mixing and remixing to find a balance….
A recent New York Times article, “Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime,” has gotten me thinking a lot about the effects of constant, immediate access to media and information. As more and more people fill downtime by pulling out their smart phones to make a call, send a text, or check their e-mail, Twitter, or Facebook accounts, this habit of filling the gaps between activities is having an unexpected negative effect on our brains: “when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.”
As an educator at a school with a one-to-one laptop program, I see this as adding another layer to the discussion about the impact of ubiquitous digital access on teaching and learning. Multitasking, distraction, socialization, cognitive development – all issues to keep in mind as we continue to look for effective, even transformational, ways to harness the technologies of the 21st Century while not losing sight of the fact that balance is crucial.
I’ve been rereading Heidi Hayes Jacob’s thoughts on the importance of essential questions in curriculum development. We’re currently in the throes of curriculum mapping at my school, so I was originally approaching the ideas from the perspective of my role as Computer Science department head.
As I read, however, I’ve realized that the points she makes are just as relevant if I don my other cap of technology director.
I’ve long had concerns about how schools have tended to approach technology. There has often seemed to be a buy-first, ask-questions-later mentality driving the process. I worry when schools invest in hardware, software, and infrastructure without a clear sense of how it’s going to be used or how it’s going to be supported. I’m not saying that everything needs to be planned ahead of time – the availability of the tools can certainly enable and inspire creative uses – but without thoughtful goals related to learning and teaching, educational technology so often seems to stop at word processing and e-mail.
With this in mind, I thought it would be a useful and interesting exercise to think about some essential questions related technology use in education. In no particular order:
- At what age should student computer use begin in school? At what age is one-to-one appropriate?
- Which computing platform(s) and why?
- Is technology additive, instrumental, or transformational?
- Is it important for schools to be “cutting edge”?
- What skills should all students be learning? What role does technology play?
- What would be the benefits of a computer programming requirement for all students? At what age should it begin?
- To draw from a recent post by Sylvia Martinez, how can technology enable students to Create?
- How do electronic communication and collaboration impact teaching and learning?
- To filter or not to filter?
- How do we tap the online tools students already use to create learning opportunities?
- Social networks as learning networks: How do we make it happen?
Well, that’s a start. I hope others come up with more.
We’re currently using personalized wikispaces and edublogs at my school. While we’re getting more and more folks interested and on board, the handling of media on the sites is raising some challenges. For example, some uses are uploading photos (often huge, unoptimized photos) directly to their wikis and blogs while others prefer to link to images in their personal flickr accounts, but the free accounts sometimes limit what they can do.
So, it occurred to me that it might be useful to pay for a single pro flickr account (or one per division, or…?) with a single login to be shared by all faculty. I ran this by the tech department to look for holes in the logic, but I figured I’d tap the Edusphere to see if anyone had any thoughts, ideas, suggestions, cautions, or alternatives to offer.
Here’s what we’ve come up with so far:
- It’s inexpensive.
- Flickr is already a familiar tool.
- Unlimited storage, bandwidth, etc.
- It’s easy to use.
- This would be a good way to consolidate and archive school-related images.
- It offers simple image editing capabilities.
- Teachers would share a single login.
- Could students have access as well?
- Does it raise privacy/copyright issues?
- Do the flickr terms of service allow this type of shared use?
- With many users, would it become a chaotic mess?
What are we missing? Any and all suggestions are welcome.
And all of this of course leads to the question of the best way to handle audio and video, so please feel free to offer ideas for that as well.
While I intellectually understood many of the differences between technology use in public and private schools, having the opportunity to attend EduCon 2.0 allowed me to experience those differences at a more visceral level. The conference was filled with smart, passionate, innovative educators from public schools across the nation, many of whom have to spend ridiculous amounts of time and energy avoiding, or leaping over, bureaucratic, financial, and technical barriers.
At one point I had one of those Ah-Ha moments in which you realize the blatantly obvious. Technology use in a well-established, well-funded, traditional independent schools is generally additive rather than transformational because it can be. By most standards schools like mine are already successful. Most of our students get a balanced education, graduate from high school, and go on to college – and many go to the “good” colleges they’re supposed to.
Over the course of the conference I began to think of this as the If College versus Which College divide. As many public schools are struggling to find ways just to get kids to graduate, their private school counterparts have the luxury to focus on getting their students into the right colleges (and fortunately more and more schools seem to understand that “right” has more to do with fit than status).
In which context is radical change most needed and technology most likely to be truly transformational?
As EduCon 2.0 wraps up, my head is spinning, as it usually does at a great conference. I’ll try to carve out time over the next few days to reflect on my experiences. The first day was actually the preconference, where the early arrivers had the opportunity to visit SLA and hang out with each other. I met some great folks and had a chance to spend time with Chris Lehmann and talk to him about SLA. He and this place are impressive. What a great school in so many ways.
That said, I have to say it was interesting to see that what’s going on in the classrooms was not so different from what happens in other good classrooms I’ve spent time in over the years. I guess I was half-expecting to find Utopian classrooms of totally rapt students, master teachers, ground-breaking innovation, and technology-rich, student-centered lessons. I did see some of that, but I mostly saw passionate teachers of various abilities using a variety of progressive and traditional approaches to reach large classes of generally engaged students, many of whom were on task and some of whom were on Facebook. In other words, I saw the reality of most good schools. This is not meant as a criticism at all but only as an observation of my own preconceptions.
