Technology & Information

I received this comment the other day on a recent weblog called Our Schools are Leaking. Rather than burying another comment in there, I thought I would just comment here in a separate article, because what this writer says is quite important.

Interesting thoughts. There is no question that kids are connected these days. I teach high school in a small rural Kansas town. All of our students have lap tops and the whole school is wirelessly enabled. I’m intrigued by this idea that all of this access means that our students want to learn with technology….

I’m going to break in here and rant just a bit. This is not aimed directly at the commentor, but at all of us. We have been so focused on “technology” that we have a sense of two worlds: a classroom that integrates technology and one that doesn’t. Now this limiting mentality isn’t a part of our planning and deep discussions about modern teaching and learning. However, when we use phrases like “integrate technology“, it implies that the focus should be on the tool, and less on the curriculum, content, or outcomes.

Alan November describes this well, when he distinguishes between automating and informating education. The difference to me is that automating is simply swapping out the old tools for the new, without really changing the process, while informating focuses more on the information. To put my twist on it, informating means reflecting on the changing nature of information, and then adapting what and how we teach and learn to the new information environment.

Let’s get back to the comment.

I teach high school math. Most of my efforts to integrate technology into real learning activities has been trial and error. When I asked my classes today what they had done on their computers in the last year that really helped them learn – none of them could come up with a single thing. Was interesting. I thought we had done several things that would help them – they don’t see it that way. It was an eye opening discussion for me. Kids are connected more than ever, and they like it. They want to be connected. Trick is, using for learning, not just recreation.

I want to respond to this idea. I do not know the author of the comment or the classes he is describing. But the idea intrigues me. I have to say that I am not surprised that the students could not itemize what they have learned using technology. In fact, in my humble opinion, if they could itemize their learning, then we probably aren’t integrating the technology to its fullest potential.

It’s like vacation. When you were young and went to the beach or mountains on vacation, could you have listed things that you learned while playing in the sand dunes or along the mountain trails. Yet, in your adulthood, you know that you learned a great deal during these activities of exploration. Now I’m not saying that technology use in the classroom should be a vacation. It should, however, be play. The key is getting students to play the information. If you prefer, you can say “Work the information,” but it’s all the same. When kids are interacting with the information, then they will learn.

The idea that all kids will learn better outside the container is as silly as the idea that all kids used to learn well inside the container.

True enough. Again, it isn’t either/or. I’m saying that we need to punch some holes in our containers so that the tentacles of our students growing attention stream (their computers, mobile phones, IM, etc.) can freely extend out into the world that we are teaching them about, within the context/container of curriculum. But grant them enough freedom to learn by playing the information environment.

If you are teaching history, then visit an online museum, and IM or even speakerphone one of the curators with questions. In math, find someone in your community who uses math skills that you are teaching, and IM or speakerphone them periodically. Go out on the Net and find authentic data for your students to calculate, and then have them write up conclusions and publish them in print or online. It’s about the information, not the technology. It’s about taking advantage of the networked and digital nature of information.

Information-Rich Classroom

1975 ClassroomI received an e-mail yesterday from an educator in Charlotte, NC, where I spoke to district principals this summer (the stockcar theme was great fun). I thought that I would pose my response as a blog entry and invite others to chime in.

(obligatory kindnesses) …You were the first person I thought of when I was faced with an enormous task. Our school may have the opportunity to build a new technology/science/media building. I have been asked to come up with rooms that would support current and future technology. My question to you is, what would your “Dream” classroom look like?? Smartboards, elph camera’s, SmartTV’s, mounted projectors??? I just don’t know where to begin!~!

You can imagine that this is candy to me. First of all, as you might have attended one of my presentations, my focus is on the information, not on the technology. This means that your students must have access to a broad range of networked digital information, both personally, and as a group. You too, must have this access. You both must have the ability to share with the rest of the class (not to mention the world) this information, and derivatives of the information produced by you or the students. You must be able to also collect analog information from the “real” world and digitize it for use with digital processing and display tools. It’s about access, using, and communicating information in an increasingly networked and digital world.

