May 4, 2011

To those who would lead...

The following is a statement written for our district superintendent to share with those who would lead at SUSD. We are on the cusp of a significant transition in the district, as we look to replace two out of four of our top leaders - our superintendent and asst. superintendent of business. It is my hope that those who would lead would endeavor to keep moving forward our efforts to transform education and to build innovative, 21st century learning environments.

When we think about the classroom moving forward, we must continue to press toward building learner-centered environments. Ideally, learner-centered environments are those in which students both participate in and take responsibility for their own learning. Giving our students a sense of ownership and empowerment through the use of personal technology, combined with the subsequent (and necessary) transformation of instructional strategy to one that is student-centered, rather than teacher-centered, is the most effective way to bring lasting change and measurable gains in student performance, both academically and personally.

Choosing the right technologies to support such a vision is of the utmost importance. Many believe that the best technologies for the classroom are those that are instructionally-centered, driven largely by a belief that students are somehow more "visual" today than they were in the past. As Clark, Yates, et al. point out in a recent paper (2009), nothing could be further from the truth. The research team ultimately found that, while attention and compliance may have increased, outcomes in no way reflected any gains in learning, skills, abilities, or academic achievement. A deep dive into their research reveals only one conclusion: technology that does not drive changes in instructional strategy has little-to-no impact on desired student outcomes. Our own research and data further validate this conclusion.

It is important to note I am absolutely not saying that teacher-centered, instructionally-focused technologies do not have value, just that they should not be the center, or focal point of our strategy moving forward. Instead, our focus should be on building the environment in such a way as to support the learner, and to empower the teacher to guide the learner along their path of discovery.

