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.

  1. Frustration that every educator hasn’t joined the PLN/PLC/social network/Twitterverse/blogopshere, because “if they only knew what I know…”
  2. 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.

The ability for anyone to publish on the Web is a good thing. Many voices can contribute to the marketplace of ideas when they may have otherwise remained unheard. However, the democratic promise of blogging is often illusory or counter-productive.

Anecdote 1

For several years I spent several nights and hundreds of dollars to attend a public affairs lecture series sponsored by the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. I saw Bill Clinton twice, Al Gore and a host of Israeli Prime Ministers speak (my least favorite sessions). The best evenings were spent when multiple experts shared the stage. Some of the most memorable evenings included:

  • Newt Gingrich and John Edwards
  • James Carville and Mary Matalin
  • Bill Maher and Dennis Miller
  • Ann Coulter and Al Franken
  • Simone Peres and Henry Kissinger (Kissinger was profoundly boring and Peres quoted President Polk in a sentence)
  • Bill Maher and Tony Snow
  • Wolf Blitzer, Cokie Roberts, Charlie Rose and Tim Russert
  • William Bennett and Mario Cuomo
  • Arianna Huffington, Paul Begala & Tucker Carlson
  • Maureen Dowd, Donna Brazille, Michael Murphy
  • Anderson Cooper and Walter Cronkite (Cooper was a buffoon)
  • Prime Ministers Jose Maria Aznar (Spain), Ehud Barak and Sir John Major
  • Terry McAuliffe (DNC) and Ken Melman (RNC)
  • Gwen Ifill, Judith Miller, Cokie Roberts and Helen Thomas
  • Bill O’Reilly and Alan Dershowitz

Aside from the opportunity to hear experts and leaders speak, the format of these events made them quite special. Each speaker had 20 minutes to speak and then they sat down together for a conversation, often moderated by the President of the university who asked the sort of questions one might expect from a Talmudic scholar. When the university received complaints about the off-color language used by Bill Maher and Dennis Miller, a University spokesman quoted a disturbing Pew poll indicating that a majority of Americans thought it was fine for government to censor newspapers and affirmed the university’s commitment to presenting ideas in the authentic voice of the speaker.

Anecdote 2

As a keynote speaker, I take my obligations to entertain, inspire and inform quite seriously. That is why I decided a few years ago not to take questions at the end of my keynotes. I urge conferences to provide a space for me to engage in conversation with attendees for as long as they’re interested after the keynote, but in a separate venue. My experience led me to conclude that taking questions during the keynote results in one of the following undesirable results:

  1. The “my principal is a jerk speech”
  2. Insane pronouncements like, “The Jews were responsible for 9/11,” from the floor
  3. The deadly sound of crickets as nobody speaks up

Any of these outcomes has a deleterious effect on the session and is the last impression left with audiences.

So, what do these two anecdotes have to do with social media?

Plenty!

Read MacArthur Genius educator Deborah Meier’s brilliant essay, More Villainous Than Hypocrisy, in the Bridging Differences “blog” she writes with Diane Ravitch each week. Bridging Differences routinely includes the most thoughtful discussions of education policy to be found anywhere. Ms. Meier, one of America’s leading educators and successful urban school reformers, deserves a lot more credit for the role she played in Dr. Ravitch’s recent conversion.

Like a great lecture, play, film, concert or art exhibition, Meier’s recent essay provides enough “food-for-thought” to nourish you for a week – that is until you click the “comments” link on her blog post. The potshots, political manifestos and attacks leveled at the author and her ideas is nauseating and adds nothing whatsoever to the issue.

Education Week provides a great public service by publishing Bridging Differences. They would provide an even greater service by allowing the work to stand for itself and turn off comments.

The lesson I learned during the fantastic lecture series discussed above is SHUT UP! Let the experts speak and converse without being interrupted by crackpots with an ax to grind. You are not their equal just because you bought a ticket or can use a Web browser. A handful of miscreants do not have the right to diminish everyone else’s experience.

Even if not disruptive, most blog commenters (IMHO) offer very little value to the “discussion” or consider the comments of others. Flame wars are much more likely than insight.

I first sensed that blogs were BS back in 2003 when I found myself sharing absolutely brilliant, earth-shattering, election-winning advice for Governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. With each passing day, I was increasingly disappointed to not receive a phone call from the candidate or have my suggestions result in dramatic strategy changes.

Then suddenly I realized why nobody was reading my profoundly erudite blog comments. I wasn’t reading any of the other thousand commenter’s brilliant comments. Nobody else was either.