With all that said, you might check out the New Century School House project, where teachers have been describing their ideal classrooms for years.

Anyway, here is my technology shopping list for a single classroom:

  • permanently mounted projector and interactive display board. (you might consider wireless projectors, but I do not know much about them).
  • Notebook computer for each student and one for the teacher. At some point these will be TabletPCs, but I’m not sure if they have evolved enough yet
  • Electrical outlets such that all students can have powered notebook computers at their desks
  • Reliable hi-speed, wireless access to the school’s network and the Internet. Internet access should employ filters that can be circumvented by the teacher
  • A box of low-end still digital cameras, one for every two students
  • One high-end (5 Megapixel) still digital camera
  • A flatbed scanner
  • Two digital video cameras
  • Three mid-level microphones compatible with the student and teacher notebooks
  • Class management software (Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle)
  • Logically organized network storage for student work that is accessible from outside the classroom
  • Software facility for class publishing (blogware, podcasting, web publishing)
  • Full range of productivity software (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, image editing, video and audio production

Additions? or Comments?

Announcing a New Technology: Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge

I’m quoting (and slightly editing) an announcement that I just ran across during an early morning web browse (when I should have been programming).

The Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge device is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology. It is so easy to use even a child can operate it. Just lift its cover! Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere — even sitting in an armchair by the fire –yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM. Here’s how it works…

Each device is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets, each sheet capable of holding thousands of bits of information. These sheets are locked together with a custom-fit device technology, which keeps the sheets in correct sequence. OPT (Opaque Paper Technology) allows manufacturers to use both sides of the sheet, doubling the information density and cutting costs in half.

Experts are divided on the prospects for further increases in information density; for now, a device with more information simply uses more sheets. This makes them thicker and harder to carry, and has drawn some criticism from the mobile crowd.

Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly into your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet. The BOOK may be taken up at any time and used by merely opening it. The BOOK never crashes and never needs rebooting, though like other display devices it can become unusable if dropped overboard. The “browse” feature allows you to move instantly to any sheet, and move forward or backward as you wish. Many come with an “index” feature, which pinpoints the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval.

An optionally featured accessory allows you to open the device to the exact place you left it in a previous session — even if the device has been closed. This currently optional accessory fits universal design standards; thus, the accessory can be used in devices by various manufacturers. Conversely, numerous accessories can be used in a single BOOK if the user wants to store numerous views at once. Only the number of sheets in the BOOK limits the number.

You can also make personal notes next to the text entries with an optional programming tool, the Portable Erasable Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language Stylus (PENCILS).

Portable, durable, and affordable, the technology is being hailed as the entertainment and education wave of the future. Its appeal seems so certain that thousands of content creators have committed to the platform. Look for a flood of new titles soon.

The Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge will most commonly be referred to by its acronym, BOOK.*

In one of my addresses I suggest that the book’s days may be numbered. It’s merely a speculation, based on the fact that I don’t know. I won’t be making that decision. Our children and their children will. I suggest a future without paper books as a way of shaking loose people’s paradigms, and to make the point that the future we are preparing our children for, is the one that they will invent and choose.

I enthusiastically proclaim my commitment to books (I write and sell them) and my love for the technology and the stores that sell them.

Still, it can not be denied that the nature of information is changing —

  • What it looks like,
  • What we look at to view it,
  • Where and how we find it,
  • What we can do with it, and
  • How we communicate it.

The clock is ticking toward a day when a whole new set of literacies will be necessary to survive and prosper in an increasingly networked and digital world.

“Internet E-Mail Computer Humor.” Internet E-Mail Humor Collection. 23 Jan. 2005. HTTPJOKE. 8 Sep. 2005 <>.

Losing the Science Race

Fair warning. this one gets pretty sappy

It seems that almost every day there is something in the news about the declining numbers of science, engineering, and technology graduates in the United States. I shared stories a while back about (…larger than just machines) how Microsoft and IBM are building research centers in China, because they can not find enough qualified U.S. technologists and engineers.

