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Let’s stop talking about meaningful global empowerment for youth and start doing it (Online Model United Nations wrap-up)

I’d like to extend a huge thank you to Lisa Martin, Kristin Rowe, and their students for taking over my blog for the past week. All of the guest posts regarding Online Model United Nations (O-MUN) are linked below.

This is the kind of powerful, global, student-driven learning that is possible if we adults are willing to make it happen. As school leaders, we say that we want meaningful, collaborative, cross-border interactions for our youth. We say that we want to empower students to make a difference in the world. Let’s stop talking about it and start doing it. As the O-MUN movement shows us, our children are willing and able to step up and help us…

  1. Connected global youth and the Online Model United Nations movement
  2. The nuts and bolts of online debating
  3. Palestinian-Israeli citizen calling for peace, making her voice heard through Online Model United Nations
  4. Online Model United Nations: Raising our voices
  5. Junior Online Model United Nations: Connecting masters and apprentices
  6. Why do teachers have an excuse when it comes to technology in the classrooms?
  7. Making connected learning the norm: What will it take?

Making connected learning the norm: What will it take? [guest post]

On this almost three-year-long journey that has made up the development of Online Model United Nations (O-MUN), I have returned time and again to two overriding questions: What does it take to nurture this kind of innovation  among students and educators, and what role do we want schools to play in making this happen?

Educators need both the recognition from their school leadership and the time and support to do innovative work. Much as we know that students need time and space to be innovative in our classrooms, this also holds true for teachers. School leaders themselves run on a deficit of time so I am sympathetic. But how many great projects and truly innovative ideas are simmering in the backs of teacher’s minds, dabbled on over weekends or in the 20-minute downtimes before heading to bed? Educators need the luxury of time, supported by their schools and funded by their districts.

St Judes_Future delegates

I think about this a lot. What would Online Model United Nations have looked like had I been given one class period to develop this from within my school? Would my core global leadership team have been less diverse, pulled more from my school and less from the rest of the world? Perhaps. But what could have been gained by classroom students had they been given this opportunity? Would my website nightmares have been worked through more quickly had I been able to go to tech support down the hall? Could I have connected with regional thought leaders to expand O-MUN into our school’s professional conference network had I been given the necessary support? How would the school have benefited from that exposure? Without recognition from within my own school, these are moot points, wasted opportunities, and, for me personally, drivers that led me to search elsewhere.

Tanzania_1

How can teachers tap into funding or partnerships when ‘initiatives’ are only supported if they are narrowly defined as ‘Common Core’ or ‘STEM?’ What if you are a teacher in search of funding, recognition, or exposure but are not tied to a district – or the form you are trying to complete won’t advance because you are not tied to a physical school? How can you find working partnerships with teachers who cannot find the time and space to do something that’s not benchmarked to the standards or covered in standardized tests? How can you work across disciplines when the boundaries between them have become so entrenched that they feel insurmountable? This is where enlightened leadership comes into play, because tearing down these walls is something that cannot be done by teachers alone, particularly teachers consumed with building something new. If the work crew for O-MUN had included a few more key adults in positions of support, perhaps my program would have developed more quickly, or with stronger foundations, or with added benefit to my own school. Regardless, once the program was built, would there be an administrator on the other side willing to take the time to give it a look, give it an endorsement, and give it time and a place within the school culture?

Zoe online

I think these questions are indicative of this unique time and place in education. The experiences and spaces that we want our own students to build cannot be done without teachers and administrators having gone through the process too. You can’t buy off-the-shelf, organic, collaborative, student-driven programs. If this is what we say we want for education, how will we get there? Who will support it? What has to change within the culture of a school to bring ideas to fruition and, once ‘ripe for the picking,’ incorporate them in meaningful ways so that programs can develop and mature within a school’s culture?

One thing O-MUN has taught me is that students are more than capable of developing and driving major educational initiatives. These initiatives will take place because they can, because technology makes it possible, and because they often are more meaningful than what happens in a traditional classroom. Can they become part of a school’s repertoire or will the real-world, student-driven initiatives be left outside of it, further widening the gulf between schools and real-world engagement? For every multi-million dollar education company pitching a high-tech way of doing the same thing we’ve done for years, how many countless organic initiatives in need of nurturing and support are simply wasted and, by extension, become lost opportunities for students? As frustrating as this seems, I am excited for all of us as we begin to see the truly great things that connected, collaborative learning can bring us.  Spend a bit of time in the O-MUN universe and you really will believe that anything is possible!

