Jul 2, 2008
For the final NECC keynote, Idit Harel Caperton shared her vision for the future of education technology. She is tremendously accomplished, perhaps best known as the co-editor (with Seymour Papert) of the 1991 book, Constructionism, the first book about constructionist learning.

Idit's presentation was, to say the least, challenging for many of us. She promised to take us on a journey through 3 decades of catalyzing change, 3 days of the catalysts of change (ie those at NECC who are endeavoring to drive change), and 3 wishes for the future. The overarching theme of the presentation was "The Transformational Power of Social Media Technology in Learning", which was of particular interest to me, for I am a proponent of the use of social technologies in education.

First, we took a look back at those Idit referred to as the "founding fathers" and champions of one-to-one computing, Seymour Papert, Alan Kay, and Nicholas Negroponte, with a specific emphasis on the tools they created: Logo, Squeak, and OLPC. This I found problematic at best, as Papert et al were about much more than tools. Their focus was on the learning and the tools were merely components of a much larger body of educational theory, research, and work. After watching a brief documentary about a shy girl who had trouble fitting in, was struggling in math, and who later found both self confidence and learning through programming a game, the stage was set for the remainder of the presentation.

After a bit more background we moved to Idit's early endeavor into social technologies: MaMaMedia.com. MaMaMedia was (and is) a web based service for kids which was somewhat ahead of its time, having been brought online in the mid 90s. In particular it allowed kids to create online, through a variety of games and content creation tools, encouraging learning by providing a safe place to play and learn. The focus of many of the tools was process oriented, featuring a series of sequential, logical activities which Idit referred to as an "introduction to programming." A bit of a stretch, but I can see how the tools might introduce a child to the thought processes that drive more complex programming and processes.

Two decades down, we then stepped into our current one with an innovative approach: video and commentary from the NECC poster sessions which took place earlier in the conference. I thought to myself, "here we go, now we'll get to the social aspects and connectedness, and see some real learning taking place as a result." Unfortunately, all we saw was a cacophony of technology proponents who offered little more than, "we created an online space where students/teachers can connect." Again and again, the words "we created a space" with little else. One international collaboration where students in the U.S. helped to construct systems and share ideas for reducing carbon emissions with a country that struggled in that area sounded exciting, yet was offered very little screen time. "Yes, but where is the learning?" I found myself asking again and again. "If you build it, they will come" simply doesn't cut it.

Having been taken on a whirlwind tour of technology "integration" over three decades (with a special emphasis on tools rather than learning) we moved to today, in which the discussion shifted to constructionism. Idit offered that the "new read/write equation" calls for new ways of learning to learn, was about participation in new forms of writing, and active use of web 2.0 environments with social media technology. "The winners in the new economy will be those who master the web 2.0 technologies to create and innovate new creative ideas and services." While a bit individualistic and curiously lacking in the "social" or collaborative part, I found these statements to be relatively on point. Finally, we received Idit's vision for technology integration and learning in the 21st century, "for this very reason I picked designing by gamemaking."

The rest of the presentation was largely devoted to gamemaking, with video of a number of interviews with students about their (individual) game making projects and commentary from the first lady of Virginia actively tasking educators to engage their students with creative learning opportunities. A great summary of Idit's view of learning in the web 2.0 age can be found in her "framework for constructivist learning in web 2.0":
  • Abilities Set 1- Invention, progression, completion of an original project: program an educational game, wiki or simulation
  • Abilities Set 2: Project-based learning in web 2.0 environments, and processing complex project management (programmable wiki systems)
  • Abilities Set 3: Producing, programing, publishing and distributing interactive purposeful digital media
  • Abilities Set 4: Information-based learning, search and exploration
  • Abilities Set 5: Social learning, participation and exchange
  • Abilities Set 6: Thoughtful surfing websites and web applications
Lots of overlap there: 1, 2, and 3 seem quite combinable, as are 4 and 6, which leaves us with the ability to create something highly emphasized, followed by basic information literacy, with a little "social learning, participation, and exchange" sprinkled in at the end (if there's time.)

When the presentation was over and we were released, I found myself asking again, "where was the social, participatory learning? What were the ideas for/examples of connectedness, global awareness, audience, students building knowledge in a collaborative way through authentic and highly relevant projects?"

What was striking about the presentation was how much it relied on the decades old research exemplified in the very first video and its message about the role of technology in the project driven future of education. With this sort of mindset, technology is treated as the process, rather than a tool that is a necessary, yet transparent part of the process. Focusing on the technology itself, with content as something of an after thought, is the very approach that has failed to impact education for the past two decades, and resurrecting the approach through contrived, unauthentic activities using newer technologies has little hope of having any greater effect.

I would hope that educators today would see through this approach, understanding just how shallow it is. As educators, we should be looking toward creating learning opportunities that are authentic, with everything in its place, including the technology use. We need to understand that much of project based learning involves aspects that do not include technology, and that when the technology is introduced, its use must be both practical and necessary for the completion of the goal and/or sharing the results. In other words, we should avoid technology for technology's sake.

So what do we take away from a presentation such as this? My hope is that we would look beyond the who, and instead look toward the how and why... that we would compare its conclusions to those of Gary Stager, Sylvia Martinez, and other leaders in the field who are in classrooms today, doing the research, finding the places where technology fits, building the frameworks that are not only technology rich, but learning rich. We should continually ask ourselves, "where is the learning", and strive to create authentic, relevant, and engaging opportunities in our every educational venture.


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  1. Thank you for critiquing the closing keynote. There seemed to be some controversy in connection with this keynote that I did not understand. Your post has clarified that for me.Several people have criticized Dr. Caperton's reliance on the work of edtech pioneers. I think she was making the point that much of this work has been overlooked or misunderstood but that the ideas are still relevant today and that educators are ready to take action. My understanding of Dr. Caperton's project is that she is reviving earlier work and delivering it in a web 2.0 wrapper.I had the impression that Dr. Caperton's words did not always clearly convey the ideas she was attempting to express. Was she really saying that content is less important than the technology? I don't think so. We were shown a 20 year old video clip of a young girl who came to a greater understanding of fractions through the development of a game. I thought the purpose of that was to show us how powerful this process can be and that what Dr. Caperton accomplished in one classroom with one young student can be done on a global level now. The emphasis on technology, from my perspective, was that it was the tool that was going to help her scale this past achievement.I think the purpose of Globaloria.org is to provide the tools, training, and mentoring students need to be able to produce their own learning games. In creating these games, students will be motivated to truly comprehend the topics they are attempting to explain. In the process of creating games, they will encounter questions and will be required to think more deeply about the content. Just as that young girl developed a broader perspective on the topic of fractions, students throughout the world will be engaged in similar learning on topics ranging from science and engineering to social issues.

  2. Jim,Thanks for the thoughtful comments on Idit's keynote. I wish I had a chance to have seen it - I just missed it. I have to say I was taken aback by some of the criticism, it seemed very trivial and personal. I also don't understand the negative reactions to her putting her talk into a historical context, especially her relationship to pioneers and seminal research in this field. It seems contradictory to be so eager toss out historical context and perspective, and then wonder why we aren't taken seriously. I'm looking forward to watching the video and talking more about it.

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