Year End Reflections

I have been involved in educational technology since 1981. The years have been characterized by long steady periods of learning and development. These times have been like riding a long a plateau with little significant change. However, these years have been accented by dramatic lunges upward, as a discover something new that so thrills my sense of the possiblities that it is like being violently lifted to a new plateau. Here are some of the discoveries that Have caused these lunges upward:

  1. 1981 – BASIC (Programming the computer, using incantations that enchant these machines to be or pretend to be almost anything)
  2. 1987 – FrEdMail (Using e-mail and discovering that classroom walls may become transparent)
  3. 1990 – Hypertalk (another programming language and even more magic)
  4. 1993 – HTML (publishing information to a growing global audience and linking my information to a global web of content)
  5. 1997 – PHP & MySQL (Applying the magic to the web: Citation Machine, PiNet, etc.)

Each upward lunge lasted a couple of weeks as I discovered a new technology and its potential, and began to grapple with new technical skills. Then things leveled off as I became accustomed to a new altitude.

During this last year, it happened again. A steep incline began in late December of 2004, and it simply has not stopped. I had decided to devote two weeks to reading the weblogs of a number of educators I had come to respect, and the result has been an entire year that was a stunning dash up an amazingly steep hill of new ideas; new technologies; new ways of thinking about what I do, how, and why I do it; and of new possibilities for helping teachers and students.

What’s new is that these discoveries, by their own nature, caused a breathtaking loop of new discoveries, each leading to something else, just as dramatic. It began with Blogging, which I had been doing for nearly a year. However, when I started reading the blog postings of other educators, and learned to subscribe to their writings with aggregators, I began to understand the importance of XML and to explore RSS. I started to integrate these technologies into my web services and staff development and to form, what I now call, a Personal Learning Network of people who have something to say that helps me do my job.

Then came podcasting and new ways to apply what I was learning about RSS. My personal learning network expanded to forward-thinking people, many of them the inventors of these new technologies, who were reflecting on the potentials of this emerging collaborative information environment — and I was hearing it from their own voices. I started using Technorati and Blogpulse, discovering that this expanding blogosphere can actually be a valuable source of content. I learned about and implimented Moodle and Drupal sites for managing my own content and instructional services, and learned to connect them to my grown personal network and a personal digital library of published content — I used Skype to hold interviews with people and to collaborate in creating multimedia information products. This last Monday, I had a practice session for an upcoming Kansas conference presentation that I will deliver from the comfort of my office, through my laptop and iSight camera.

I could go on and on. But it is important to note that there are two underlying concepts that thread through all of these discoveries.

  • They are all connected together in ways that were foreign to me twelve months ago, and
  • they are all about learning.

My philosophy of education has been rocked this year, and it still has not settled down. It is with some anxiety but even more anticipation that I face a new year.

I want to close this out with a list of people, whom I would like to publicly thank for being a part of my learning network, and for making this the most exciting professional year of my life.

I know that I’ll leave some names out, but as they occur to me, I’ll add them in.

John Beck
John Blake
Joe Brennan
Tony Brewer
Jay Bryant
Andy Carvin
Dave Cormier
Karen Creech
Hall Davidson
Steve Dembo
Tim DiScipio
Acacia Dixon
Steven Downes
Terry Freedman
Thomas Friedman
Janice Friesen
Wesley Fryer
Miguel Gulin
Tom Hoffman
Rem Jackson
David Jakes
Doug Johnson
Ian Jukes
Doug Kaye
Vinod Khosla
Eric Langhorst
Jeff Lebow
Chris Lehmann
Lawrence Lessig
Gail Lovely
Jeff Moore
Nick Noakes
Marco Polo
Bernajean Porter
John Raymond
Will Richardson
Brian Russell
Donna Sawyer
Robert Sawyer
Kathy Schrock
Tom Sheehan
George Siemens
Chris Smith
Bob Sprankle
Meg Turner
Jeff Utecht
Tony Vincent
Jennifer Wagner
David Weinberger
Tim Wilson

I also thank every audience I have worked with and event facilitator who has brought me in. All have helped me to refine what I do. I’ve never been happier professionally.

