Self-described Ed Tech expert Angela Maiers just returned from a 3-day authorspeak Conference in Indianapolis. In total, ninety-nine education-related authors gathered to hear innovation-expert Daniel Pink give the keynote. They broke into normal conferency sessions to discuss 10 different “idea strands.” But they also blogged, tweeted, and did whatever ed-tech nuts do to communicate internationally with 12.1 million other people, mainly educators. Techies keep track of such numbers. Together they talked, shared their books, stories and work, and modeled techniques for e-teaching right there on the spot.
Interestingly, the 10 “idea strands” were education’s most hardy perennials – assessment, special populations, instruction, leadership, school improvement. The usual.
The “21st-century skills” strand has been a hot topic since the late 1980s. Big deal.
But Maier makes the point that for all the talk about technology’s impact on the classroom, educators and policy-makers pay little attention to what’s barreling down at us from the e-horizon. Who knew smart phones were coming? And what happens when kids can learn whatever they want, on the go? Most adults past a certain age didn’t grow up reaching for a computer instead of a map, a recipe book or a dictionary. These folks – including me – automatically try to fit new technologies into our existing mental framework for teaching and learning. Square mindset in a round portal.
Maiers says, “We make millions of dollars of stupid decisions, because the decisions are related to technology and not to learning. The people making decisions about school technology and how to use it are not themselves digital learners. We aren’t looking at impact of the new technologies on the web itself. We tell teachers to bring these devices into their classes without having a clear idea of what’s happening out in a very dynamic, dramatic landscape.”
So districts spend big bucks for shipments of i-pads, shiny new computer labs or Maiers’ favorite bete noir, whiteboards.
“The number one trend in learning is the rise of mobile. Mobile means ‘on the move.’ Now learning can take place anywhere, anytime. But we buy these expensive, 300-pound things (whiteboards) and mount them on the wall. They are archaic dinosaurs designed to deliver content – glorified monitors. They are not transforming learning.” Mostly, teachers use them as tools for stand-and-deliver instruction, just like they would use a periodic chart or show a movie. However shiny, this is passive learning.
Today, Maiers says, “computing is ubiquitous. You don’t go to a pencil lab. You carry the pencil with you. As educators, we need to help kids adapt to the ubiquity of digital learning. This is not about technology. It’s about being fluent with multiple tool sets. Sometimes the best tool is a pencil. And if you took my post-it notes away, I would be crazed. But when I forget my phone, I limit my ability to participate as a learner.”
The tools – the hard and software – are only part of the e-changes. Consider the kids. Right now virtually every kid has a mobile device in his pocket. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, a town of distilled poverty where I consult, the kids all have phones.
Even phones that are not “smart” are powerful portals to the larger world. Student learning isn’t dependent on teachers or textbooks; they can always text someone for an answer. Phones connect kids to networks of flesh-and-blood pals. Ubiquitous information feeds kids’ interests in cars, music, politics.
Granted, the phones are fabulously annoying to the adults. Way too many kids use phones to stay connected to anything but the world of school, distracting everyone from the work at hand. It’s hard enough to grab kids’ TV-trained, 4-second attention span without competing with texting under the desk. Sharing test answers across the school and within the classroom is now almost impossible to stop. Online bullying is a new social disease.
But these things aren’t going away. Maiers says, “We put these devices in kids’ hands and teach them no competencies. Those most at risk of being influenced are those who most need to know how to receive information.”
Allow me to jump back into my own comfort zone for a moment. We need to collaborate WITH the kids to figure out how adults, kids and smart phones are going to live together in peace. Until we do that, those phones are just AK-47s in kids’ fight for adolescent freedom. The fight is developmentally appropriate, but technology changes the rules of engagement. Without the kids’ participation, we’ll never successfully create moral or social codes regarding phone use in public and at school.
Besides, those phones could be powerful learning tools. Maybe. At least, Maiers insists, the issue demands study.
She recommends starting with the Horizon report. Since 2002, a consortia of thinkers has studied the e-landscape, forecasting what will be available in one year, three years, and even into the sci-fi land of five years from now. This year their report focused on education. Their examples and mindset skew towards higher education. But if the goal of K-12 is success in college and post-secondary training, now is when all educators need to prepare for a technological future.
But what does it mean to be a digital learner anyway? I thought I knew. Next week we’ll return to Maiers and her colleagues to see how they describe it.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.