Please visit the Online Model United Nations website for further information. If you are involved in Model United Nations, please consider joining the Model UN Leadership Initiative to discuss ideas, research, and innovations within the field. O-MUN also is developing a number of national-level programs. If you are a teacher and think that you would like to oversee one of these country-wide programs, contact Lisa for more information.

Previously in this series

Lisa Martin is a 20+ year educator who has worked in places as far flung as the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, San Diego, and, now, Amman, Jordan. She is the Co-Founder and Director of Online Model United Nations and would love to connect with like-minded educators. You can find her just about everyplace online, including FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

Online Model United Nations: Raising our voices [guest post]

My first contact with Online Model United Nations (O-MUN) was in my sophomore year of high school. At the time, I approached the program with some degree of caution; after all, although I had done a substantial amount of Model United Nations (MUN), I had never heard of its existence online. MUN was supposed to be in real time, face-to-face, wasn’t it? How was an online MUN program even possible, let alone practical?

The extensive MUN program at my school had already served me well. By the end of my sophomore year, I had done MUN in three continents and I wanted more. However, clear barriers existed which prevented me from acquiring more experience. After all, traveling expenses, geographical distance, restrictions on face-to-face meetings, and time off school ultimately set a conference limit and a school only has so many human resources.

O-MUN1                                         OMUN2

The Online MUN debate platform is a Blackboard Collaborate room, where traditional elements of a f2f conference are replicated online – for example, delegates raising their placards to indicate they are ready to take the floor. O-MUN student leaders run monthly Tech Check sessions for new delegates and students quickly adjust to the debate room environment.

My first online conference, however, was the game-changer. With the friendly accents of delegates from over four continents, with the sheer intensity of debate over the South China Sea archipelagos, with the voices of students my age hungry to make a positive difference, a feeling of belonging stirred within me. I felt connected to a group of people who, like me, were filled with raw idealism in hoping to help others. I was empowered – I could now influence and be influenced by change-makers from over fifty countries.

With Online MUN I can debate multiple times every month, and with far greater authenticity due to the international nature of the program. It is not uncommon to be in a committee with delegates from three continents, some of whom are directly tied to the conflict in question. In my opinion, it is this democratization of a more authentic MUN experience that separates the MUN of today from the MUN of tomorrow.

The middle school delegates of jrO-MUN (Junior Online MUN), many of them new to MUN, are particularly appreciative of the way this online simulation is democratizing the MUN experience. They recognize that jrO-MUN brings an authentic experience of international diplomacy to their fingertips. They see that jrO-MUN is giving them a voice. Middle School delegates who are fully capable and passionate about debating are often denied early MUN access due to resources. They may have to wait their turn while older students take up travel team positions and have their overseas adventures, but junior delegates no longer have to wait for a genuinely globe-spanning MUN debate.

OMUN3

Secretary General, Rohan Sinha, sets up the interface for a Security Council simulation. Junior O-MUN is also integrating crisis scenarios into traditional face-to-face debates using the O-MUN platform, an exciting addition to middle school MUN programs.

Over the past year, as jrO-MUN Secretary General, I have had the opportunity to lead and learn from students all around the world; from my laptop at home in Taiwan to the lecture halls of Georgetown University in Qatar and the assembly halls of The Hague in the Netherlands. More than ever before, I realize the power of exposure – early exposure – to different voices with shared passions. O-MUN sets the stage for this chorus.

Previously in this series

Rohan Sinha serves as the Global Secretary General of Junior Online MUN (jrO-MUN), the middle school partner program to O-MUN. Currently a high school junior at Taipei American School, Rohan started MUN in seventh grade and since then has debated in conferences in Taipei, Berlin, New York, and Qatar. He also founded and leads his school’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team, after having won the Gold Medal at the college iGEM competition at MIT with the NYMU Taipei team.

The nuts and bolts of online debating [guest post]

THIMUN Online Model United Nations evolved around (mostly) free and open source technology tools and today revolves around three, interrelated parts: our website, our Blackboard Collaborate suite of conference rooms, and our social media network. Each of these pieces plays a part in creating an online community that is both student-centered and capable of delivering information in a timely fashion. Much of O-MUN’s development has been experimenting with this combination of pieces, finding ways to make them work seamlessly with each other, and searching for other options when they have not.

