Alan November hosts one of the best education conferences out there. If you can only make one conference, this is the one to go to. It’s big enough to draw fantastic keynoters like Yong Zhao and David Weinberger as well as a terrific slate of presenters–people like Tom Barrett, Ewan McIntosh, Kathy Cassidy, Alec Couros, Darren Kuropatwa. And it’s small enough to allow for some serious professional networking. I go every year for these but also for the way I can get a read on where the conversations in education are going. There’s a whole lot of intellectual horsepower and professional experience in the room and you can be pretty sure what’s being said here will be heard later in classrooms everywhere.
My one big takeaway? You can feel the conversations moving from talking about tech, as it has over the past couple years, to talking about people. Every keynote I saw, every session I attended, every conversation I had, came down to this.
Actually, you could see this coming three years ago, when I drew this graphic at BLC10:
We’ve moved well into the discussion of relationships (people). That’s good news. More interestingly, those things we did not want to talk about back then are now on the table.
If my observation that the curve of adoption in educational technology is about 5 years wide is correct, we can expect to see these in general practice in another three years or so. (When I first drew the graphic below, I thought the movement of ideas was constant. I now think it slows down as you move to the right and that the curve might be a little wider.)
Question: What if for every $1 we invested in educational technology we invested $2 on professional development? The time and money are actually not hard to find. The will to do so is. And there’s an awful lot of great teaching you can do with next to no technology. As everyone scrambles towards 1:1 programs, we need to be extra mindful that good pedagogy trumps technology every time.
Education still has it the other way around…for the moment. But it was good to hear that’s changing in the presentations and conversations at Alan November’s fantastic Building Learning Communities conference in Boston last week. I’ve noticed in general that the talk in education is moving from what’s the newest app/device to richer conversations about purpose.
These are themes I heard bubbling up in almost every session I attended at BLC this year. Taken together, we see new education emerging as something that is socially constructed–another idea the ancients stole from us.
Learning is public (pink bubbles)
- learning is no longer a private transaction, but happens in the open; think Reddit
- learning is about networking as much or more than about knowing things, a reflection of the idea that learning is not about knowledge transfer but about socially constructing knowledge; it also reflects a shift from an absolutist to a nuanced view of knowledge; again, this idea itself is nothing new, but it is new to see the conversation entering the mainstream
- education’s traditionally a self-referential position is looking anachronistic; generally speaking, education is a conservative, not innovative, system and schools will find inspiration and best practices outside
Learning is about questions, not answers (blue bubbles)
- a collection of ideas centered on the idea that learning is generative and that the engine of education is questions, not answers; or maybe better put, more learning happens through asking good questions than happens through learning correct answers; though we might call this new learning, it’s really a very old way of learning
Students are participants (purple bubble)
- if we believe that knowledge is socially constructed, as the conversations at BLC suggest we do, then we must see students as participants in the conversation, otherwise we literally have no knowledge; this is both a synthesis and a condition of the ideas above;
- there is a moral dimension connected to ideas of identity and self-actualization; though most of our students are not at the age of majority, they still have rights that inhere as human beings, namely ownership of their learning and indeed of knowledge, knowledge which has been–perhaps immorally?–withheld and meted out
John Seely Brown argues that we are moving from a model where knowledge is seen as an object one person gives to another, to a model where knowledge is socially constructed. If he’s right, and I think he is, then we must bring the students into the discussion; no discussion, no knowledge!
Likewise with teachers at conferences. As attendees, they ought to have a hand in making knowledge. I’ve enjoyed the conferences I’ve been to in the past, but I think we can do more that just listen and talk–or consume knowledge. Indeed, I think we–as a profession–are at a point where we have an obligation to produce something coming out of a meeting where we put lots of brainpower and money in one room.
I’m at the Apple Distinguished Educator 2013 Institute in Austin, Texas. This is the first large conference I’ve been to where the organizers have pulled together the resources to make making possible. Everyone here will go home having created some original content (knowledge) shared with the ADE community. Indeed, that is the purpose of the event.
Apple is doing this right and it’s setting a new benchmark for conferences.
I’m chewing on this idea of the pervasive data layer that Dropbox is pushing and what might be possible if we move off the file-centric way we currently work. I have a hunch we might be able to change the way we teach and learn in schools.
Right now, student work comes in the form of assignments, discrete objects, that are individually assessed. At the end of the year we have collections of files–Word or Google docs, for example–that represent each student’s learning (and indirectly, the teacher’s teaching.) Learning, however, isn’t an aggregate of anything; it’s a process, something smoother, homogenous and ongoing. I wonder if we could better represent that with an app.