If you wish to critique something someone else published on the Web, perhaps you should share your views on a personal blog and let the work of others stand for itself.

What do you think? You may flame me below. Riff-raff welcome.

Uber-edublogger Will Richardson recently published a blog post entitled, Valuing Change. In the article, he reiterated the frequent lament that teachers don’t “consider” or “value” change especially when the Web allows students to “connect outside of the classroom.” The who, what or why of connecting isn’t discussed.

Will’s article illustrates a teacher’s unwillingness to embrace change by showing how a topic like gerrymandering could be made more engaging through the use of information technologies. Will recognizes the challenges facing teachers and offers an olive branch by suggesting that we can “do both” – teach what will likely be on the test and do so more meaningly.

It should come as no surprise that I disagree, especially given the example used.

As I write this, there are two dozen comments in addition to the few I contributed. Either blog commenters don’t consider the ideas of other commenters or my argument was not clear enough.

Perhaps, as much as you would like it to be otherwise, the incrementalism of “doing both” is really the problem.

Why would you Skype someone involved “in the process?” What process? Who? State legislators? What are they likely to tell a student that can’t be found out in a book or article?

The connections you speak of, now matter how much you yearn for them may be as inauthentic as the task itself. Perhaps they just make a task nobody cares about even more arduous. The “you can use Google ____ or Skype with someone” suggestions have become as automatic and meaningless as when a politician says, “We need to pay teachers more, but hold them accountable.”

One of the lessons I learned from Seymour Papert (http://dailypapert.com) was that you cannot transform school just by changing teaching practices or even the technology used. You must rethink, challenge or reinforce the content of the curriculum. The “what” has a great deal of impact on the how and the why of learning something.

Papert once asked me, “What are you thinking about doing with the students next?” When I replied, “We were thinking of doing some geography…,” he shot back with, “And what can they DO with that?”

“Whatever you ‘teach’ kids should have a high liklihood of leading to the construction of a bigger question or a larger theory (NOW – not later), otherwise, why bother?”

Like so much of schooling, the topic of gerrymandering is really just a vocabulary exercise. Memorize the definition and move on. I’m not sure you can put lipstick on that pig.

I do not believe that it is possible to make schools more productive contexts for learning (the how we teach) without calling the curriculum into question (the what we teach).

When Will requested “The Stager Plan,” I replied…

If I wasn’t clear enough above, a substantial aspect of “The Stager Plan” includes expending some serious effort at every school to determine what is worth being taught.

Pedagogical strategies should reflect the content and the learning styles of students.

The ideas proposed for making gerrymandering more engaging only add false complexity to what is a vocabulary term, likely taught in isolation as the curriculum whizzes by.

My other concern is how we tend to reduce education to information access (or trading information) and how the emphasis on using computers as information appliances reinforces the status quo while depriving learners of authentic experiences.

In addition to commenters reminding us of the wonders of Web 2.0 technology, the author repeates the familiar cliché, “We need to use technology to get kids engaged in the curriculum, not just in the technology.”

Why is this so? Should teachers be so compliant and teach anything they’re told to, regardless of context or value?

Also, why is engaging with the “technology” so quickly dismissed as being inferior to the curriculum?

Here’s a thought experiment…

What if we DID do everything in our power to engage kids in the technology? (I don’t think you can engage someone else, but I’ll leave that aside)

This might be the first real engagement kids experience.

Learning computer programming might actually lead to different thinking, different thinking about thinking, student agency and provide a window for teachers into the intellectual capabilities of kids.

I wish there was a way for me to run a hands-on workshop for every teacher in the world during which they could experience the intellectual rigor and creative joy experienced while computing. Not only is this workshop necessary for teachers who don’t use “technology” in the ways Will’s post urges, but educators excited by Web 2.0 would do well to expand their computing fluency as well.

Educators interested in spending four days on creative computing projects with a world-class faculty and amazing guest speakers this summer should check out Constructing Modern Knowledge. Act quickly, this very special event may sell-out!

elitesThere has been much talk among the “EduWeb 2.0” community questioning the value of formal schooling, particularly higher education. Will Richardson has written several blog posts on the subject.

While the democratization of knowledge and unlimited access to information are laudable goals, and perhaps approaching reality, I wonder about the role of expertise, specifically that resulting from “paying dues” in the learning process. Will culture contine to survive and civilization progress if everybody is equal and education is reduced to “looking stuff up” online?

Information access is no substitute for education.