Website: Our current website feels a little bit like a driving a Ferrari – way too powerful a machine for someone who just got a driver’s license. Our website is run off a Drupal platform: not exactly user-friendly, but full of possibility. We burned through our wiki and our WordPress site in a matter of months. As we grew and attempted to add more functionality to our website (something we felt was important because we didn’t want the program driven entirely off Facebook), these two options filled a need but quickly became too limiting.  Currently we run our blogs and debate registrations off our new home, and we hope to include messaging, forums, and additional program websites in the future. Students and MUN Directors are encouraged to register on the site and, once approved, may then sign in, click on a debate event, and register to debate. Goodbye Google Surveys, a system we outgrew and that was becoming far too cumbersome for our needs.

Blackboard (Bb) Collaborate Conference Rooms: O-MUN’s first conference room was a 50-seat room that we won in a Learn Central  competition. The following year we were generously provided a room by The Hague International Model United Nation’s office in Qatar (THIMUN Q). When we needed more than one room, they updgraded our license. O-MUN now has 18 rooms, with various parts of the program each having their own specialized room (jrO-MUN, ICJ, Security Council, Asia, France, etc.) This is the only significant piece of kit that we pay for. We have not found suitable alternatives but Blackboard’s pricing structure is madly frustrating and does not adequately address the needs of small, non-profit with inconsistent first-time user numbers. Customer support also can be a bit dicey, particularly if you are not a large institutional customer. Having said that, it offers everything we need and the students find it easy to use!

Symbaloo is the only way I can keep our multiple room links straight.

Symbaloo is the only way I can keep our multiple room links straight

Students log into the Bb conference room as their country using the following protocol +China (name). This allows participants to be placed in alphabetical order. Guests log in as ‘guest’ and sink to the bottom. Moderators/Chairs log in with their name (position), with the exception of Amendments. An amendment student logs in as “amendments.’ When a delegate wants to submit a proposed change to the resolution being debated, she sends it via private message to this moderator. We only use the audio feature in Bb since 30-60 students with multiple bandwidth issues would make video streaming too difficult. You can hear an example of a debate and what it sounds like.

             Debate_Global

Behind the scenes a WHOLE LOT OF ACTION is happening. Students, upon initiation into this moderating world, describe it as a ‘rush,’ ‘wild,’ ‘hairy,’ a ‘multi-tasker’s nirvana.’ All moderators (and it takes a minimum of five to run a debate) are logged into a Skype group for backchannel communication. The tally moderator and the chair are logged into a shared Google doc to track every speech and question and update that in real time. The amendment’s moderator (the most challenging moderating position) is fielding private chats (amendments), copying those into a separate Skype group so that these can be reviewed with the chair, and operating a TitanPad (similar to Google docs) that is pulled into the Bb room via a web tour.  The Chair and Co-Chair calmly officiate over the debate but behind the scenes the tally mod is tracking participation, the chat mods are reviewing ALL private communications to check for suitability and appropriateness, and the amendments moderator is working the Titan Pad. ALL of them are on Skype, messaging hints, calling for assistance, offering encouragement. One or two university students – and usually myself – are present to oversee all of this but it is, for the most part, a student-run show.

And the best part? These students are usually on separate continents. It is very common to have a chair and co-chair from the USA and United Arab Emirates, chat mods from Taiwan and Jordan, an Amendments mod from Nigeria, and a tally mod from Lebanon or Tanzania. Throw in an Assistant Director from Somalia or Hong Kong and you’ll see just how crazily amazing this gets.  In a recent debate, we had participants from over 30 countries log in synchronously for a 90-minute debate on reaching the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal on universal primary education.

Social Media: It all started with Facebook but we do engage with some of our delegates via Twitter, using #omun and @onlinemun to communicate. Students recently set up a Tumblr account to engage in some of the sillier outreach we like to do: photo competitions, videos, and the like. Online Model United Nations has a LinkedIn Business page as well. But it really has been about Facebook. We have regional groups, moderating groups, leadership groups, working groups, and travel team groups. It’s a lot of Facebook but it is where students are. I now use social media like many of my students – friending and unfriending students to form alliances, to get information, and to network. Since email has become oh-so-20th-century to many of these millennials, I am more apt to communicate with them via private messaging than any other form of communication. In the evening here in the Middle East, my computer and iPad ping and squawk for hours as the messaging occurs in a steady stream.

FB  FB_message_SC

So that’s our world, developed fully-online by students from around the globe. But technology is just part of the equation here and, in my opinion, the smallest part of a larger story. The next several blog posts will give you a glimpse into the transformative nature of this program. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing from the students who have worked so hard to build THIMUN Online Model United Nations.