Suppose each student has an app (maybe several apps for different subjects) that teachers can install on their smartphones and that app is connected to the student’s Datastore, to use Dropbox’s term. The way to picture this is to think of an app like RunKeeper and then ask, “What if this were ChemistryKeeper?” I’m not sure exactly what that would look like when we opened the app, but we can imagine it could show richer, more nuanced data about student understanding and skill development than any single assignment or even collection of assignments could. This would, of course, be something different from a grade book that merely reports current marks and grade point averages. RunKeeper, for example, records my time and distance–analogous to grades–but also lets me add comments and photos which add a great deal of contextual information and it gives me interpretation of my performance in the form of statistical analyses. Most importantly, it shows current state, not snapshots of the past.
What bothers me about assignment-based work in schools is that assignments tend to become ends in themselves. Would an “app of me” change this for the better? Can we move away from file-centric work?
Trans app ubiquity! That’s a mouthful from Dropbox, the company that’s planning to move us off the file-centric way of going about our business. You can read about Dropbox’s game plan here. But, the short story is Dropbox has created something called Datastores, places where an app can write data that can be read later from another device. There would be no sensation of opening a file as such–you just pick up where you left off, making Dropbax a “pervasive data layer.” Let’s thank Steve Jobs for getting this going with the iOS.
I love the idea of the pervasive data layer. It means a much more flexible and seamless connection to the things I need to do my work. I get a taste of it with Google Apps, but the full flavour with the Reminders app. I’ve tried a slew of other to-do apps, some with amazingly handsome design, but I keep coming back to (the unfairly maligned) Reminders because what I write on one device–my iPhone, iPad or Mac Air–is just there on the other two. Indeed, I can’t think of another app that works so seamlessly. I value that above aesthetics and some other bells and whistles.
Insitutionally, however, the file-centric metaphor is amazingly hard or kick: we’ve just been filing things either in cabinets or directory trees for too long. Our attachment to files is the reason it’s hard fo students and teachers to move to working on the iPad or to Google Apps or even to the idea of collaboratively held documents. It’s the reason IT departments have a hard time letting go of their networks and moving to the cloud.
And arguably, the need to put files in a specific location–in a filing caninet in a classroom or a server on an intranet–is the reason we’re stuck inside a building for most of our formal edcuation. Does pervasive data mean we can break free of brick-and-mortar?
A thought experiment:
Suppose you’re a high school physics teacher and Einstein, at the peak of his career, is placed in your class, only you don’t know who he is. And, for whatever reason, he is happy to coast along and remain anonymous. You teach your class as usual and, of course, Einstein comes out with top marks at the end of the year. Yet, he’s learned nothing.
I know I’ve had similar experiences in my class with students who are, momentarily at least, Einsteins; I know I was like that in some of my classes back in the day. I was happy to sit back and just get the grades. But I wasn’t learning. I used easy grades as a way to buy time for daydreaming or getting up to mischief with my buddies.
So, what I’m looking for in an assessment tool is a way to collect affective data; that is, I want to assess the mood of my students in class and on particular assignments. I want to know if they were challenged, bored, confused, excited, exhausted and so on. As a teacher, that is valuable feedback for my teaching.
I’ll give this a try next year–I can ask them to add a hashtag or something to work they hand in. But I think this can be built into an app that gives more subtlety and some additional data, something like Expereal.
Back in November, in a post I wrote called “I don’t want to join your (stinkin’) network,” I was reaching for the idea that at last out technology is sufficiently advanced that we can talk about making it adapt to us, instead of the other way around. Take a look inside any coffee shop near a university and you’ll see it’s packed with students, partly for the free wifi, to be sure, but also because coffee shops, fast food restaurant and public libraries are about community and access where schools are about isolation and control.
But this post, Goodbye Skype: why we need an #agile approach to learning technology in the #SocialAge, puts it much better. Author Julian Stodd says the mindset of control is outdated. Even BYOD, he suggests, is a reflection of that sort of thinking. What we’re really after is BYOC–bring your own community. I love that expression.
To be fair, schools have a high duty of care so that has to be weighed against how open we make schools. There’s good research, from Gordon Neufeld, for example, that says we shouldn’t send kids out into the wider community too early. But Stodd’s point is an extremely important consideration. Saying to ourselves, “We need to manage our technology,” is very different from saying, “We need to manage our community.”
Not incidentally, this changes the mindset of IT departments. Historically, they have been all about protecting what’s on the inside–people and the network–from what’s on the outside. Their’s was a purely defensive. Now it has to be something like a guarded welcome.
This also has implications for teaching: if we’re opening up schools to broader and more varied communities, then we need to be sure our students are equipped to move safely and responsibly in them.