My Extrapolations from a Washington Post Graphic

Click to link to the original Washington Post graphic

In 1986, I was the director of instructional technology in a rural school district in North Carolina, a job that hadn’t existed when I’d started teaching only 10 years earlier. Thanks to researchers at the University of Southern California, we now know something about the state of technology ten years into my career.

For instance, In 1986, 41% of the world’s computer processing power was in pocket calculators. Personal computers made up 33%, with 17% going to servers and mainframes. A whopping 9% powered video game consoles. According to that study things had changed dramatically by 2007. The amount of the world’s processing power residing in personal computers had doubled, to 66% and calculators had disappeared from the picture. Video games accounted for 25% of the processing power and new comers, mobile phones and PDA (which didn’t exist when I was director of technology), held 6% of the world’s computing power. Servers and mainframes dropped to 3% and supercomputer weighed in at 0.3%.

But the real sign of change is in information. Back in 1986, the world held 2.64 billion gigabytes of information — and 2.62 of them resided on analog media (paper, film, audiotape and vinyl and videotape.) The growth of information soured over the next 16 years, when, in 2002, the amount of digital content exceeded the information we stored with analog technologies.

By 2007, our quantity of information had risen to 294.98 billion exabytes of information, and only just less than 19 of them still resided on analog media. If you took only the paper — and film, audiotape and vinyl used to store information today, it would account for only 0.004% of the world’s content. That means that anyone, whose schooling and experience has not included the skilled, responsible and practiced use of contemporary information and communication technologies, well for more than 99.6% of the worlds information, they are practically illiterate!

What it means to be educated has been flipped on it’s side!

Being a “Learner” is being Responsible

Flickr Image by Becky & Randy Post and Stylized with Pixalmator

There was some interesting and valuable discussion about Wikipedia in the backchannel chat from my day in St. Albert Canada last week. At one point, a participant reminded us that many articles from the “free encyclopedia” include lists of references to other sources for information about the topic. Then “ often do students click through to those other resources?” someone asked.

It’s a good question, and I suspect that few students or even casual users of Wikipedia click through to the added sources. It really depends on the intent of the research, and I suspect that most casual users have little reason to click through. But the educator posing the question during my presentation probably wishes that students, conducting research for their lessons, would dig beyond Wikipedia.

It occurred to me, as I was scanning through and commenting on the chat transcript, that maybe it depends on the level of responsibility that one feels for the work. If I am completing an assignment, following instructions, or fulfilling items on a rubric, I may not be so compelled to click through. However, if I feel responsible, in some way, for the (authentic) effects that my work may have on me or on someone else, then I may see reason to examine other resources — to get it right.

Though open to exceptions, I am not a huge advocate for integrating video games into the classroom. I do maintain, however, that we have much to learn from that experience. When youngsters are playing most video games, they usually do not approach them with a sense that there is one correct and prescribed way of working the game. You won’t hear them say, when they experience difficulty reaching the next level, “But I did it the way the instructions said to.”

They’re not responsible for finding the right answer. They’re responsible for making it work. Their assessment is, “Did it work?” Programming is another good example. There’s no one way of solving the problem. There’s just making it work. It is a responsive experience, and the power of the responsiveness is not so much its immediacy (instant gratification) as it is with its authenticity.

Of course, there is nothing new in this to good educators and those of us who remember the extensive work going on with authentic assessments — before No Child Left Behind Untested.

With this in mind, it occurs to me that there are three fundamental components to being educated today.

  1. What do you know?
  2. What can you do with what you know?
  3. What can you unlearn, and relearn in order to answer new questions, solve new problems, and accomplish new goals?

An educated person is a learner, and a learner is always working to be educated. A student waits to be taught.

A student may not look at the further references in Wikipedia.

But a learner will.

If all that we assess (and hold our schools accountable for) is what our students have been taught, then we are drastically and disastrously short changing our children’s future — and ours.