19 November 2007

Where is the future?

Kansas State University's Digital Ethnography Project offers an array of thought-provoking videos, blogs, and more. If you have not been watching, you might learn exactly how different the world your students will graduate into is from the world you are teaching them to be prepared for.

- Ira Socol

17 November 2007

What part of this world do you want to leave your students out of?

While still fighting his own bizarre little war against the mobile phone in school, New York's "Education Mayor" ("scare quotes" added) Michael Bloomberg nevertheless wants to give mobile phones to students so they can be used to encourage education. Certainly a bizarre moment even for an American politician. "...focus group research showed that cellphones were the primary means of communication for many teenagers, and that reaching them through a concerted campaign of text messages or through the Internet was far more likely to be effective...But Mr. Bloomberg...made it clear that the phones would not be allowed in schools," stated the article in the relentlessly anti-technology New York Times.

But making fun of these two powerful New York institutions can only get us so far. I can laugh at them, or I can watch Sergei Brinn and company (the company is Google) introduce the future.

Watching this, I find myself forced to ask: Exactly how bad an educator must you be if you...
(1) Do not want your students to have this technology?
(2) Cannot figure out how to use the unbelievable information and communications capability of this device educationally?
(3) Do not appreciate that one more legendary drop out from an American university is using a technology all your training dismisses (You Tube) to explain how the future will be delivered via another technology all your training dismisses (the mobile phone)?

What part of this world, I want to ask all the technology resistant educators out there, do you want your students left out of?

Enough asked...

But I'll close with a lecture on possibility, and risk, and living life well... the celebrated Randy Pausch "Last Lecture" at Carnegie-Mellon University... because it is important, even though it will take up well more than an hour of your time.

- Ira Socol

07 November 2007

Fight the Future (Fight the Present)

About once a season The New York Times launches an attack on technology in education. That's expected. We'll open the paper and find one more reporter reporting that his or her old friends are constantly bothered by young people in the classroom, especially by young people who are presumptuous enough to carry with them the most common information and communication devices in the world today - computers and mobile phones.

So today's article - New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology - by "old" Columbia University journalism prof Samuel G. Freedman could not rate as a surprise. As is usual in these pieces, the old stories about pornography web sites and the old complaints that "students want to be entertained" (in this case coming from another old journalism prof - Michael Bugeja of Iowa State University) are rehashed, "heroic" stands of faculty against the demon technology are celebrated (in this case Roanoke College's Dr. Ali Nazemi), and the fondest wish for the old days is expressed - oh, education before computers and telephones, aeroplanes and those new-fangled movies. But, in the midst of this nonsense I was forced to come face-to-face with my own institution:

"Scott Carlin, an instructor of teacher interns at Michigan State University, advises his charges to forbid personal use of tech devices in the classroom. Of course he occasionally has to pause in his own lesson to make one of his graduate students stop scrolling through text messages.

'"If the students actually found some creative way to use a cellphone or a BlackBerry in a class demonstration, I’d be all for that," Mr. Carlin said in a recent interview, recalling his own years as a middle school and high school teacher. "Or if they could demonstrate how a chat room or
AOL instant messenger would help them present a project. But what I found in most cases is that it was just a fancy new way of passing notes."'

Here's what's frightening - Mr. Carlin is training new teacher interns - soon to be real teachers - and Mr. Carlin has no idea of how to help these new teachers use the ubiquitous technology of the present in their classrooms. This is frightening because it helps to explain why new teachers in the United States are rarely more "tech competent" in their classrooms than people who entered the profession thirty years ago. It is disappointing because if Mr. Carlin had simply entered into one of the many seminars and events held in his very own College of Education building, he might already be a very different kind of educator, and those who he is currently teaching might become different kind of educators.

The essential conservatism of American Education is a very powerful thing. In my years in higher education especially I have never seen any actual progressive bias. Oh sure, profs mouth support of socialism and equality, but that is all theory. Education in the United States is all about social reproduction - the intent is to make students as much like the teachers as possible - and this is carried out most aggressively through instructor behavior. In order to succeed students must learn to mimic the learning strategies which, and succeed in the learning environments that make their teachers comfortable. "I learned by reading big books and listening to boring lectures, so you must too."

