Occasionally I hate when I’m right

South Korean students using computers in their classroom

Quote from a recent BBC News article on global (and particularly South Korean) educational technology:

“President Barack Obama’s “Digital Promise”, announced last month, involves a new national centre to advance technologies that can supposedly transform teaching and learning… Given the way education in the US is so highly devolved there are bound to be continuing questions over how much the initiative can achieve.”

Ouch.  That word: devolved, really hit me where it hurts.  Why? because I’ve used it on this blog before, though this BBC reporter has added the even more damning adjective, highly.  It has long seemed that while the rest of the developed world invests mightily in its future (the kids), bringing to bear the best technology and practices our innovations and research have to offer, voters in the US have driven the political system into a death spiral of complacency.

So here we have an article, written by the British press, peering into our house and perceiving its condition the same way I do, though part of me has long hoped that the decline I have witnessed is relatively insignificant compared to what our politicians would have us believe is our fundamental, God-given, inevitable superiority.

So am I merely cynical, or is this an accurate representation of what American education has become and  will be for generations to come?


“Technology is not related to instruction”

The sentiment above has been expressed by those who prefer to concentrate their energies on preserving 19th century instructional practices, and this topic is debated endlessly, so for the moment I’m going to concede the position as being dearly held by many, and it sounds good when there is no immediate consequence to holding it.

However, while “There is no connection between instruction and technology” may be a position held by both practitioners and recipients of this thing we call “education,” the reality in the modern work world seems barely aware of the argument.

My recent brush with the media was instructive:  http://www.reuters.com/video/2011/09/07/roadkill-research-link to roadkill videoreveals-clues-for-cons?videoId=221334793&videoChannel=74 

Ben Gruber, the Reuters reporter who scheduled, interviewed, shot and edited this story, was a history major in college with a passion for writing and politics.  Over the course of his career, he was presented with a choice, along with his colleagues, between becoming technology-fluent or getting out of the business.  Multimedia news stories were once produced by a writer, cameraman, sound man, producer and (often) a driver.  Ben Gruber: one guy with a car, camera, tripod, and clip-on microphone.

If you weren’t willing to adapt to the changes in the profession, if you felt you didn’t have the tools to evolve professionally, the decision as to whether you would remain a Reuters reporter would not have been left for you to make.  No one wants to hear, “But no one showed me how to do that!” They only want to hear, “Sure, I can figure that out.”

Is the plea for students to master “21st Century Skills” really just cover for ed tech people to convince others to buy more toys?  Is it really okay to graduate someone who can only write, then another who can only run a camera, and another who can only drive the car?  Ben demonstrates here that we are advised to pay attention to what it takes to be a contributor to the world in 2011 and into the future.

The world that is looking for people to run modern systems has little room for narrowly-trained specialists, and desperate for creative problem-solvers who are willing to keep learning and create learning environments for themselves for their entire working lives.

Egypt on the rise

Last Spring a young Egyptian woman, Mona, contacted me in her effort to visit K-12 classes while she studied at UC Berkeley for the summer, wishing to see our use of technology in our classrooms.  There were logistical difficulties owing to our now very limited summer school offerings, but we managed to set up some class visits for her at a couple of our sites including our charter New Tech Network high school, Da Vinci Academy.

Regrettably I was unable to meet Mona due to my own summer travels, but she apparently left grateful for the time she silver keychain with Egyptian symbolswas able to spend with us.  On my desk this morning I found an envelope with a keychain, the fob pictured here.  In a subsequent email exchange, she called it a “humble gift,” though while perhaps humble, I found it moving and deeply thought-provoking.

I have referred to recent events in the “Arab Spring” in previous posts to this blog, and Mona’s visit has brought those events even closer to my professional world view.

On numerous occasions throughout my career, I have been visited by international teams of educators, mostly from Asia, intent on learning how it is we Americans do what we do.  These were nations that were building infrastructure and slowly growing their social systems, rethinking how education should be done, and reaching for ideas.  If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice the citizens of Singapore, Shanghai, and South Korea haven’t done so badly for themselves over the past twenty years.  Now the visits and learning are traveling from the West to the East as we grapple with our own value systems and the defunding of education.

Egypt and other Arab countries on the distant other hand, rather than slowly developing a system, are in a head-long charge to remake their societies.  In London and Philadelphia young people use Facebook and Twitter to vandalize their neighborhoods out of boredom and general adolescent disgust with authorities.  In Cairo and Alexandria, young people are using these technologies to remake their world into something meaningful, changing governments, lighting their way to the future.

I have found myself increasingly envious of Mona as an educator in Egypt.  To be an technology-oriented educator in a country that is hungry for relevance, powered by people impassioned by a vision of the future that provides a world in which they want their grandchildren to prosper would be a dream.

Perhaps if we in America can look abroad for these examples of people looking beyond their personal and immediate comfort and affluence to focus on the future they are creating, we may avoid international irrelevance.

“A video’s worth how many words?”

My recent conversation with Thomson Reuter’s Science & Environment reporter Ben Gruber regarding the California Roadkill Observation System for which I am a “citizen observer” evolved, naturally enough, into a discussion regarding ed tech.  Any reader of this blog might expect my side of the conversation to devolve into my usual rant regarding the American preoccupation with traditional instruction and the consequent loss of our national competitive edge in science and technology to those countries willing to make the necessary investment in their children.

