Beliefs

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.

Changing Standards

The media specialists were describing how the elementary schools are using technology. Because the first graders did a lot of work in Google last year, the second graders aren’t having any trouble at all with Google Classroom. They log right in, and can access the resources that their teachers are sharing with them. It took a couple days at the beginning of the year to work through the login and password issues, but after that, they were ready to go.

ipad-1126136_640Don’t get me wrong. The second graders aren’t taking online classes. They’re not doing most of their work online. They don’t have hours and hours of screen time at school. But when the tool is appropriate, they have no trouble using it.

In a different meeting the same week, we were discussing the rollout of our 1:1 program for the high school next year. It’ll be the first time we issue take-home devices to high school students. Up to this point, the high school has used classroom sets of devices, and we’ve been focusing on the take-home program at the middle school. There was a lot of talk about the Google ecosystem, and the need to get our teachers Google certified. They’d like to get more classes using Google Classroom.

A few years ago, we developed a technology skills graph based on the excellent work done by Joanna McNally and Janette Kane at Orange. It took quite a bit of time to weave together the ISTE standards, the information and media literacy pieces, the old Ohio technology standards, mandatory training on digital citizenship, online safety, and cyberbullying, and the need for so-called 21st century skills. We debated how and when and where each topic would be introduced, and when students should be expected to show competency. Part of this was driven by the need to apply that technology in other areas. If students are doing a research project in 7th grade, then they need to know how to evaluate and cite sources before they get to that project.

Now that we’ve grown into the skills chart, we’re going to spend some time this year amending it. There are new state learning standards for technology that will need to be considered. We can also take some time to assess what’s working and what’s not working at different grade levels, and make adjustments to make sure students have the right skills when they need them.

That’s getting more difficult. The first time we went through this process (in 1999), we said that we wanted the tech standards to be covered by the end of 8th grade, so students can apply them to their work in high school. We revised that to the end of 5th grade to accommodate 1:1 a few years ago. Now, it’s looking like we need to be doing a lot more in kindergarten and first grade, because our learners are digital almost before they’re literate.

The key, of course, is to embed the technology instruction when it’s needed for something else. That breaks it into small, manageable pieces while providing an immediate application for the new skills. We’re fortunate to have professionals to help our teaches with that process, as well as teachers who are willing to take risks to increase rigor, improve differentiation, and better meet the needs of their learners.

Photo credit: Pixabay.

 

Sans Livres

Shortly after school ended in June, the custodial staff descended on the high school media center. They removed all of the books and bookshelves.

This2015-07-20 11.26.42 move had been coming for a while. Book circulation has been remarkably low for years. This year, the number of books checked out was smaller than the number of students in the school, averaging fewer than eight books per school day. Earlier in the spring, the media specialist had identified all of the books that had not been checked out since the library switched to an automated circulation system in the late 90s. She also weeded out all of the outdated books (we stopped updating the print encyclopedias in the early 2000s). To this, she added materials that had been purchased for specific projects or to meet individual requests for teachers’ units that are no longer used. When she was done weeding, she realized that all of the books that were left would fit in the space formerly used to store magazines. So the books were moved to the magazine room.

Before you start with the technology-bashing, nostalgic ranting about card catalogs, the necessity of the Dewey Decimal System, and Google’s systematic deconstruction of modern civilization, let me also point out that at the same time, the custodial crews also removed the 34 computers, as well as the islands they were on. Those islands were using about 40% of the space in the room.  While some of those computers will come back, they won’t be front-and-center anymore. As part of our ongoing “places to people” initiative, most of our students are using mobile technologies more and more, and the need for desktop computers tied to a specific location is waning. The computers that remain will be off in the corners of the room where the bookshelves used to be.

The reality is that the media center is the largest instructional space in the school. It’s the only room that will fit 100 people in a collaborative academic setting. Our students need to work together on projects. They need to have access to creative tools, but those tools don’t need to dominate their learning spaces. They need to make connections to other people, both within and beyond the school. They need to hone their communication skills, through writing, peer editing, presentations, multimedia, and other forms that I don’t really understand. They need a space to innovate.

Most of all, the school needs a space that is flexible. It has to allow for individual study as well as collaborative work. It needs comfortable spaces and task-oriented places designed for productivity. It needs to allow for conversations but still be quiet enough for people to get their work done.  The high school has spent a lot of time trying to get that right, and I’m anxious to see how it turns out.

And, while we mourn the loss of printed books, what do the students think of all this?

Sad, yes. They enjoy reading. And they like reading from actual books. But the use of books as information resources is largely outdated now. The books we read now are pleasure books. So instead of a high school (or university) library model, which features a lot of nonfiction and a small fiction section, maybe we need to go back to the public library (or elementary school library) model, where most of the collection is pleasure reading. My guess is that most of the books that are left after the great purge of 2015 are just that: books our students enjoy for their own sake.

And those books aren’t going anywhere.