From the Editor’s Desk: Strap in, shut up, and hold on!

The above has always struck me as one of the more offensive of bumper stickers – inevitably it sits on the back of some loud American muscle car or pickup, driven by a guy with an overstated sense of his own importance and machismo (yeah, it’s generally a guy). But, interestingly, it’s a phrase which could be viewed as spewing from the mouths of education technology integration specialists all over the place. And the reaction from the teacher rank and file usually is one of the following …

Learning Curve

  • Oh, no, not another learning curve!
  • Oh, no, not another paradigm shift!
  • Oh, no, not another bleeding edge!
  • [Is it time for me to retire?] 😉
As I’ve observed in past contributions to this space, I’m quite sympathetic with a lot of teachers who simply can’t keep up, and, as a result, won’t. The trick (or the goal) for them is to ignore the day-to-day musings, to determine exactly what’s needed, valuable, and accessible down the road. After all, there are some important trends which will outlast the folks bleeding at the edge.
It’s easy to forget in the trivialized world of pinned memes, political rants, and pictures of cute cats that, in fact, the true paradigm shift (the one to which we should all really attend) is simple connection and collaboration across space and time. That shift has transcended an incredible number of tools, and has been steadily mounting for over 30 years. The overwhelming majority of Americans woke up about 2-3 years ago and noticed there was some advantage to online connections. But, thanks to Facebook and Twitter (and the mass of users using them), the teaching and learning implications of them have largely been squandered.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t follow John Callipari on Twitter, or keep up with pictures of that favorite nephew and his new baby daughter on Facebook. After all, we have every right to assume that social networking should be, well, social, and definitely entertaining. (Especially since TV programming has largely quit being so. Maybe that’s just me!) But as educators, we have a responsibility to determine exactly what can support learning, and what best reflects the real shifts which change who we are and what we do. Here’s my short list:
  1. Information access. It isn’t difficult to argue that the simple act of accessing virtually all of human knowledge instantly is important. It has redefined what the word “knowledge” means, and how we, as humans, exhibit and leverage it.
  2. Connection and collaboration instantly across space and time is on that list too, especially as it empowers us to learn and construct knowledge together.
Something else technology has managed to do is to automate the more mundane of our learning responsibilities. A machine can teach us simple drill-and-practice skills quite well, which is why Arthur C. Clark was famously quoted as saying “…Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!…” – he wasn’t saying that teachers should go away, he was saying that the importance of teachers should not be trivialized by allowing them to train for simple learning tasks which could be handled by machines. Of course, “programmed instruction” is a discipline that has existed for a great deal longer than the machines we now leverage to handle such (the iPad apps, “intelligent classroom tools,” online tutorials, etc.).
I’ll leave that arena for other minds. My interests have always been with creativity, problem-solving, learning to be an effective citizen/professional/parent/etc. Those learning goals are way too messy, and have too much of a social component, to ever be automated.internet
So, where does that leave us? What tools support the shifts above?
  1. The Internet. It seems pretty obvious and trivial to say it, but it’s also easy to forget that the masses of personal devices/tablets, and the apps and other activities they support, are a direct result of open access to information. We should experience (and teach) that information stream directly. “Foursquare” is a toy with a short shelf life, whereas integrating the world of location and geography with social/political/cultural context, through online maps and their integration with linked data, is a powerful learning idea. (The good news is, all you need is a smart phone with a browser!)
  2. Online Collaboration. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. are very popular platforms, but the processes they represent, in support of collaborating and constructing knowledge online, are facilitated by hundreds of thousands of other tools. Frankly, the popular ones above exist mostly for commerce and entertainment. As a teacher, we have a responsibility to build online collaborative learning experiences which are safer and less embedded in the larger adult social context. Get to know safe alternative platforms which support this work, use them yourself, and demand that your students do so too.  In our district these platforms include Fayette’s iSchool, Edmodo, and the cluster of tools under Office365.
The bad news, of course, is that focusing on a very short list of general tools removes a lot of the “Gee whiz!” factor that bleeding edge apps and devices, and massively-popular social sites, provide. But for many of us, the good news is that life just got a whole lot simpler.
We can’t avoid that the majority of education is messy, requiring our active participation and planning, and we most certainly cannot expect education technology to change that (unless, of course, you are ready to embrace the implication of Mr. Clarks’ remark!). Our task as educators may be simple, but it’s not easy. “Simple, but not easy,” could really describe the teaching profession in general. Technology use isn’t any different.
So, focus on the big picture, and the big tools, and ignore the rest. Then, strap in, and hold on!

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