More to come.
Rather than talk about not writing, I’m just going to write….
Going to EduCon 2.0 at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia tomorrow. Chris Lehman was our virtual keynote speaker at the NEIT 2007 conference at Mohonk this year. I was incredibly impressed by what he had to say about progressive educations, student empowerment, and project-based learning, so I’m very exited to visit his school. And the conversations that are planned look great.
We’re in the throes of preparing for a technology evaluation at my school. More on that later.
Still twittering since the NEIT conference, but I’m still mostly a lurker. We’ll see if I get sucked in.
I’ve been thinking about our technology in preparation for a Parent Association meeting, and I figured this would be a good opportunity to start writing here again. As I began this process, I had to admit that I’m not as involved in the Lower School curriculum as I would like to be and, frankly, ought to be. On the other hand, I’ve focused a lot on bringing Smartboards into the LS classrooms because I really think that’s where they are used in the most creative and constructivist ways.
In the LS, computer work is lab and classroom-centered. Instruction is a mix of skills training and content-related project work. Students learn word processing to practice writing skills and keyboarding and as a way to publish their poetry, stories, and reports. They use programs like MediaBlender, KidPix, Neighborhood Mapmaker Timeliner, Graph Club, and Inspiration to create projects and presentations in Social Studies and Science. MS Excel and programs such as MathBlaster help students explore concepts in Math. I have had little involvement in the development of these units; the curriculum was mostly in place when I arrived, and it seems to be working well.
The key now is to look at the entire K-12 Computer Science curriculum as a whole. We are currently in the process of mapping curricula here, so that should help the department examine what we are doing across the three divisions. There is already a great deal of dialog and coordination between the Middle and Upper Schools, but that needs to be carried into the lower grades as well.
From a response I wrote today on the NYCIST listserv:
I find it so interesting how in some ways we all have such similar schools and in other ways our experiences are so, so different. There are schools that have dumped Dell and would never go back; other schools have nothing but praise for them. Some schools swear by HP, others by IBM, others by Apple. You find it more cost effective not to cover your iBooks, and we couldn’t possible survive without a 4-year warranty on our laptops. We get warranty repair on some 10 to 20 iBooks/MacBooks and on a similar number of Dell notebooks every week, and that’s not even including the failed A/C adapters that are also replaced under warranty. Granted, our situation is different as a one-to-one school with a parent-buy model, but I can’t imagine our managing the repair process if we didn’t have coverage for the full active life of the machines.
Vive la difference!
At the last NYCIST meeting, someone began a thought with, “We all accept that curriculum should drive technology use and not the other way around.” Heads nodded in agreement, and I found myself nodding along out of habit. He was only stating what for so long has been the bedrock of educational technology theory, especially in traditional independent schools. We’re not trying to change what you do; we’re just giving you new tools to add to you kit.
I’m sure I’ve said those very words in the past, but lately I’ve had the sense that the ground is starting to shift under our feet. Maybe we’re finally entering an age in which technology is developing in ways that can make it truly transformational for education. In certain subject areas, technology clearly does have a direct effect on curriculum. Computer Science, certainly. Science, sure. I could probably find examples from each subject, but perhaps the conversation we should really be having is the one about how technology affects pedagogy – not necessarily what we teach, but how we teach it.
The current buzz is the need to teach students 21st Century Skills. Time magazine even did a cover story on How to Build a Student for the 21st Century. But what exactly are those skills? They are not computer skills per se but are instead the skills required to stay afloat in a technology-rich, information-driven, global economy/community.
So it’s not about content and curriculum; it’s about managing time and information and relationships. Students need to learn to communicate and collaborate and innovate and connect and think critically, creatively, and holistically. They need to learn to access the incredible resources that technology makes available, which means that schools need give students the opportunity and training to tap into those resources.
Is the traditional classroom giving students the chance to learn these skills? Even at one-to-one schools like mine are we taking advantage of the incredible opportunity to turn learning into something more vibrant and participatory? How do we do make time for more exploration in learning and still continue to build the foundation of core knowledge that students need? What does the school of the future look like?
I visited the Barnes Foundation collection in Merion, PA last week. What an amazing place (and a fascinating controversy)! Barnes created his foundation as a school to educate people from all walks of life about art. He believed that art could change lives since, in the end, “art and life are inseparable.” It was not his goal to teach people the craft of painting ( “for that would be like teaching an injured person how to scream”) but to guide them to learn how to see.
I suppose that’s really the goal all good teaching — helping our students learn how to see. To see threads, connections, possibilities, and beauty in the world around them. To spot valid arguments and faulty premises. To separate fact from opinion, evidence from bias. To focus on the important details while still keeping the big picture in sight.
At one point in the audio tour through the Barnes galleries, the narrator described Cezanne’s impact on Picasso, explaining that Picasso did not imitate Cezanne’s work but “reworked its influences into his own unique forms.” Fast forward to 2006, and that same remark could describe what’s happening with blogging and the read/write web. Reading, writing, mixing, remixing. Learn from what others are doing, think about it, analyze it, synthesize it, internalize it, and go write about it.
Ultimately, though, it’s not about the product; it’s about the act of engaging in the process, of looking at what others are doing and then putting brush to canvas.