The very idea that contemporary or future students might embrace other choices seems threatening not just to the pedagogy of instructors, but to their very understanding of the world - yet this seems odd to me. What we are really dealing with is a simple choice of what author Alan November calls "learning containers." In an article in Tech Learning this past summer he described his son's learning containers this way, "Dan has five basic tools, or digital containers, for managing his content, communicating with the world, and accessing his entertainment: blogs, his iPod, Instant Messenger, YouTube, and video games. Of course he also has a cell phone, which he often sneaks into school to text message me about how debate went that day. Otherwise, he has no access in school to the tools he loves to use. In fact, he has been taught that they have nothing to do with learning. At home he picks his applications and easily moves from one to another. He is self-taught, self-directed, and highly motivated. He is locally and globally connected."

Why can't students pick the "containers" most effective for them? Why can't teachers (be it Mr. Carlin, Dr. Freedman, or Dr. Bugeja) teach "container etiquette" for 21st Century technologies the way they do for 5th Century BC and 15th Century AD technologies? Why shouldn't we demand that anyone teaching in 2007 be able to successfully teach using the dominant technologies of the age?

Well, obviously... Mr. Carlin, Dr. Freedman, and Dr. Bugeja are all locked in the past - and whatever their personal merits they will likely be failed teachers - unable to truly prepare their students for the world into which they will graduate. Imagine a maths instructor who insisted on students using only sliderules - An English instructor insisting that students write with quill pens they had made themselves - A history instructor insisting on only memorization and verbal response (the old ancient Greek way) - we'd all say, "There are better ways! We've invented graphing calculators - factory-made pens - literacy!" Because, yes, if we are intelligent humans, and good teachers, we embrace the technology of the present and we anticipate the technology of the future. We use the tools which we, as humans, have created in order to learn better and do more.

We simply cannot accept anything less. We need to bring all these technologies into the schools and we must learn to use them effectively, to offer choices and opportunities - and thus, to offer true educational success to those not exactly like today's educators (for a great start, please download - free - Dr. Norbert Pachler's great research agenda on Mobile Learning - from the Institute of Education/University of London - pdf format).

Mr. Carlin is working in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the US, a state struggling to replace old-line manufacturing jobs with good jobs in the knowledge economy. Also a state with a 26% university completion rate, with an ugly high school drop out rate, with persistently troubling scores for minorities on standardized tests. Dr. Freedman is writing for a newspaper that has never quite figured out how to use the internet well and profitably. He teaches at a university far behind in offering its educational services to wider populations through technology. Perhaps the elitism behind their attitudes is not serving the cause of their employers well. Perhaps they should open their doors, head outside, and meet the world that is coming.

- Ira Socol

for a prior exchange between
The Times and me on this issue, click here.

Dr. Freedman writes back to me simply saying "
We'll just have to agree to disagree here." - I guess he is unable or unwilling to actually debate in the face of a challenge - or is it that I sent an email rather than a telegram?

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com.

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

01 November 2007

Comprehending What New Technology Does

(Originally written as a response to a display of "favorite educational web sites" by graduate students - many of which were interesting, but most of which also seemed to simply reproduce what schools have 'always' done - the way PowerPoint simply mimics the old 'Film-Strip" projectors of the 1960s. I received little response from that audience to this challenge, so I thought I would offer it here...)

In January 1983 Apple Computer released the “Lisa” – the very first commercially available computer to use a “GUI” or mouse and to operate via on-screen “windows.” The Lisa allowed users to draw with the computer. It featured calculators that looked like calculators with buttons which could be pushed and word-processing via “LisaWrite Paper” or “LisaPad Paper,” which looked – for the first time – as if the user was typing on a sheet of paper.

For the first time a computer started without a “command prompt.” For the first time people were introduced to concepts such as “mouse,” “click,” “folder,” “drop-down menu,” “desktop,” and “multiple applications.” The Lisa could even produce graphical output, pushing the dot-matrix printers of the era beyond their limits.

The Lisa bombed in the marketplace. It was not just the cost, about 40% higher than the price of an IBM-PC of the time (or up to over $20,000 in 2007 money), but a simpler problem – the Lisa did things that no one had yet imagined doing. It shifted functions humans then did with pencils and rapidographs, early calculators and IBM Selectrics, Wite-Out and file folders, to the computer.[1] But in doing so, it changed how every one of these functions were understood, and it changed the nature of expertise in a hundred fields of human endeavor.

