When I was 25, I believed that the anonymity of online discussions would allow the exchange of ideas without prejudice, and raise the level of human discourse. I’d been communicating online for five or six years. The web was brand new. Most of the forums were text based. There was lots of Usenet and mailing lists. And it didn’t matter who you were or where you were from. We didn’t judge people based on skin color or physical attributes or handicaps. We couldn’t see those things. Your ideas stood on their own merits.

snakeoilI remember teaching middle school kids about this wonderful world where stereotypes and pre-judgement were relics from a more primitive time. I even did some original research around anonymity in online discussion forums. The hypothe

sis was that students were more likely to engage in deeper conversations online if their real identities were unknown to the other participants (but known to the moderator). The result was that there was no significant difference.

And the civil discourse didn’t really happen either. There were flame wars before there were trolls. Sometimes it’s fun to push someone’s buttons. It’s fun to wind up the toy and let it go. As it turns out, the lack of accountability that goes along with anonymity can bring out the worst in people. And it doesn’t take many of those people to destroy reasoned, civil discourse.


When I was 35, I believed that the democratization of the means of dissemination would give voice to the voiceless, and allow more perspectives to be heard. Those are big words. Let me put it more simply: everyone is a publisher. Even the relatively simple process of setting up a web site and having access to a global audience had become MUCH easier with the advent of weblogs and wikis. It really did become easy for anyone to publish anything and reach an enormous audience.

We were no longer shackled by the editors and publishers and news outlets that controlled the means of publication. I can say whatever I want (and I did). I set up news feeds and RSS links and all kinds of stuff to tune in to these alternative sources of information. Chris Anderson came up with his Long Tail idea. There’s room for everyone’s ideas on the Internet. You don’t have to figure out whether it’s worth the investment to publish something, because publishing is basically free.

But the movement away from a few broadcasters has led to misinformation, fake news, and the breakdown of such fundamental concepts as “truth” and “fact”. For every opinion, there is an equal and opposite opinion, and in the interest of fairness and equal time, we give voice to the crazy. Now, we have people who are intentionally destroying their own credibility, because they can’t be held accountable for their words if it can easily be proven that they’re lying most of the time. So we use words like “alternative fact” and “believe” a lot more than we used to, and we’ve lost touch with ideas like trustworthy and authoritative.


When I was 45, I believed that technology could save public education. Technology would allow differentiation and authentic assessment in ways that previous generations could only dream of. Every student would have an individualized plan, and the learning activities would be tailored by a caring, intelligent, and perspicacious teacher. Students would have some flexibility to explore topics and ideas that interest them, and they would complete projects, conduct original research, and produce deliverables that demonstrated their learning in novel ways. Along the way, they would learn to collaborate, express their creativity, and communicate effectively in a variety of media. They would apply innovative thinking strategies to take ideas and concepts from different disciplines and combine them in new ways to solve challenging real-world problems. And all of this would happen in public schools using best practices, innovative teaching strategies, and cutting edge resources that would be unmatched by the private/online/charter/alternative schools.

So we worked through all of the challenges. We put devices into all students’ hands. We built the infrastructure to make the technology work reliably and efficiently. We spent years on professional development. We talked a lot about assessment and homework and learning activities. We focused on the importance of portfolios and depth of knowledge and learning standards. And then we bought document cameras so teachers could help students complete worksheets as a class.


I wonder what I’ll believe when I’m 55.


Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.

5 Changes for 2014

These are NOT resolutions. I don’t do resolutions. But I was cleaning out my head the other night, and started making some lists. One of them was a list of things I want to do differently in the new year. So I might as well share them here.

8186050299_326326f4eb_t[1]Stop printing so much. Last month, I was in a meeting with four school district employees and one other person. We were going through a 23-page document. All four of us had paper copies of the document we had marked up with our notes. The guest had no paper, just the digital document. Paper is a habit. I find myself printing documents, taking them to meetings, writing notes on them, and then… nothing. They go into binders or folders or file drawers. But they’re rarely used again.

We need a culture shift. We need to stop printing and distributing documents and pretending that people will think we’re important if we pass around paper. For the last seven years, the printer in my office has literally been within reach of my desk.  In my new office, there is no printer. Now, to print, I’ll need to get up from my desk, go to a different room, and pick up my documents.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m going paperless. Every technologies has its place, and paper is no exception. But I want to move away from paper being the default format for my documents. We need a new habit.

