Educators: Keep Up or Risk Losing Learners

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Stephen Collins is not an educator. He's an Australian communications and technology consultant. But in this article on Acid Labs, he's pinpointed something essential: that the public education system can't progress without harnessing the vast powers of the Internet. Here's an excerpt from the article.


Nodes: The hyperconnected nervous system and digital literacy

As edu­ca­tors, the teach­ing of good dig­i­tal cit­i­zen­ship is arguably one of the most impor­tant skills you can pass to those in your charge. You have a hand, as big or big­ger often, in the devel­op­ment of those you teach than do their par­ents. Not only that, their par­ents are often lack­ing in the skills needed to teach dig­i­tal cit­i­zen­ship. You are in a posi­tion both envi­able and unen­vi­able; you get to be the first adults to teach the dig­i­tal natives how to be a tribe of nobles rather than savages.

Good dig­i­tal cit­i­zen­ship is a com­plex notion. It involves aspects of tech­ni­cal com­pe­tence, famil­iar­ity with changed cul­ture and emo­tional intel­li­gence all at once. Wrap­ping these together, and deal­ing with them well in the con­text of a rapidly chang­ing online envi­ron­ment is immensely com­plex. Yet we’re all exposed to this envi­ron­ment, and from an increas­ingly young age.

My belief, as some­one who is not an edu­ca­tor, but is pas­sion­ately inter­ested in both my own ongo­ing edu­ca­tion and that of my daugh­ter, is that hyper­con­nect­ed­ness has so fun­da­men­tally changed edu­ca­tion that the model we’ve oper­ated under to now is no longer rel­e­vant. We have lit­tle time left to change and it’s not going to come with the Edu­ca­tion Revolution.

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As hard as it is to keep up with tech­no­log­i­cal changes, the emer­gence of new plat­forms and tools, and an under­stand­ing of the ben­e­fits and risks they may offer the net­worked teacher, stu­dent or par­ent, is a core skill for mod­ern educators.

Equally, an under­stand­ing of the cul­ture of the net­work is crit­i­cal. Who con­nects to who. Why? How? To what end? Where is the value? What is my role in this new world where the value accorded exper­tise is decay­ing as access to fac­tual mate­r­ial, and even rich inter­pre­ta­tion and con­text is becom­ing a triv­ial task.

It’s sim­ply not good enough to say “I don’t have the time” or “It’s too hard, I can’t keep up.” Oth­ers do, and are. And your stu­dents cer­tainly are. If you can’t be their guide through the tech­no­log­i­cal changes, you can no longer be the men­tor they need in the net­worked age of education.

The model for the classroom, from a child’s first day at child care right through to the very end of ter­tiary edu­ca­tion is fun­da­men­tally bro­ken. We still oper­ate accord­ing to rules estab­lished in the 19th Cen­tury to train com­pli­ant work­ers for the fac­to­ries of England’s Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion. I’ve also seen it described more than once, so I don’t lay claim to the idea, as the “air­plane model”; get in, sit down, face for­ward and be quiet.

In schools now, too often, tech­nol­ogy is a part-​​utilised add-​​on. More often, it’s crip­pled. And the net­work of con­nec­tions? Ill-​​used and piece­meal, even in the best schools.

When I talk with edu­ca­tors, many know what they should do, but have lacked the resources to do so. We now have those resources at hand, if we use them and share.

Edu­ca­tion must become the place where the net­work is best utilized. Where use of tools is taught well and goes deep. We now have the resources to cre­ate an age where the bound­aries of the class­room break down, where the exploratory learn­ing we so value in giv­ing small chil­dren is extended to the class for older children.

The hyper­con­nected world has cre­ated a new way of doing things that run strongly counter to the power rela­tion­ship inher­ent in edu­ca­tion before now. The con­flict that this sets up will be the decid­ing fac­tor. Can edu­ca­tion change to cope with the open, shared, col­lab­o­ra­tive future of the hyper­con­nected world, or will it try to insist on main­tain­ing its posi­tion of power and thus dis­en­gage from learn­ers who will go about seek­ing their own learning?

Pro­vid­ing peo­ple with whom you work — in the con­text of schools that’s teach­ers, other staff and stu­dents — with a less than full access expe­ri­ence to their hard­ware, soft­ware and online access infan­tilises them. Imag­in­ing that this crip­pled expe­ri­ence is some­how bet­ter and pro­vides you shiny, happy peo­ple who will com­pli­antly obey your edicts is fool­ish at best and deeply dam­ag­ing in many cases. Bet­ter to make sure your [peo­ple] are empow­ered to use social tools at work but also under­stand with crys­tal clar­ity what is and isn’t acceptable.”

Arguably, my daughter Hannah's learn­ing expe­ri­ences in the class­room are becom­ing pro­gres­sively more irrel­e­vant as the learn­ing expe­ri­ences she under­takes beyond the class — delib­er­ately or coin­ci­den­tally — more directly pre­pare her and equip her with the skills she will need to suc­cess­fully tackle the 21st Cen­tury. She is more con­nected to, and more con­tex­tu­ally so, to what dig­i­tal ethno­g­ra­pher Kevin Kelly termed “The One” than any gen­er­a­tion before her.

In gen­er­a­tions to come, this will be seen as nat­ural. Right now, it presents an enor­mous chal­lenge to many edu­ca­tors and edu­ca­tion bureau­crats and pol­i­cy­mak­ers in the polit­i­cal arena as they strug­gle to keep up. Cer­tainly the Prime Min­is­ter and Edu­ca­tion Min­is­ter, as keenly inter­ested as they are in edu­ca­tion, by no means envi­sioned this as their Edu­ca­tion Revolution.

This approach is as acces­si­ble to teach­ers as it is to stu­dents. You can and ought to par­tic­i­pate in the rich­ness the net­work affords. Your own lit­er­acy in the tools, the cul­ture and the net­work itself is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of your abil­ity to men­tor stu­dents through the emo­tional, social and tech­ni­cal maze that they are nav­i­gat­ing. If you are left behind, you will, in short order, decrease in rel­e­vance to mod­ern learn­ing. That places you in an unen­vi­able posi­tion; unable to ade­quately men­tor your stu­dents and teach them not only the con­tent of their class but what it means in the greater con­text of their exis­tence as humans in the 21st Cen­tury, you may find your­self and your out­dated skills con­signed to the same scrapheap the Indus­trial Age class­room model finds itself.

To move to where I pro­pose teach­ing and learn­ing needs to go is no triv­ial task. It will require a sin­gu­lar will and no small amount of reimag­in­ing what the school expe­ri­ence looks like. But we’ve done this before, in so many parts of soci­ety, includ­ing schools when we trans­formed from the unstruc­tured learn­ing and one-​​to-​​one trans­fer of skills largely based around the fam­ily farm to indus­tri­alised soci­ety where we went off to work leav­ing our chil­dren in the charge of oth­ers to be taught. This will be no less a leap.

But now, we have the net­work not only to learn from, but to help us. Its value is man­i­fold. We can use the net­work and the shar­ing we do on it to trans­form edu­ca­tion as much as we use it as a tool of edu­ca­tion.

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