Our Classrooms are Irrelevant, not obsolete!

Boys with CamerasI just posted my 50th podcast episode, a look at the future of education. As part of the program, I included some recordings that I did at three conferences and workshops in New York and Texas this month. I asked educators to pretend that they were walking into their classrooms in 2015, ten years from now, and to describe what they see that is different.

I was pleased with the answers, especially considering that they had only a couple of minutes to think about it — and considering that most teachers are struggling to get through the day.

I continue to be disturbed, however, by the number of educators who predict that the classroom will go away, that they will teach their students through the networks, each from their own homes or other places of preference. Certainly this is technologically feasible and certainly some teaching and learning happens very well through the digital lenses that are our computers and networks. But, is doing away with classrooms what we really want?

Technology works best when it is connecting, not when it separates. We have the potential today to put students into direct contact with a global library of information, and the power not only to access but to twist and turn, uncover, and discover with that information, to construct new knowledge and new information products, and share them with the world. This is the measure of the distances that can be spanned by technology.

However, believing that with technology, we can educate our children without bringing them together, uses technology to separate, not connect us.

I may just be old fashioned — a romantic. But the electricity that happens in the eye contact between teacher and student is what brings to life, a world of wonder and opportunity.

What do you think?

What’s it all For?

Earlier this month, I wrote an entry, trying to identify some of the characteristics of our social, economic, technological, cultural, blah blah conditions that have changed in the past decade or two, that I believe should be addressed as we attempt to adapt education to a new set of challenges.

Yesterday, Marco Polo posted a comment that I think is entirely appropriate at this time, the last week of 2005. It’s a time of reflection and anticipation, as a new year unfolds with opportunities and challenges. Polo says,

David’s questions suggest that the primary purpose of education (or school) is to prepare children for the future. When has mankind ever been ready for the future? The intriguing scenarios he poses (posed by science fiction writers for decades now) raise the question of what is the purpose of human life? Merely to chase after the future? Like Frankenstein trying catch his creation before it causes irreperable damage (to itself or others)? Or is there some other purpose there too, something that has remained the same regardless of the age or circumstances we live in? I made a similar comment on Miguel Guhlin’s blog a while back: in this brave new world, where is the place for the those like my Downs syndrome daughter? The presence of such people is a healthy reminder that man is not primarily made to chase after his own creations. It’s not all about getting ahead, staying competitive, etc., etc. I’m not saying those are not worthwhile goals; just that they’re not the only ones, and perhaps not even the most important. It’s easy to get carried away by the exciting possibilities: “people talking!” Yes, but how come that has become such a premium? How come we have allowed ourselves to create rootless gatherings of people, to dilute the power of community and family? Would the idea of people communicating and creating communities spanning the whole globe be so exciting if we were not living such isolated lives? And how did THAT come about?

I have little to say in response, except simply to elevate Marco’s observations to the front of my blog. I believe that he is absolutely right, that a race to the future defeats what is precious, the present, and that we may be robbing our children of their precious present for the sake of the future, and perhaps for the sake of political satisfactions much more selfish and insidious.

The future can’t be denied, and to improve the likelihood that all of our children’s presents will be happy and fruitful, we must do what we can to prepare them. However, I continue to maintain, that the classrooms that prepared me in the ’50s and ’60s are not appropriate for today’s children. It takes something much different to prepare children to not so much compete, but to be of enough value to cooperate, and to seek and attain what makes them happy and self-fulfilled in a time of rapid change.

Many thanks Marco, and happy new year.

Next Billionth, and the Next

It’s the day after Christmas, and time to set forth toward a new year in an incredibly exciting time. I must finish up my 2005 reflective blog, trying to make sure that I don’t leave anyone out in my list of those many souls who helped me to grow this year (just thought of two more). I also have to sit down and do my 50th episode of Connect Learning, a program about the future of education.