The most personally compelling statistics that I have found comes from Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. The apparent lack of interest in science and technology and the impressive education that students are receiving in India and China seem to be one of the focal points of the book. The set of statistics that impressed me the most was the changing demographics of NASA employees.

According to the March 7, 2004 issue of Florida Today, as reported by Friedman:

  • 40% of NASA’s 18,146 employees are over 50 years of age.
  • 22% are over 55
  • Only 4 percent are under 30
  • The number of NASA employees over the age of 60 out number those under 30, about 3 to 1*

Perhaps this struck me because I have grown up with NASA and experienced the thrill of all four manned programs (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle). But that said, I want to put a different twist on this — as is my style.

Of the times that I have known, hands-down, the most innovative period was the 1990s. We found ourselves with a new technology that dramatically changed the way that we thought about our world and experience. The creativity that these opportunities unleashed was breathtaking. It was something that I payed a lot of attention to, being a technologist and a former history teacher.

As I read the stories of the most exciting projects that came out of this period (most of which died), it seemed that the sparks behind the ideas were not science, engineering, and technology people. They were often people who came out of the humanities. They were people who became electrified by these new ways of using information, and invented products that empowered people to use information to enrich their lives.

Even though we definitely need more students going into science, engineering, and technology fields, what is truly missing in what and how we are teaching our children in my country is creativity and inventiveness in learning. Regardless of whether their future is in science, technology, business, academics, or communication, if citizens can creatively and joyously invent, then they will adapt and prosper.

One more statement (and here’s the sappy part):

If you think of the problems that face the world, that truly hold us back from the advancements in the human experience that are within our grasp, they are not problems of science and technology. They are problems of people getting along with other people. It is the social end of the spectrum that we really need work in. This is what truly worries me about the calls for more focus on science instruction — in a time when we seem so unwilling to pay for it. Again, we will lose what is truly important to people. And that’s community and society — other people.

Friedman, Thomas L. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Straus & Girous, 2005.

More from Duke CE Round Table

Duke CE RoundtableI spent two days, last week, sitting with a group of educators in a renovated tobacco warehouse in Durham, North Carolina. The residence of Duke CE, a corporate education firm, the now upscaled facility became a short-term incubator of ideas — about teaching and learning.

The event was both enlightening and energizing to me. In my work, I typically associate my ideas with those of other K-12 educators. Here, I was the sole K-12 person, surounded by corporate and higher-ed people. I learned loads listening to the perspectives of others who educate, and filtering my own ideas through their lenses.

I want to mention one of the participants. George Siemens, an instructor at Red River College in Winnipeg, brought some insights to the group that were especially useful to me. George Siemens is one of those names that I have increasingly heard mentioned over the months in discussion about Web 2.0 and its application in education. He describes a theory of learning that he calls Connectivism. You can learn more about it from a piece called Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, which was originally published in December, 2004, and updated this April.

I’m sure that George’s aggregator will capture this, so I hope that he corrects any misconceptions that I may have. The problem he is attacking is the “half-life of knowledge”, the time that it takes for knowledge to become obsolete. As knowledge half-life rapidly shrinks, what does it mean to our efforts, as educators, to help students learn more. How does this change the nature of education and the label of being educated?

I was especially excited by George’s contributions to the roundtable, because he provided for me some much needed vocabulary for things that have been rolling around in my head for some time. One of the foundations of connectivism is that the “Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.” He states that (and I’ll certainly be parroting this one) “knowing what” and “knowing how” are not as important as “knowing where” to find the information.

I could go on, but the bottom line, as I see it, is that part of teaching today should be helping students to create and cultivate a network of people and resources that can follow us around, helping us to find the information that we need to do what we need to do, right now. I often talk about helping students to cultivate a personal digital library. The metaphor I see here is that we need a person digital university, with library, student union, faculty offices, academic and special interest clubs, and most other aspects of the university environment — but digital, virtual, and constantly adapting to needs and opportunities.