When we shift our focus to the learner and the skills and experience they will need to succeed not just on tests, but in life, we must first accept that life in the 21st century is not like life was in the 20th century (or the 19th century, in which our present instructional methodology was founded). As John Dewey famously stated, "If we teach today like we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow." In order to build and plan for the future, we must first recognize key differences between life in the 20th and 21st centuries, and build our classroom experiences with a mind toward the skills necessary to thrive in a 21st century world. In short, what we need to be doing is preparing kids for something I like to call, Life 2.0. To my mind, the following are what Life 2.0 is all about:
  • Information abundance: The days of the textbook and teacher being the sole source of knowledge and information are gone, and we would do well to recognize it. According to the IDC, 1.2 zettabytes of knowledge and information was created on the internet in 2010. In human terms, that's the equivalent of 100 million times the Library of Congress. To put it in personal terms, that's 80 terabytes of information per person, or the equivalent of a stack of books 7000 feet tall, per man, woman, and child on the face of the earth. When we consider that, according to the latest research in neuroscience, the capacity of the human brain is between 4-10 terabytes (1/8th the total knowledge created per person on an annual basis), the only conclusion we can come to is that we've outsourced our memories to Google. We need to be preparing our kids with the skills necessary to navigate a world of abundant information. Now more than ever students must learn to analyze content for validity and bias, but perhaps even more importantly, students must have the opportunity to learn how to filter. Navigating a society driven by information abundance requires skills that can't be learned by mere demonstration, but instead must be experienced and exercised on a continual basis.
  • Free and open: We live in a world that is increasingly driven by that which is free and open. Free and open tools and resources have not only driven the information abundance described above, but have also changed the way we think about economics, politics, socialization, and life. Free software and tools have empowered us with new capabilities to create and innovate. Social media and other Web 2.0 tools have enabled us to connect, share, and collaborate in new ways. Open content has given us access to information we might not otherwise have gained access to and, more importantly, the ability to participate in the creation of that content, bringing improvements and relevance by way of our own knowledge and experience. This brings with it the further opportunity to remix that content into something new, different, and perhaps equally relevant. Increasingly, the nature of intelligence has shifted from "what do I know and what can I do" to "what can I do with what I don't know and what people and resources can I bring to solve a problem." How will we leverage these tools to bring creativity, innovation, and teamwork back into our classrooms? How will we teach our kids to navigate in these spaces safely and effectively? What will we do to make sure that they understand the implications of their online actions? We cannot continue to pretend these don't exist, we must take an active role in educating our students and, more importantly, leverage these tools for the educational opportunities they provide.
  • Managing choice: All of the abundant information and free resources bring with them a new problem: managing choice. In a society of abundance such as ours, managing choice has become increasingly difficult. Where we once had to choose between two or three options, we now find ourselves choosing between tens, if not hundreds of choices. And we face these choices every single day. In our increasingly structured, scripted, and test driven environments, the opportunities for kids to make choices are often few and far between. Technology-driven access to the abundances above brings with it not only opportunities for our students to make those choices, but also creates opportunities for us as educators to provide guidance and the value of our experience as we ask tough questions, like "why did you make that choice" and "what led you to that decision."
  • Hyper-connected: If there is one thing that the Internet, computers, smart phones, and every other piece of electronics tells us, it is that we live in a hyper-connected society. Access is no longer reserved for a precious few on an occasional basis, it is continuously available to all, at a moments notice. We expect to be able to send a message instantly. We expect immediate responses. We assume that we will be able to get to digital information and resources immediately. This is how we live, how our parents live, and what our kids see every day. Unfortunately, when they get to the classroom, we shut off all the devices and pretend that the world doesn't work this way. Students go home to see mom and dad working on their computers, looking things up, making reservations, etc., etc., then come to school and see none of it. And we wonder why kids don't think school is relevant and why parents are voting with their feet.
  • Embracing failure: The fear of failure can be one of the most crippling things in life, perhaps never more so than in the educational environment. In a place where discovery and exploration are held in the highest regard, the opportunity to fail gracefully has been gradually weeded out in favor of a "pass/fail" mentality. Whether intentionally or not, we systematically condition our students to fear failure through a steady regimen of "proven strategies" (read scripts) that over-emphasize "standards" and "tests". Science fairs are eliminated, arts programs diminished, drama and dance are nearly non-existent, and technology is banished to the periphery because it doesn't fit neatly into a pass/fail model. Funny thing is, life doesn't fit this model either, which may explain why so many schools have settled on a goal of "preparing kids for college" (ie to pass tests), rather that preparing them for life. What we must never forget, no matter what circumstances are forced upon us, is that without failure, there is no success. We learn when we fail. We grow when we fall. Science is all about learning from failure, and failure is a key component of innovation, without which nothing would ever be tried. The right technology brings with it the opportunity to create environments where students have the opportunity to not just fail, but to fail gracefully, recover quickly, and move forward having learned from the experience in a non-threatening way.
The challenge for us moving forward is to find ways to embrace these five key characteristics through our educational practice. I believe (and have the data to back up my belief) that this can be achieved through the use of the right technologies and the creation of effective environments for learning. And all of it can be accomplished without sacrificing content or standards or any of the other "requirements" laid on us by the state, without significant burden on our staff.

Key components of this 21st century learning environment must include:
  • Every student must have a device. That device must be reliable, durable, continuously accessible, and available at a moment's notice. It must be hyper-connected via a wireless infrastructure, have a long battery life so as to not require mid-day charging, and be flexible and capable for creating and sharing. The device must be low cost, as the district (and potentially our parents) must be able to easily afford to purchase/maintain it. Above all, these devices need to be easy for a teacher to manage, providing recovery features that they can perform themselves to keep class moving forward.
  • Every student must have access to a diverse range of resources and tools. These not only empower students to create in a variety of ways, but also afford the opportunity for students (and teachers) to make the choices discussed above, and to differentiate based on each student's (and teacher's) individual needs.
  • Everyone (teachers and students) must have a place to share and swap. Providing a space to post, share, and collaborate creates an environment of sharing and adds relevance to even the most mundane student activities by bringing an authentic audience. In addition, a shared space offers teachers and leaders the opportunity to collect the "artifacts of learning" each student creates over the course of their academic career, regardless of where or how the artifact was created. And perhaps most importantly, a shared space helps to create a culture of open collaboration, where ideas are developed/learned/spread beyond the walls of the classroom and the bounds of the school, to the benefit of all.
  • An empowered teacher. That teacher needs appropriate staff development, opportunities for collaboration, and tools and resources to guide and manage a technology-rich learning environment.
Of course, deployment should be age appropriate. Experience tells us that grade four is probably the earliest we would want to get each student a device. But that doesn't mean that our instructional strategies for grades K-3 should remain unchanged - quite the contrary. All grade level strategies should be adjusted with an eye towards the fourth through sixth grade technology infusion. Opportunities for keyboarding and other essential skills should be worked into lower grade classroom time. K-3 teachers need the tools to leverage digital content and media in the classroom, and to demonstrate/model 21st century skills and citizenship. The obvious growth path is a natural progression that leads to full technology immersion by grade four.