In the spirit of “You’re going to hate this…,” Ben mentioned a story he recently completed regarding the aggressive South Korean national investment in education technology, understanding the inherent service to their national self-interest as they look to the future of their country.

Ben’s resulting Reuters video story is far more powerful than any further words I can offer.  Please invest 2:26 of your time and think hard about the cultural back story:

Living as we do in a nation that popularly refuses to acknowledge the link between education and technology presumably because it requires we spend money on children instead of warfare and pleasure seeking (we can afford chalk and pencils for them, can’t we?), it is comforting that someone in the world sees fit to prepare their children for their troubled planet so they may address its problems with all the necessary tools they will need.  I remain sad that my own country is not counted in that number.  No one needs to “bomb us back into the stone age”** to win at the civilization game.  We need only stand still while the world passes us by.


** This phrase, ironically enough, came into popular usage amidst the coverage of twentieth century American policy toward Asian countries.  See this article on the topic if you’re interested.

Add your 1:1 fantasy here…

There is growing interest among educators in my district, technical and curricular alike, in the reality of students increasingly making WiFi/cellular-connected devices part of their daily life-gear. There is keen interest in the kimble readermomentum on the equipment-side toward inexpensive tablet devices (most recently hacked out of the near-capable Kindle) that were they to reach the commercial market in that configuration and price-point it could revolutionize not only device acquisition, but the way we budget for text-based materials.  The impact on instruction would be dramatic, revolutionary even.

Colleague and Blue Skunk blogger Doug Johnson recently probed this issue with his post, Specs for Student Devices.  The response to this post was interesting, and the conversation stopper was cost of the $400-$500 devices that dominate the discussion, as equity is always the deal-breaker in public education.  So what happens when we throw Marvell’s $99marvell moby tablet Moby tablet into the discussion?  Suddenly conversation turns to textbook budgets, open-source becomes a favorite sidebar, and discussions around educational equity become laced with “What if we [add your favorite topping here].”

Our departmental water cooler discussions are now drifting toward considering the feasibility of universal WiFi to serve students and staff bringing their devices to school.

What will be the evolution and changes in campus behavior once this happens?  What will be the best practices in service to equity of opportunity for all students?  How do we guide system-disruptive technologies to further our effectiveness as educators?

I’m asking readers to take a break from the work routine and wax fanciful here.  Let’s say that in the next year or so we can think of all students as “haves” and the cost-of-device issue disappears.  Let’s add to this assumption that our legislators will see the digital light and crack open the means by which we bring information to students allowing us to fund the best future.  How do we move educational structures into the future with relevance and a smile?

Is Tech Funding Racist?

rosa parks busThis thought has dogged me since this news item appeared on NPR.org yesterday: Ohio Case: The ‘Rosa Parks Moment’ For Education? You’ll find it helpful to read the article before proceeding here. [You’ll notice the line the Rosa Parks bus ran on was the Cleveland line – sadly ironic in this context.]

To see my gut-level reaction as a dad and sometimes-educator-cynic, scroll down in that article and check out the “Most Recommended” comments, complete with typos I overlooked in my haste to comment yesterday morning.  You’ll see I find the behavior of the Ohio school district particularly outrageous, especially in the light of how I’ve experienced our local legal system’s failure to serve society’s mandate to educate all our students to the highest level possible.

But being an ed tech guy, it didn’t take long for my curiosity to grow about whether tech funding in Ohio follows the local property tax education funding patterns common in so many states, a funding pattern that allows segregation and socioeconomic Balkanization to persist in so much of twenty-first century America.  So this morning, while my kids waited for my participation in our weekend buttermilk pancake ritual, I took a look at Ohio’s EETT competitive awards in their last round.

Fully expecting the other outcome, I was delighted to see that the Ohio EETT competitive awards, however paltry in this economy, were granted exclusively to urban schools, most of which were over 90% African American in student ethnicity.   It would appear that our state level ed tech colleagues in Ohio are indeed fulfilling their EETT mandate.

However, we all know that EETT-C awards do not fund infrastructure, they do not fund network administrators, they do not fix leaky roofs in classrooms, server rooms, and computer labs.  The larger picture remains one of grossly inequitable opportunity persisting in most of America.  I entered this field precisely because I believe technology to be the great social-leveler of modern time.  One Laptop Per Child truly captured my imagination as I entered ed tech; the idea of a child in the African bush networking with another in Brooklyn, NY, is now real, and it is changing the world.

Technology has been a social equalizer since humans began making stone axes and hide scrapers, with early adopters enjoying clear competitive advantages in every Darwinian sense.  We see headlines of technology at work in Tunisia and Egypt [and again here] today as young people demand opportunity to control their destinies and our government organizes its bully pulpit resources in support of those movements.  Why is it that we can wrap our collective imaginations around flattening the world between nations, but we remain essentially blind to this critical social need to extend equal opportunity, fueling the collective good, when it comes to people in the next town, or even the next neighborhood over?  Are we humans truly that navel-oriented?


This thought has dogged me since this news item appeared on NPR.org yesterday: Ohio Case: The ‘Rosa Parks Moment’ For Education?  You’ll find it helpful to read the article before proceeding here.