It is important to remember that personal computers were not new in 1984. Offices and even homes were filled with IBM PCs and Apple IIs. But these computers were simple improvements on already existing office machines. They might mimic mainframe systems in data management, or they might mimic the standard secretarial typewriter, or they might be the fastest adding machine around, but they did nothing really new, nor did they simplify anything. Only the most advanced, the most senior personnel, were granted the complex training required to move up to work on these machines. Essentially, they reinforced office and even educational hierarchies.

As I said, the Lisa failed. The very ideas were mocked. Why would someone want 16, or even four, applications open at the same time? (“Who could pay attention to that?”) Why would you want to type on this complicated computer and make changes with mouse clicks? (“It will encourage laziness, people will write before they think.”) And how would you use that “mouse-thing” anyway? You would have to take your right-hand away from the keyboard, which would slow down typing.

It was such a failure that when Apple introduced the Macintosh 18 months later a number of Lisa’s features had been pulled. Multi-tasking was gone, and keyboard “shortcuts” had been introduced to reduce mouse reliance.

This lack of ability to see change in function within future technology remains an issue a quarter century later. When technology is used in most American schools today, it only very occasionally looks toward new forms of cognition and learning – social networking implications for example, language learning sites which break through physical isolation. Far more often it simply reproduces what educators already believe –that IBM PC thought structure – the same, just a bit “better” and faster. So we see classroom quizzes, but better, and video libraries, but easier, and typing, but more efficient. In other words technology used to maintain power structures and cognitive processes as they are.

I would argue that when we use technology in these conservative forms we actually move our students backwards. Not only do we not teach them to find their way in the future, we teach them that the technological world of today and tomorrow will not help them. If I still fail on digital quizzes I am without hope. If all this technology can not help me read and process, I may as well give up right now.

“Lets imagine a country which we will call Foobar, where reading and writing don’t exist, but which despite this has managed to develop a sophisticated culture of science, the arts, philosophy and commerce. A bit of a stretch I know, but not entirely inconceivable. All cultural transmission in such a society would take place by oral means and a good memory would undoubtedly be an invaluable asset. Education would probably consist of much rote learning and place a high value on memory work. Now imagine what the impact on such a society and in particular on its education system might be when someone finally invents the pen. Well, undoubtedly a politician somewhere will pound a table and insist that we need a ‘pen in every classroom’. An education administrator will say ‘no, we should have a pen room where children can go once a week to learn how to use these pens’. So, eventually schools will all have pens and teachers will have to figure out how to make use of them. The Foobarian Department of Education will ponder the issue. They will eventually write a ‘pen’ curriculum and issue guidelines on how the ‘pen’ may be used to support memory work and rote-learning in schools.”[2] Ken Jennings of Trinity College wrote this in 2004, pointing out that the connection to computers “is obvious.” He goes on to say, “What doesn’t seem to make much sense is to try to incorporate computers into the education system in a way which does not allow for some change in either the ‘what we do’ or the ‘how we do it’.”

This, to me, is the challenge. If we do not understand that technology – every technology – has a fundamental impact on cognition and learning, we are missing the point entirely. Gutenberg’s 15th Century technology changed how people learned and how they saw the world. So did the Edison/Lumiere film technology of the 19th Century: once British audiences saw film of the Boer War they were never the same again – never thought in the same patterns, and never accepted learning in quite the same way. Marconi altered this again, providing a radical new idea of immediacy and authenticity. And this has proceeded with every technological leap.

Educators in particular have always struggled with this. In the late 19th Century they worried that students would not be able to distinguish between “literature” and the stuff of “dime novels” (original paperback popular fiction). In the early 20th Century they were sure their youngsters could not distinguish between reality and cinema. Then that radio was wasting their time and destroying their imagination. In 1984 multi-tasking on a computer was cognitive overload and editing on a computer made one lazy. And we hear all these threats, and more, today.

The goal, this, in my mind, is not in pandering to these future fears, but in learning to force schools and educators into a place where they stop restricting the potential of their students because of their own discomfort with the world as it exists.

- Ira Socol

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4BlmsN4q2I&mode=related&search=

[2] Jennings, K. Music Technology in Irish Second Level Education - A Foobarian Approach. Journal of Music in Ireland. (pages in press) July/August 2004