But today, I am considering my December 24 entry, One Billionth Internet User. It was a brief report on Jakob Nielsens piece on 2005 being the year that the first billion people reached the Internet — now 36 years old. He also states that the second billion will come online during the next 10 years. But, and I left this part out, the third billion will be much harder.

However, does this prediction assume the current degree of technological advancement. I’ve asked this question many times, but it is important to keep asking it. “Would you have accepted the truth about classroom of 2005, if it had been suggested to you in 1995, that in the next ten years, most classrooms in the U.S. would have more than one multimedia computer connected to a global digital library of billions of pages of information, not to mention sound, images, video, and animation?” Things have changed far faster than we could have imagined, and it seems that our imaginations just barely limit what might happen between now and 2015.

So what might be the next Internet, the next Web, the next mobile phone, microwave, GPS…? What’s going to be the next killer app? What might happen that will bring a world online and talking — in a time when talking is what we need most of all? An interesting start of the new year blog assignment for your students, the folks who will be inventing the future.

2¢ Worth!

One Billionth Internet User

Jakob NielsonI’ve been working on a reflective article for a number of days now, in amongst the holiday activities, but ran across this from Web Usability Guru Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox blog, and just had to pass it on.

Some time in 2005, we quietly passed a dramatic milestone in Internet history: the one-billionth user went online. Because we have no central register of Internet users, we don’t know who that user was, or when he or she first logged on. Statistically, we’re likely talking about a 24-year-old woman in Shanghai.1

According to Morgan Stanley, 36% of the current billion users are in Asia. 24% are in Europe, and 23% live in North America. The first Internet communication happened in North America in 1969. It has taken 36 year for the Internet to reach its first billion users. It is projected that the two-billionth user will come online in the next ten years.

It’s a very interesting article with lots of ideas to reflect on as we enter the next year of the 21st century.

Nielsen, Jakob. “One Billion Internet Users.” Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox. 19 Dec. 2005. 24 Dec. 2005 <>.

So What’s Different? — Some Answers

Yesterday, a coupled with a comment from Eric Langhorst a request for some ideas about what exactly has changed in our world that demands new technologies in our classrooms. The request sparked some valuable conversation, but not exactly what I was after.

Singularity, by Ray KurzweilIt seems to me that in order to shape the application of new technologies, we need a mold to shape it around, and that mold needs to be new as well. One of our problems has been that we have tried to shape the technology around out-dated notions of what schooling is about, rather than reshaping our notions to reflect new world conditions.

So here is my basic list. Here’s what has changed, what is different.

  1. The Information is different
    • It’s Networked — Information is increasingly coming to us through networks, initially radio and TV, but today it comes to us over the Internet from nearly anywhere, from nearly anyone, and for nearly any reason
    • It’s Digital — Information is now made of ones and zeros, and as a result, information can be reshaped in a wide variety of ways, using increasingly ubiquitous tools. We are starting to think of information as a raw material, not merely as a product to be consumed.
    • It’s Overwhelming — Information is increasingly increasing. This is important because the messages that we wish to deliver to help us accomplish our goals, must compete for attention among all the other messages out there.
    • It Doesn’t Need a Container — information is shaped differently. It can not be contained nor controlled in the traditional sense. We must depend less on central gatekeepers to assure the information and more on our own skills and highly developed sense of ethics when accessing, using, and producing information.

    Each of these aspects of information leads to a dramatic expansion of what it means to be literate, the new BASICS of school curriculum.