10264637613_443d37ca3c_t[1]Reboot my PLN. In 2005, I embarked on an incredible journey that stared with blogs and podcasts and led to hundreds of hours of webcasting, scores of blog posts, new friends and colleagues from all over the world, and a trip to Africa. It turns out there are lots of people out there who have great ideas and are facing similar challenges as they try to improve education for our posterity. For a while, I thought of my personal learning network as a hobby more than anything. It distracted a bit from my job responsibilities, but it didn’t really have a tangible effect on my work. And that may have been true in the beginning. But as time went on, my learning network influenced my opinions, introduced me to new ideas, and gave me new lenses through which to see the educational and technology landscapes. It’s been the best professional development I’ve ever had, and it has changed my fundamental beliefs about education.

But over the last couple years, my participation has waned. I’m almost never jumping into a webcast these days. My podcast feed still has lots of great stuff in it, but there aren’t very many education podcasts in the mix anymore.  I read my Twitter stream only occasionally, and rarely engage in any meaningful conversation there. I have been noticeably less active in online forums and email lists. I have Flipboard and configured, but rarely look at either one. I could claim that I’m busier now, that I don’t have time for these things. But I know that’s not the case. I need to get some new voices, do some pruning, and start paying more attention to what’s going on. That might mean new tools or new networks or new people, but I need to find a way to re-engage with the community.

8187930778_1dbb48fa84_t[1]Schedule more time for reflection. In 2006, I made 100 blog posts. I did the same in 2007. Most of them weren’t very good. But still, that was two posts per week. In 2013, I posted 15 times. That’s on par with recent years, which have averaged about 17. The new posts are much better, but not nearly frequent enough. For every blog post I make, there are two or three ideas that never get written.

I once told a colleague that if she seems that I’m not blogging, it means I’ve been too busy doing to spend time learning. I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate, but the pendulum has swung to far away from regular reflection.

I find that I’m more articulate — in meetings, conversations, emails, and social networks — if I take some time to write my ideas out once in a while. I need to do more of that. Maybe they won’t be blog posts. Maybe they’re just ideas scribbled in the notebook. But I have to spend more time this year thinking and reflecting and writing.

The process of learning requires acquisition of content followed by application or reflection on that content. Every week, I ask my staff to reflect on what they’ve learned that week, and to actually write a paragraph about it. I need to do more of that this year.

8186085683_10526c1682_t[1]Try to say “yes” more often. For me, this is year 15 in this job. One of the perils of staying that long is that I’m no longer on my first trip around the carousel. In my old age, I’ve become a bit of a curmudgeon. I don’t believe that this new product or pedagogical approach or testing regimen or evaluation program is going to revolutionize education. I don’t believe that iPads or Google Hangouts or 3D printers or maker spaces or Chromebooks or Khan Academy are going to save the world. But I have to stop dismissing everything out of hand. Yes, we’ve tried it before. No, it didn’t solve out problems. Yes, I’m willing to take another look. But I’m not interested in repeating the mistakes we have already made. So it’s a very fine line. I have to do a better job of asking good questions and keeping an open mind.


Solve the LMS Problem. The one is different from the rest of the items on this list, because it’s not specifically about me. But it’s becoming increasingly clear in our school district that the lack of a unified learning management platform is inhibiting our teachers’ ability to embrace next generation learning. I’ve written in the past about LMS issues, and I’m not even convinced that having one is a good long term strategy. But we absolutely have to have one in the short term. Our teachers need to use an LMS to organize and deliver course content. It needs to be a place where is is easy to curate content, deliver it to students, and manage student engagement with that content. It has to be a collaborative space for teachers to share content, methods, and resources. And it needs to include assessment tools that make it easy to keep track of how students are doing. We do not have consensus on what we want in an LMS, and we do not have a budget for one. But we know that Moodle is no longer meeting out needs. No one seems to be very interested in iLearn Ohio, and pockets of teachers are spreading out in myriad directions looking at alternatives. We need to reign this in soon, get everyone on the same page, and move forward with a unified solution.

They do look like resolutions, don’t they? They’re not. But they are goals. They’re a direction. They’re a reflection on where I’ve been and where I’m heading. Maybe they’re a roadmap for 2014. Let’s make it a good year.

Photos from Jennifer DeWalt’s Ransom Note Generator.