I guess that in a real sense, my aggregator is a big part of my linkage to my learning network. It includes links to people, their ideas, and their resources, not to mention pictures.

The Long Tail: a 3rd & 4th Perspective

Both Tim Wilson and Will Richardson have commented on the Long Tail in recent days, each expressing a different perspective. Tim states (in Jargon watch: The Long Tail) that… (1st perspective)

…there are a lot of great thinkers out there blogging and working in the long tail. If you restrict your students to using a traditional textbook they will never find the gems out there in the tail where so many fresh perspectives and new ideas can be found. We don’t need to wait for information to show up in dead tree form anymore. This blog is great example of the long tail.

Will offers a more cautious view (read The Long Tail Problem in K-12 in full), and I snip viciously here. (2nd perspective)

If we are going to help teachers see blogs as “research safe,” we’re going to have to give them some tools by which to assess those blogs. Right now, I would teach teachers and students that they should

  • try to find out who the blogger is….
  • find out who is linking to the site…
  • spend some time reading a range of posts…
  • spend some time looking at the comments…

I want to offer two more perspectives. Although I agree whole heartedly with Wills cautions (see also Terry Freedman’s recent post on Evaluating Information) and equally with Tim’s enthusiasm over the growth of content and perspective, it seems to me that there are two levels of value here (3rd perspective). There is, and always will be, value in well founded and supported facts, information, and knowledge. Some problems, only the “truth” will solve.

However, in a time of rapid change, sometimes the test of trial and time are too slow. Often, the best ideas are going to come from thinkers who lack the perspective, credential, and backing that we would logically like to see. Yet the ideas, coming in from a backdoor (the basement, or upstairs window) is just what’s going to help us solve this brand new problem.

So I would urge teachers to pay attention to enthusiasts’ conversations in the blogosphere, and selectively expose their students to these ideas. Then ask the students to research the idea and its context and try to provide their own grounding as a knowledge building project.

Another angle (4th perspective), and the one that I most often approach the Long Tail from in my presentations is that this is a new market. That long tail represents information products that there were no buyers for five years ago. But with todays expanding digital bazaar, people, who could never write a best seller, produce a blockbuster film, nor perform a hit album (oops, CD), are now making at least part of their living buy producing information. This sort of cottage level information industry may play an important part in our students future, meaning that communication becomes much more than just a basic literacy skill.

Just 2¢ worth!

More on Corporate Education

Jeff Utecht commented on yesterday’s blog with some statements that I would like to continue the discussion with. Jeff said,

(It’s) great that you get too meet with real corporate people and talk about the skills they need and are using on a daily basis. I wish more teachers had the opportunity to sit and talk with a group like that and listen to them talk about the skills they use in the work place, then maybe education would really embrace technology and problem solving skills.

Putting teachers out into the corporate world to become aware of what students need to be learning, although rare, is not unheard off. My son’s high school has a wonderful program that places students into local work environments to learn about work culture and about specific jobs. This job shadowing for students is common. However, in a conversation a few years ago with an educator in New Zealand, I learned that the practice is as common over there, except that it is teachers who do the shadowing. After the experience, they meet, identify the success skills that they witnessed, and then alter their curriculum for the coming year to address those skills.

I recently worked with a school system in Upstate New York who was not satisfied with the states competencies in terms of adequately preparing their children for the current and future work place. So they sent their teachers into the local workplaces for a variety of job shadowing experiences. The educators then met, identified success skills, and enhanced their curriculum by wrapping the skills that the identified around the state’s mandated/tested skills. I was deeply impressed with their foresight.

To be fair, after our second day at Duke CE, I learned that even at the corporate level, project-based education is not always an easy sell. Our image of education remains hardened by years of classrooms designed to prepare people for a workplace characterized by working in a straight row, performing repetitive tasks, under close supervision. Even though the workplace has certainly changed, our image of teaching and learning hasn’t.

How do we tell a new story about education that will compel people to reject the old image in place of a new and more relevant one? This is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.