Is this an educator endorsed expansion of anti-intellectualism?


Time Magazine’s columnist, Joel Stein, challenged some of these assumptions in a very witty article, Bring on The Elites. (I’ve waited a week for the entire column to appear online so I can share it with you). Here is a taste of Stein’s column.

Magazine editors and network executives make writers cut references and words they think most people won’t know — even though everybody has Wikipedia. We are becoming a country that believes the rich have earned their money but the well educated have not earned their intellectual superiority. This leads to a nation that idolizes Kardashians.

Antielitism is a cancer waiting to metastasize in any democracy and one that Alexis de Tocqueville worried about for the U.S.

I always get a bit queasy when I hear educators argue against education, including college opportunity, for all students. What do you think?

After years of avoiding the whole sordid mess, I’ve gone an done it. I am officially on the FaceBook.

I apologize for waiting so long to announce this to the world. I’ve been way too busy friending people who beat me up in high school.

Now I have an entirely new venue in which to waste time.

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.

The New York Times article, Who’s Driving Twitter’s Popularity? Not Teens, punches another whole in the ageist nonsense known as the digital immigrant/digital native BS. That bogus theory fetishizes youth culture and allows middle-age adults, primarily educators, to say, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” in an act of self-loathing and anti-intellectualism.

“The traditional early-adopter model would say that teenagers or college students are really important to adoption,” said Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis at comScore. Teenagers, after all, drove the early growth of the social networks Facebook, MySpace and Friendster.

Twitter, however, has proved that “a site can take off in a different demographic than you expect and become very popular,” he said. “Twitter is defying the traditional model.”

In fact, though teenagers fueled the early growth of social networks, today they account for 14 percent of MySpace’s users and only 9 percent of Facebook’s. As the Web grows up, so do its users…”

I wrote about this issue long ago in Tech Insurgents: Do your teachers need a computing IEP? and Digital Native Theory Further Disproved.

However, billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban had the definitive word on the alleged digital generation gap.

Certainty book cover

Last night, students in one of my pre-service methods courses presented a curricular lesson they designed and a paper exploring a dilemma encountered while student teaching. There was plenty of insecurity in their presentations – voices trailing off into near silence, as well as defensiveness when asked to support an argument or defend a position. Such reactions are predictable.

What struck me as significant was how future educators standing on quicksand were quite certain about their ideas, regardless of how flimsy they happened to be. When confronted with clearly obvious factual errors in the proposed lesson, more than one student teacher responded with a version, “Well, I disagree,” or “Because I said so.”

It would have been nice if these students demonstrated some humility and were eager to change their stance (and modify the lesson). Seymour Sarason often points out that schools “lack a capacity for self-correction.” In this case, it’s probably reasonable to conclude that schools are merely collections of teachers.

Certainty not only afflicts teacher wannabes. A few nights ago, a non-American blogger from a country far far away wrote a blog posting and then announced its existence to the world via Twitter. This blog quoted an online magazine’s account of a presentation by a popular purveyor of clichés and other nonsense about contemporary education. After careful deliberation I decided to ask the Twitterer/blogger about the fallacies and factual errors he/she reported in the blog post.

The blogger responded that he/she did feel a bit queasy about the validity of the information, but passed it on as the basis of policy recommendations nonetheless. Each iteration of the reporting – the article, blog post about the article and then the tweet about the blog post about the article about the presentation – FAILED to question the validity or even “truthiness” of the claims made by the original myth-maker. Each iteration leads to a greater impression that the information has been vetted and is factual.

I fear that Web 2.0 amplifies this false sense of certainty and accelerates the rate at which “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (attributed to Mark Twain, even if I have reason to suspect otherwise given how every clever quip seems attributed to Twain)

Just in time!

Salon features an incredibly timely article*, The Certainty Epidemic, by a medical doctor named Robert Burton. Despite a reliance on neuroscience that may represent an even greater false sense of certainty where none is warranted, the article (and book it touts) raises important issues for all of us, such as:

We must learn to substitute “I believe” for “I know.”

Watch Stephen Colbert’s stunning 2006 performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner where he lampooned President George W. Bush’s reliance on his gut, rather than on his head. [Warning: There may be a juvenile commercial prior to the actual speech. It’s the best clip I found to embed in this blog. You may also watch the video, sans-commercial, here.


Watch Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Entertainment | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com



* Note: The “science” used to make Burton’s claims should be taken with a grain of salt and runs the risk of detracting from the important issue of us professing certainty when we are merely stating an opinion.