In a great editorial in the July/August issue of Edutopia, James Daly brings home a wonderfully salient point, “The new reality is that the public-education system is no longer the only, or the paramount, place where we go to learn.” Schools have existed for decades in a sort of oblivion while the society around them have traveled down a completely different path for communication, knowledge gathering and sharing, and the publication of discovery and innovation. Daly is not exaggerating when he describes it this way, “They [our schools] continued to plod on gamely, passing out paper-based textbook after paper-based textbook, keeping their rooms and halls nearly free of the technology saturating their students’ lives.
According to Peter Senge, “the rationale for any strategy for building a learning organization revolves around the premise that such organizations will produce dramatically improved results.” Are our schools learning organizations or are they repositories for that which is already learned – and determined to be “necessary” for students to learn. The dichotomy seems to be that learning isn’t an underlying reason for education today – supported by an endless march toward standardizing all learning in the system and measuring it to make sure that everyone meets the least common denominator expectations of the system.
Technology has come in and “flattened the world,” to borrow from Thomas L. Friedman, but had little effect in our educational systems. There are pockets of educational innovation, supported or driven by technology, that swirl in a tiny nexus here and there. Edutopia and the GLEF Learning Interchange (both part of The George Lucas Educational Foundation) do a wonderful job of highlighting many of these, but they still remain the rare exception.
When technology has been brought into the classroom, more often than not it has been to merely do what is already being done, just a little differently. Smart boards, for instance, have made their way into classrooms, but for the most part are not changing things – they merely are the new chalkboard where children go to prove they have learned a mathematical or scientific formula. Teachers occasionally use slide show software such as PowerPoint or Keynote to project their lecture notes onto a screen. You might argue that both of these simple examples are the “changing” of education, after all the teacher can print the students math computations for them to evaluate or the slide show can be printed for students to review later. Fine, but is that really “change” or innovation, or more importantly, is that redefining the educational process? No. That is why technology isn’t changing education, because our thinking about education hasn’t and isn’t changing. Technology should already have empowered us to rethink the educational process and invent an entirely new system that supports the ways in which people (including our children) now learn.
Jack Welch says, “You can’t behave in a calm, rational manner; you’ve got to be out there on the lunatic fringe.” (thanks to Tom Peters for the quote) Education has throughout history been a calm, rational endeavor where the “learner” enters a room and is told what is important by the “learned” and then asked to repeat this “learning” at some later point in time. This model of the “learned” providing information to the “learner” is totally out of sync with the daily (outside of schools) life experience of today’s students. A prime example of the out of step relationship between education and society/technology was detailed in an article in the New York Times. Samuel G. Freedman recounted the antics of Professor Ali Nazemi, a professor at Roanoke College and suggested his cell phone smashing drama should earn him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Freedman suggests that education is in a war with technology, “Their perpetual war of attrition with defiantly inattentive students has escalated from the quaint pursuits of pigtail-pulling, spitball-lobbing and notebook-doodling to a high-tech arsenal of laptops, cellphones, BlackBerries and the like.”
The entire process of brining technology and formal education together hasn’t worked, or maybe even happened. There has been a mad rush to fill our schools with computers and to connect them to the Internet. Little attention has been paid to digital cameras, digital camcorders, software that can loose creative spirits in students, scanners, and other peripherals that can make those chained desktops become learning tools. The computers are locked away in a lab, they can’t travel, they can’t bring their power to the real learning opportunities, most of which exist outside of the lab, the classroom, the school itself. Why? Because knowledge and the perceived tools of knowledge have to remain within the confines and management of the “learned.”
We are well aware of the hue and cry of those who feel that computers are more likely to bring unsavory elements or even danger into our learning institutions. The surprising thing is that they are right – but only because there is an unspoken refusal to include, within the educational experience, instruction and leadership in appropriate digital citizenship behavior. (Caveat: there is much debate about the term “digital citizen” and its derivatives, but to date I haven’t seen a better term so I use it with a mental caution that it may not be as accurate as I would like, maybe I should call it “digital behavior.”) For technology to be the power in learning it can be, our mindsets about how it is situated there must change.
Stephen Downes offers an equation for digital behavior, “literacy” + “safety ” + “etiquette” + “learning strategies” + “networking”. The key connection in this conversation is “safety” and its relationship to technology in the learning environment. Again, the hue and cry of the naysayers is accurate. We do not want to bring a potential for danger into our classrooms or learning institutions. Of course they have, for the most part, been successful in using this argument to keep technology out of the learning process. However, those advocates of redesigning learning environments that are supported or driven by technology must begin to employ the same thinking that has driven the rest of the digital society. Technology using and supporting educators need to stop trying to reinvent what is already working. Why do we need a specialized space to host dialogues or videos or podcasts when we have blogs, YouTube, and iTunes as a means to distribute and facilitate all of these things. But “YouTube isn’t secure and we certainly don’t want students wandering through some of what exists there” – fine, agreed, so put pressure on Google to provide a safe/secure space to legitimate educational outlets for the presentation of both student and teacher/professor created video that supports the educational process. The same strategy should be employed at web venues such as WordPress, demand a safe/secure space for education to be set free. Many wiki spaces already provide this type of safety and iTunes already provides access to many universities education presentation and class offerings – here is a great place to begin exploring this possibility.
Technology can’t change education because education resists being changed. We have a lot invested in the way we do learning and change is not comfortable – however, society continues, by its actions, to demand that we develop a new concept of what a learning institution is, and what it looks like, and how we go about learning with it. Until that happens technology will not change education – it will remain in opposition to the status quo.