Previously in this series

Lisa Martin is a 20+ year educator who has worked in places as far flung as the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, San Diego, and, now, Amman, Jordan. She is the Co-Founder and Director of Online Model United Nations and would love to connect with like-minded educators. You can find her just about everyplace online, including FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

Connected global youth and the Online Model United Nations movement [guest post]

I became an educational entrepreneur by accident. A humble social studies teacher and Model United Nations (MUN) director by training, I am now working with students in over 50 countries to develop one of the most innovative global ed programs around: Online Model United Nations, or O-MUN for short. Up until 2011 there had never been a fully online version of this popular academic simulation. While precise estimates are unknown, it is likely that close to half a million students – grade 6 through university – engage in MUN each year. Tapping into this enormous community and undertaking the complex task of developing a free and open program for youth around the globe has changed my views on education, technology, and youth forever. And along the way, I have learned a few lessons that are as telling about the state of education and our comfort/discomfort with student-empowering technology as it is about the actual online debates program itself. So a bit of background is in order.

O-MUN

The first attempt at online MUN was done while I was a teacher at a private, for-profit online high school. I decided to start a Model UN club as my required extra-curricular activity. Using my Blackboard Collaborate classroom, I quickly realized that I needed a model to show my students. With the help of a co-collaborator, we rounded up a dozen students from around the world to test the viability of this platform. For nineteen hours, wave after wave of students found us, logged in, and tested out the room’s features, and  found them to be fun and engaging. Many of the very procedures we use in our program today were discovered and tested  in that first open session. I went to sleep that night with my computer on, listening to the chatter of students in Singapore and Malaysia troubleshooting how to vote or submit amendments. I woke the following morning a changed educator. Like a thunderbolt, I knew I had fallen into something potentially huge. With barely-above-average tech skills and a fair amount of MUN experience, I set out on  a path to develop an online, global debating program for high school students. Two successful debates later, my online school’s administration and corporate leaders began to catch the online MUN fever too, and that is when trouble started.

Delegate at O-MUN

The response of my school was to pull the plug on the entire program. I was then entrusted to a minder and told not to publicly speak about the program. Attorneys were called in to assess how this program could be patented and monetized.  Figures were bandied about, with a princely $235 subscription fee per student the likely price for access to this online debates program. The program was to be run from behind the school’s enormous firewall, and developed in isolation and away from a larger international student population. People with no experience in MUN were put in charge of developing the program. So with the core values of this program at stake, and marginalized within the school for which I had developed the program, I made a tough decision. I walked away from my job and my expensive online classroom – the great enabler of the program. With no good alternatives in sight, and taking very seriously my non-compete clause, I sat it out for a year and, in September of 2011, relaunched the idea as O-MUN, a not-for-profit global education program offered up to students for free. (O-MUN’s vision can be found here.)

Delegate from Tanzania

I tell this story in order to set the stage for what happens next. Without resources, we patched together free and open source technology tools to meet our growing needs. Having to  innovate as we went along, our operating costs were (and remain) negligible. We won an online Blackboard classroom in a contest hosted by Steve Hargadon. With that one precious room as the cornerstone of our program, we launched O-MUN. There was no  institutional backing and very limited ability to connect with a larger audience; in fact, most of the over-25 crowd studiously ignored us during that first year. But we grew because students found us, primarily via  our growing community on Facebook. When our debates were small, we wrung our hands, put our heads together, and tried to figure out the next plan of attack. For the students who got actively involved that first year, they worked together to innovate our leadership structure, down to the positions needed and what their job descriptions would be, how to run our Facebook communities, and what worked/didn’t work with Google Docs. Students actively developed our website, our banners and graphics, and our training and moderating programs, so critical for a student-driven organization. No one made students do this. They certainly didn’t do it for grades. This was in the era of pre-digital badges, so they didn’t even get that (they do now, but more on that later). Most would never meet one another face-to-face, but the O-MUN community esprit des corps soared that year, as did the social currency that binds communities together: inside jokes, shared mythology and legend, even a currency and theme song.