  2. Content is Different — The answers to today’s questions will not be their answers tomorrow. Science, health, culture, politics, economics, and even history are all changing. In a rapidly changing world, it becomes much less valuable to be able to memorize the answer, and much more valuable to be able to find and even invent the answers.
  3. Our Tools are Changing — Technology is changing at dizzying rates, which is part of the reason for the preceding elements of change, but also a good reason why we should be focused on the information and not the technology. We can’t keep up with making the technology the curriculum. All we can do is prepare our students to teach themselves. It’s the only way to keep up.
  4. The Singularity — This is a concept that I occasionally share in my talks. It is the belief by many notable scientists that some advance in technology or discovery is so going to rock the world that we will sit at a moment were we can not clearly describe our future. Some of the ideas that are talked about include:
    • When computers become smarter than we are (access to super-human intelligence)
    • When computers becoming self-aware (new notions of what life is) [I know, really weird]
    • The ability to stop aging — (what are the implications on population?)
    • Nano Replicators that can produce almost anything on command

    Consider nano manufacturing. Consider suddenly finding that only 2% of the worlds population could produce 100% of our material needs. No need for jobs — in the next 20 years? How would we handle that? How would it work? Are we teaching our children to answer these questions? Should we be including science fiction as required reading along with William Shakespeare.

So that’s the short list and exactly 2¢ worth.

So What’s Different? (another questions post)

My friend, Eric Langhorst, (seriously check out his classroom web site) posted a comment on yesterday’s blog entry, The Next Story. It’s a common lament of educators, but it got me to thinking. Read his post first.

I am frustrated about the lack of willingness to take “risks” in terms of a dynamic change in the way we teach our students. I do feel a glimmer of hope when I think of what has been done in Maine with the 1 on 1 program and today I saw mention of a plan to give laptops to all 7-12 students in South Dakota. One of the biggest things that troubles me is that students today in many cases are using web 2.0 tools to live and participate in live outside of the classroom. School is becoming another hoop that some of these gifted students must jump through before they move on to the next step in their life. Is that really what we want school to become? – a meaningless hoop that must be “endured” to get on with other things?

OK, so we need to change. But why.

Organisms change. They adapt to new conditions — or they become extinct.

So how has our climate changed? Why are we so excited about Maine’s initiative and other pockets of innovation? Is it the technology, or does it precisely address specific needs? If so, what are those needs? If we can identify a core set of new conditions, that can be universally acknowledged, then we might be able to wrap more compelling ideas around them for affecting change.

What do you think? What’s changed?

Compiling a List:

  • Access to information (Eric Langhorst)

The Next Story

I have talked lately, at a number of events, about telling the new story. I believe that it is essential, for our future, that we begin imagine, assemble, and articulate a new vision for the 21st century classroom — tell a compelling new story. However, Monday, in Texas, an educator suggested something to me that, quite frankly, sent chills down my back.

Our children and teachers are suffering under the constraints of policies, structures, budgets, curriculum, and methods that spring out of the stories of our classroom days 10, 20, 40 years ago — and those who vote on local, state, and national education issues, do so from those perspectives. But if we take the story forward, say 10 and 20 more years, when the people voting are the youngsters in our classrooms today, classrooms that seemed too artificial, teachers who were not educated in contemporary tools, curriculum that seemed irrelevant, and learning methods that were deadly boring.

What are they going to be willing to vote for, when it comes to the schooling of their children?

What stories are they going to tell?

What do you think?

Technology for it’s own Sake?

Jim Heynderickx asked an important, though not entirely simple question as a comment to one of my recent workshop survey postings. Here are his ideas, and I’ll add my comments below.

A simple question: like email, will we soon be providing internal blogs or profile pages for all faculty, staff and students, but in a more protected manner? For example, profile pages that were only accessible by other school community members? This defeats the “world wide” aspect of blogs, and initially kids may not use them. However, a few years ago it was said that kids wouldn’t use the email accounts we created for them, but over time quality differences have lead to their school accounts being important and “serious” for their work.

