Stephen Wilmarth: Five Socio-Technological Trends That Change Everything in Learning and Teaching

In his chapter of Curriculum 21, Stephen Wilmarth puts forth an argument that we are in the throes of a revolution that will upend what we assume to be true about learning and teaching. The trends are as follows:

  • Social Production: the creation of content through various digital tools
  • Social Networks: the connection of individuals into like-minded groups at the digital level.
  • The Semantic Web: the transformation of the web into patterned information based on the coding of individual “pieces” of information
  • Media Grids: three-dimensional representations of space using computing power and the internet (Wilmarth, 91)
  • The New Zoo of non-linear learning: the mastery of biology through technology.

I can’t recall exactly how he said it, but on Thursday, Chris Dede from Harvard University, described our visions of the future as never being fully realized, but it still matters that we have them. When reading through Wilmarth’s chapter, I got just that feeling–as if I was reading about what our best selves as educators and leaders might look like. In reality, I am not so sure about his vision, but I like that he expressed it in terms of the types of learning that will need to occur for his vision to become reality.

A long-held belief of mine has been that technologies that make us less social and more fragmented will not succeed; they are just contrary to our genetic makeup. A passage from the chapter echoes this:

The way people connect with each other–the community that’s created–determines the power of learning shifts. If a technology makes connections more interesting, more varied, or more frequent, it is likely to be more widely adopted and have disproportionate effect on the creation of dynamic learning communities.

Essentially, the more human technology makes us, the more likely we are to proliferate that technology–we’ll call it technical selection. Wilmarth uses the example of Facebook and Twitter to prove this point. It’s not been lost on me that some of the most reticent users of technology in the classroom I have worked with all now have Facebook pages, yet still ask for assistance when sending attachments via email. One connects us, the other confounds us. Where Wilmarth and I truly agree is in the fact that we should examine the structures within education that can make us more human, more connected and push in that direction.

In his summary, Wilmarth makes a very salient point, and one that after the last two days of interaction I’ve had, deserves restating:

What we thought about teaching and learning, the cathedral-like, elegant, top-down, complex systems we designed to support the formal processes of learning and teaching, just may not be the relevant model. We may have to imagine a model that will behave more organically.

The point has come where we stop supporting systems that are not meeting the needs our students, not pushing our teachers to learn and grow alongside their students, and rooted in tradition rather than research and logic.

It would be great if someone was providing blueprints…

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Accidental Theme Day

I heard the phrase “disruptive innovation” 23 times today. For a good portion of the day it was all I talked about. It took a raucous, yet fresh perspective on our use of technology in schools by Gary Stager to counterbalance it.

Not that I minded the term’s dominance, rather, I thought it was about time that more influential people are ringing that bell. Tools are great when placed in meaningful context and supported by educators who know how and when to leverage them, and at conferences like FETC, the tools tend to dominate the subject matter of the sessions. Whether it’s a teacher that is proud to show off the methodology he or she has created around that tool, or it’s a vendor marketing that tool to new audiences, the majority do not appeal to me. Those sessions that did dealt with school change. Throughout the course of the day, I was able to learn from Curtis Johnson, one of the co-authors of Disrupting ClassDr. Chris DedeIan Jukes, and Stager in sessions aimed squarely at the very meaning of what we do in school.

Curtis explained to his crowd that we would be hard-pressed to find an “industry” or model more ripe for disruptive innovation than the educational system is right now. He pointed to several factors that made this so, and used them in opposition:

Old Assumptions Emerging Realities
Knowledge is scarce, hard to access
knowledge readily available
subjects-courses-sequence
multi-dimensional learning
improvement by command
crucial role of motivation
students learn same way/same time
kids more different than ever
Standardization-batch processing
radical personalization

My first thoughts, and I dropped them into our group notes, were of customization. Available to us now are the tools to really customize learning for large numbers of students. What we are lacking is the thought and the vision to realize it. I am speaking of my immediate situation when I say this; there are numerous conversations I have had with others, and some I have initiated, around this idea that our students need choice in what they are learning, yet, what steps have I taken to make sure they get it? My thoughts as I go forward this year are directed at trying to find ways to scale this for the students we need to serve better.

Chris Dede made me want to be a better presenter. His content was impeccable, as was his demeanor in front of a room of nearly two-hundred people. He was calm, witty, and extremely gracious with his time. His story, which wound itself around the theme of disruptive innovation throughout, dealt with some more of the pressing issues that we deal with in public education, namely those of engagement and accountability. Dede spoke about the need for their to be quantifiable data for our teachers to analyze if they are to assess students progress according to the standards they are held to. When looking at the MUVE he showed calledEcoMUVE which he and a team of scientists are designing for the Cambridge Public Schools, he remarked about how because the servers store student activity as events, there is so much information about what the students are doing, and in many cases that data is in the form of snapshots taken, notes written, and questions asked and answered.

Working with teachers as often as I do, I see the assessment piece as one that will be a tough nut to crack if we are going to bring customized education to each of our students. We need to rethink the notion that assessment is an end product. Dede showed us that while the students immerse themselves in the pond in EcoMUVE (literally and figuratively), they may disengage on occasion. The game, much like other games on the market today, contains an Easter Egg of sorts. On a given date, the students return to the pond and find that all of the fish have died. The task than becomes somewhat of a CSI:Pond. Since the server catches everything they do within the environment, teachers can choose a variety of ways to assess their progress in the task: notes they enter as they investigate, snapshots of plant and animal life and its possible link to the dying fish.

In light of the current discord in New Jersey regarding our governor and his stance on the public education teachers union, theNJEA, a few things from the day stood out rather clearly.  I asked Curtis Johnson what he thought of the situation in New Jersey whereby unions are being blamed for the slow pace of change in education.  His thoughts were fantastic.  What if unions, he asked, decided to come out in support of these changes and made their own models for how it could happen?  What if, instead of being blamed for the problems in education, they presented their own disruptive innovations?

Food for thought.

Next: Jukes to Stager in one afternoon.