As such, we need to work on getting the following key components into every school:
  • Expand existing wireless infrastructure to school-wide at every school: Relatively easy to do and inexpensive, based on our SWATTEC experience.
  • Projector and laptop for every teacher in all grades: Every teacher needs a way to present and share with students, and they also need to be mobile so that they can build/prepare/leverage technological resources wherever they might be.
  • iPad: Every teacher should have an iPad (in lieu of a SmartBoard or interactive slate). iPads offer teachers the ability to perform all of the "smart" lessons and activities from any location in the classroom. They alleviate the need for a mounted board, which forces a teacher to stand in the shadow of a projector at the front of the class, and are preferable to interactive slates, as interacting with the screen on the iPad directly is far easier than watching the projection while manipulating a slate by braille. iPads are extremely easy for teachers to adopt, enabling teachers to access online resources, leverage a variety of learning applications, utilize existing content libraries, and create new resources for ongoing instructional use. They are also far less expensive and more capable than boards or slates.
  • Voice/audio reinforcement: Reduces voice strain for teachers. Students learn better when they can hear teachers clearly and continuously, regardless of the teacher's location or facing direction. In addition, reinforcement systems can hook into teacher laptops and media distribution systems to provide audio for multimedia being delivered via projector.
  • Central lab or shared device cart with sufficient equipment for primary grades to utilize as they learn and prepare for full immersion. These can be smaller and have fewer requirements than typical labs/carts, as the class sizes and student capabilities will be smaller. Can be built with existing computers in the remaining, non-1:1 classrooms.
  • Continue to build out our efforts to provide netbooks for every student grades 4-6. These can be both district provided and/or parent provided.
By laying this as a foundation, we create an environment where nearly anything is possible, and bring not only relevance to our learning activities, but also the opportunity to guide our students as they learn key 21st century skills through direct experience. Ubiquitous access brings with it the opportunity, dare I say the necessity to transform the learning environment and instructional strategies to meet the characteristics of the 21st century world. Above all, it creates a space where the idea of technology as an "add-on" or "activity" melts away, and instead technology is both assumed and presumed, transparent and expected. As is so well stated by Weston & Bain (2010), "Bransford et al (2000), Jonassen (2000, 2004, 2006, 2008), and Jonassen et al. (1999), fix the future of educational technology in cognitive tools that shape and extend human capabilities. Cognitive tools blur the unproductive distinctions that techno-critics make between computers and teaching and learning (Bullen & Janes, 2007; Hukkinen, 2008; Kommers et al., 1992; Lajoie, 2000). When technology enables, empowers, and accelerates a profession's core transactions, the distinctions between computers and professional practice evaporate. For instance, when a surgeon uses an arthriscope to trim a cartilage (Johnson & Pedowitz, 2007), a structural engineer uses computer-assisted design software to simulate stresses on a bridge (Yeomans, 2009), or a sales manager uses customer-relations-management software to predict future inventory needs (Baltzen & Phillips, 2009), they do not think about technology. Each one thinks about her or his professional transaction."

Best of all, through research on our own SWATTEC project (Warschauer, 2010) and that of countless others, we know that this strategy works (unlike peripheral delivery technologies). As concluded by Bebell & Kay (2010), "the types of educational access and opportunities afforded by 1:1 computing (lead) to measurable changes in teacher practices, student achievement, student engagement, and students' research skills." - all outcomes I believe we should collectively strive for.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Compfight cc 


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  1. Nicely organized and well thought out article.You really seem to empower education with your research and knowledge. Your article is one of my favorites because it demonstrates the power and the empowerment of technology when it is well used in a classroom, school and district operation. Yet, when you select a single device over others, it makes your article suspect. With the limitation of an iPad, wouldn't a small computer, like an Intel Companion 10 that runs Flash to ensure full capacity of a teacher in the classroom? There are other devices that support "smart" lessons and activities from any location in the classroom. I am surprised you are promoting one device over others that have more capacity. I love my iPad, but find it too limiting.