I recently worked with a school district in Arkansas, where they have provided students with e-mail for a number of years. The instructional technology director explained that, during the first years, there was a significant amount of abuse by students. However, the consequences, when caught, were relevant to the offense (I do not recall specifics), and not a blanket, you lose your rights to the network for violating any of the AUP items. She said that the second year, there were fewer offenses and the next even fewer. She said that she could not think of any abuses for the 2004-2005 school year.

They did not achieve a successful integration of e-mail into the teaching and learning process by teaching students to use e-mail. They achieved it by integrating a need for the communication that can best be achieved with electronic mail. The focus was on communication, on the information skills, not on the technology skills.

North Carolina has had a state-wide computer skills curriculum for more than 10 years. But it is just that, a computer or technology skills. The State Department of Public Instruction just revised the curriculum, but it continues to be populated with standards aimed at technology (The learner will demonstrate the ability to sort rows with a spreadsheet program).

It makes more sense to me to wrap these standards around information skills (contemporary literacy), asking students to draw a conclusion or solve a problem from a sizable collection of digital data, and then the student utilizes the most relevant and efficient technology and skill to accomplish the goal. This approach, would encourage students and teachers to constantly explore emerging technologies in light of information problems, rather than contriving information problems around specific technologies identified by the state — years ago.

When we expect students to access digital networked information, evaluate and select pertanent content, process the data, and then compellingly express their conclusions and solutions with an authentic audience, all within an ethical context, then heated discussions of emerging technologies like blogging, wikis, IM will fade. In addition, if we effectively help students to integrate into their world the skills to access, use, and communicate information to accomplish relevant goals, they may be less inclined to abuse the technologies.

Just 2¢ worth!

My Wish List

I’m home for a day and want to do some catching up. First of all, my apologies for the past two posts. I taught two short sessions on blogging at conferences this week. Usually I have time to write a regular blog entry during the early morning, and post it during the presentation to demonstrate how articles are added. I had not had time to do that this week, and so, ran brief surveys to generate some content for the blog.

I guess what I need is a different blog for the purpose of demonstrating how it works, and to survey attendees of my presentations to get an evolving picture of where teachers (at least those who attend these sessions) are with regards to technology, Web 2.0, and retooling their classrooms. I’ve been looking for a reason to set up an EduBlogs account. Here it is.
Now on to my wish list. Here are three things that I want — beyond world peace. I want:

  1. A searchable and newsfeed-able blog directory for students: I am still reluctant to suggest that teachers set their students up with an aggregator to start building their own feed libraries. There’s just too much that can show up in technorati searches that parents and board members would object to (and shut the whole thing down). How might we (and who) build a Technorati for students, a directory of scholarly and kid-oriented blogs? …or is there something like that out there already.
  2. A newsfeed aggregator for students: I suspect that we would need one for elementary grades and one for secondary (middle & high school). It should be configurable around topics or units of study, where students would be able to organize their feeds, extract content that is appropriate for the assignment at hand, and publish that content in practical ways.
  3. As an aside, I want a better aggregator for adults as well. We have merely scratched the surface on what we can and should be doing with RSS distributed content. Creating feed lists is just barely useful in tapping into the growing, evolving, and increasingly valuable conversation that is emerging in the blogosphere. I want a tool that allows me to organize and present the content that I attract into a personal digital library, something that becomes an essential part of my daily problem-solving toolbox.

  4. I want a solution to a nagging problem: I believe that this emerging Web 2.0, where people connect through their ideas — through their content — is an important development, that will be essential in a time of rapid change when we will be answering new questions, solving new problems, and accomplishing new goals.
  5. However, it concerns me that our tendency will be to attract connections only with people and ideas that agree with our personal world views, and that we, as a society, will become increasingly polarized, as various enclaves of opinion reinforce and heighten their passions. How do we instill in people a desire for consensus.

    I am certain that what ever the answer is, it will have to be part of our evolving definition of literacy, the skills required to access, use, and communicate information, and the ethical context of our evolving information environment.

Happy holidays to all, and peace to all people.

More than 2¢ worth!