormed what sorts of information should be included in our school radio station. The kids determined that there should be school news, sports, music, movie and book reviews (later grouped as culture), feature interviews and a public opinion poll included in the broadcast.

I asked for five volunteers to comprise the team of web monkeys I anticipated would be needed to make everything work on the web. There were plenty of volunteers. (It seems that the more pejorative the title, the more workers you can attract.) We then asked kids to sign-up for the reporting team of their choice, trying to evenly distribute the students.

My next instructions to the teams consisted of, “decide what sort of information you are going to broadcast, plan, write and record your piece of the program within the next hour.” The students displayed enormous maturity and self-direction in their efforts to decide how to make their piece of the program relevant and interesting. Many of them dispersed so they could conduct a poll, interview or collect other information on the campus. Their cooperative skills were tested when we were only able to find one audio tape recorder on the entire campus. Despite these obstacles, audio tapes poured in after morning tea.

While the newly formed teams of producers, writers, directors and reporters fanned out across the campus, the web monkeys went to work. The first dilemma facing us was that I (the teacher) didn’t know how to stream audio files over the World Wide Web. I knew I had to use metafiles, but were not sure how they worked. Five copies of the documentation were made so I could ask my young colleagues to help me figure out the correct process. It didn’t take long before the idea of metafiles made sense. After overcoming that hurdle two kids began designing the web pages needed to contain the broadcast, while the others downloaded tools they would need to digitize and compress the audio. The rest of the team connected an audio deck to the computer and adjusted audio recording levels in anticipation of the arrival of the tapes. Kids even went out and snapped digital photos to include in the web site.

Things got a bit hectic when the reporting teams arrived with tapes in-hand. There seemed more than enough work to keep all thirty-two kids busy. One of the web monkeys quickly became dissatisfied with the quality of the school’s desktop computer so he took out his personal laptop and headphones and announced that he would digitize and compress all of the audio clips. A system for naming files was created, communicated and documented so everyone would be on the same page. Another member of the team cut, paste, saved and uploaded meta files to the appropriate server. While two kids continued designing the web site and one student took the initiative to be project manager for the entire process. He demonstrated extraordinary poise and leadership skills while keeping track of tapes, file names and quality control. I was able to bark shorthand instructions to him and he would ensure that the relevant people carried out the task.

By the end of the four hours a Wesley College School broadcast prototype was up and running on the web. We decided earlier in the day to call it WADIO. A bit less chaos, more time and more experience would have allowed all of the audio files to sound great. However, the kids did a remarkable job in a very short period of time. Their creativity, technical fluency and collaborative skills continue to inspire me. One group figured out that they could dub their music reviews over clips from the CD. The feature interview group decided that “everyone interviews the principal” so they proceeded to interview one of the cleaners and “tuck shop” (cafeteria) ladies. The most pleasant surprise was found on the culture page. The students not only reviewed popular music CDs and movies, but included an excellent review of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Trusted with responsibility for their own learning, kids will often exceed our curricular expectations.

None of this would have been possible if the students did not possess the computing fluency that comes from each student having a personal laptop computer. It was easy to forget that I was working with kids as I asked them to find and download programs on the Internet, digitize and edit audio files, create web pages and upload all of their work to a remote file server. All of these seemingly complex processes were within the reach of these 13-16 year-olds.

A few lessons emerged for teachers and administrators concerned with managing technology and locking down computers.

  1. The students were able to produce a simple, yet technically complex streaming audio broadcast on the web in less than one school day. Perhaps existing models of computer literacy need to be reconsidered.
  2. The entire product was created with free and shareware tools.
  3. Despite a zillion dollars worth of school networking, the voice of Australian students was streaming from a server I pay $5/month for in Virginia, USA. Much of our email and web services could be subcontracted externally.
  4. Thirty two teenagers had access to my personal server password at all times. I never once feared that they would breach that trust for I treated them with respect and they were too busy being productive to be destructive. If the kids had violated my security, I could easily restore my files and change passwords. They are just computers.
  5. Information wants to be free. The immediate reaction of some school personnel was that the broadcast would run better if it were on the school’s Intranet. This is a big mistake. Kids should have as big an audience for their work as possible. Parents might want to listen from work. Students might want to know what time the football game starts from home and students on distant shores might be inspired by the work of peers halfway around the world.
  6. When involved in an purposeful educational project, students will remain engaged and create a quality of work that exceeds our expectations.

You may listen to the original audio production at this link (as long as the technology still works).


POSTSCRIPT – 2009

For several years I traveled around the world sharing the story of WWWadio as an example of how the computer can be used to enhance personal expression and offer a global audience. Another lesson had to do with network security and student trustworthiness.

I gave all of the students my personal server username and password without fear for the following reasons:
1.    They needed server access in order to do their work.
2.    I was too busy teaching to constantly be interrupted in order to type a password into student computers.
3.    I believed that if I trusted the students with my Web server, they would behave responsibly. Besides, the server was backed-up in case something went wrong.
4.    The kids were so busy that they were likely to forget my password.
5.    It’s just a damned server.

I never bothered to change the server password following the WWWadio class. At presentations I proudly proclaimed how the students did not harm my server, despite having root access. This was a stunning dose of reality for educators fearful and suspicious of children.

Then it happened…

One day, I found an unfamiliar folder residing on my Web server. Since I’m such a disorganized person, I just figured that I had accidentally created a folder or assumed that my service provider had placed it there.

Curious, I looked at the contents of that mystery folder through a Web browser. Surprise! The Australian private school students had been maintaining a school-related newspaper on my server somewhere in the United States for 2-3 years without my knowledge, and more importantly, without doing any damage to the server or any of its other contents.

That’s right, despite the high tuition fees the students paid, the fact that they every student has her own laptop AND the school’s millions of dollars worth of networking infrastructure and personnel, students found the school network unreliable or too difficult to use in a way that suited their needs.

It sure is a shame how much time, money and personnel schools spend on computer networks only to complicate or cripple them.