  2. @Frisbie Thanks for your comment - I appreciate your support! Anyone who knows me knows that I am no fan of the iPad overall - I've written a number of posts about it. That said, at this time, in this context, and for this purpose I believe it to be the right device. I have no illusions about its capabilities as a primary device, which is why I am suggesting it for its intended use-case: as a companion device for a fully capable machine (laptop). The idea is that it would serve as a highly portable remote control, annotation, and recording tool for the laptop, which would be doing all the heavy lifting.While I would love for this device to be an Android tablet, in the near-term and for this particular purpose there is a richer set of annotation and remote control apps for the iPad than any other tablet platform (although I expect that will change.) In particular, I'm looking at apps like Air Display, Splashtop Remote Desktop, and Doceri, combined with apps on the laptop like Ink2Go or SMART Notebook software. As I said, since we'd be controlling the laptop, we could do anything, without limitation.We have tested netbooks like the Intel Companion 10 and Dell Inspiron Duo, but ease-of-use, weight, and convenience are an issue. Even the iPad feels heavy after you've carried it around in one hand for an hour or so.

  3. I find it ironic that every student needs a "Device" but every teacher needs an "iPad". Device neutrality for students, but not for teachers. Quit drinking the Apple Kool Aid people.

  4. @Phil - Did you read the comments above? Also read my iPad/tablet revolution post here for my opinion of the iPad - I am no fan. As I said, this is to achieve a specific near-term goal - to perform annotation and remote control functions. Long-term we'll continue to look at alternatives until a better solution presents itself, but I don't see one on the horizon (in the near-term). I also list netbooks for students in the "to-do list" section for our district, which is a specific technology that I believe to be ideal.Keep in mind that the strategy is divided into two parts above: the overall vision/belief in the upper part, and our district-specific strategy at the bottom. The "we" in the "what we need to work on" section is what we at Saugus need to work on. Everyone else is certainly free to choose the solution they believe to be best.

  5. Jim, as someone who provides training and professional development to teachers in the realm of technology, I have observed something that is not sufficiently addressed in your otherwise wonderfully insightful article. As one of your key components you list "An empowered teacher" and go on to explain by saying "That teacher needs appropriate staff development, opportunities for collaboration, and tools and resources to guide and manage a technology-rich learning environment." My experience is that a teacher needs to be empowered not only by the district they work for, but from within themselves. My group has contact with thousands of practicing teachers every year and unfortunately there is a prevalent attitude of "technology is just one more thing we need to deal with." This comes from veteran teachers as well as those new to the field. Many attend PD events that are technology related not because they want to shift the way they teach, but because that are required to be there or because being there moves them up the career ladder.District leaders are not the only ones who need to embrace the concepts that you outline. Teachers need to be open to teaching in technology rich environments. It is going to mean not only adopting new strategies and redesigning lessons plans and classroom learning environments to be student-centered, but shifting their own thought processes and coming out of their comfort zones. Certainly it will be imperative for district leaders to not only empower teachers by providing staff development, collaborative opportunities, and the tools and resources that you mention, but they are also going to have to hire staff, set expectations and evaluate staff appropriately to support these expectations.This also speaks to teacher preparation programs. Districts are hiring newly minted teachers with the assumption that they have all kinds of technology experience. But that is simply not the case. While these new teachers may have been exposed to technology more than their veteran counterparts and some may even have lifelong technology experience, many do not have sufficient training or experience to support the 21st Century skills that you outline. Teacher preparation programs are going to need to address these issues also. Moving forward, having expertise in a subject or grade level is not going to be enough. Teachers will need to be prepared using 21st Century skills on how to teach using 21st Century skills. Teachers will have to fully embrace this 21st Century mindset and be supported by forward thinking 21st Century leaders.Thanks so much for your article. I will be using it as a basis for planning as my group looks for ways to help schools and teachers to transform the learning environments they create for their students from a technology standpoint.

  6. @Denise, thanks for shining a light on the elephant in the room. Old habits die hard, and it's not always accurate to apply generational stereotypes. You get varying degrees of "I can only use 'kleenex' to blow my nose, and 'xerox' for copying" from people, regardless of age. It's all about attitude, and how open the individual is to exploring solutions outside their respective comfort zones.

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