Delegate from UAE

In the waning days of 2013, I look back at what has been O-MUN’s true international debut: a partnership with THIMUN, exposure and collaboration with a small but growing number of organizations, and a proliferation of programs driven by the demand and ideas of students around the world, working collaboratively, simply for the sheer love of MUN and their O-MUN community: a middle school and university level program, the first online model International Court of Justice, national programs in places like Taiwan , Singapore, Turkey, and France (and more on the way), a recently-launched French language version of O-MUN, with Arabic planned for 2014. The frosting on the cake has been O-MUN’s travel teams, proving to others as well as ourselves that online activity can translate into real, face-to-face skill development and opening a path for participation that normally would have been denied students without an online avenue to connect with the larger MUN community.

beach

This week members of our community will share how Online Model United Nations has impacted them, professionally and personally, as delegates and as human beings. I believe they are the voices that educational thought leaders, teachers, administrators, and parents need to hear. What is driving O-MUN’s development is far removed from what we often talk about in education circles. It is my hope that the O-MUN story adds a fresh perspective to the global education conversation.

nick and Salam, opening ceremonies

Previously in this series

Lisa Martin is a 20+ year educator who has worked in places as far flung as the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, San Diego, and, now, Amman, Jordan. She is the Co-Founder and Director of Online Model United Nations and would love to connect with like-minded educators. You can find her just about everyplace online, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

 

Upcoming guest series: Online Model United Nations

FYI, over the next week or so I am turning my blog over to Lisa Martin and the students who help her run the Online Model United Nations (O-MUN) program. Many of you may be familiar with the Model UN program and know what a wonderful experience that is for students. Now imagine taking that program and extending it online and across multiple continents and time zones!

The O-MUN story is an incredible tale of perseverance, creativity, and student empowerment. I hope that this guest series will get you thinking about some possibilities and that you’ll interact with Lisa and these amazing students over the next few days.

The rhetoric of most educational technology ‘solutions’ is vastly overblown

Clicker

Justin Reich says:

if you are building things that are familiar, how are they going to substantially change education?

If our problems are mere inefficiencies – if we need students doing basically exactly what they’ve been doing before but faster – then the gambit of building apps that mirror typical classroom practices will work out great.

If you think that the problems in classrooms are not just about kids doing things a little faster, but doing different things than is current practice, then you need to build things that will be unfamiliar. If your technology is unfamiliar, you need to patiently build a network of educators experimenting with your ideas, reshaping systems – bells, exams, furniture, devices – to accomodate your new technology into a new vision. Initially, these people won’t buy your weirdness; you will practically have to pay them to implement your new ideas.

You, hungry entrepreneur, … you are going to take some familiar feature of classroom experience – the textbook, the flashcard, the lecture, the worksheet, the sticker, the behavior chart – and you will digitize that feature.

Wrapped in a language of transformation and disruption, the ed-tech start-up scene is profoundly conservative.

Our problems in schools go far beyond mere inefficiencies. Are inefficiencies rampant? Absolutely. Can various learning and management technologies help address these inefficiencies? Absolutely. Does merely addressing inefficiencies result in educational ‘transformation?’ Of course not. The rhetoric of most educational technology ‘solutions’ is vastly overblown…

Image credit: Clicker, Tom Magliery

For the purpose of

What is my purpose?

Here are a few session titles from some recent educational technology conferences:

  • Google Apps in the classroom
  • Free and easy screencasting tools
  • Creating a classroom website using Weebly
  • Edit video online for free with the YouTube editor
  • Classroom blogging
  • Google+ and Hangouts
  • Minecraft in the classroom
  • Video on the iPad
  • Podcasting
  • Let’s go for a (Google) Drive!
  • QR codes in the classroom
  • Creating Google Sites
  • Student online newspapers
  • Fusion tables
  • Digital storytelling in the elementary classroom

These are very tool-focused. I know that we only have limited space for our session titles. But somehow – in our titles, our descriptions, and, most importantly, the sessions themselves – we need to keep a primary focus on the learning purpose(s), not the tools:

  • Minecraft in the classroom for the purpose of ___?
  • Free and easy screencasting tools for the purpose of ___?
  • Creating Google Sites for the purpose of ___?
  • Classroom blogging for the purpose of ___?

Next time we plan a workshop or a conference session, can we try to make for the purpose of ___? the primary focus of our session, its title, and its description? I am pledging to do a better job of this myself. Will you join me?

take the pledge

[see who’s taken the pledge to focus on learning first!]

Thank you

Thank you

Dear Prairie Lakes principals and superintendents,

Over the past six weeks, you’ve been getting to know our new tech integration team. We’ve made it a top priority to try and get into your buildings, meet you and your teachers on your turf, and start to build meaningful connections and relationships.

By now you’re probably starting to realize that… well, we’re a little bit different!  :)  Not different just to be different, but different to be better. We’re passionate about what we do, we’re willing to think as far outside the box as necessary, and, yes, when it comes to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ we confess that sometimes we’re a bit irreverent.

Commitments

  1. We are deeply committed to the idea that professional work and professional learning both should be fun. And meaningful. And challenging. And so should our classrooms.
  2. We are deeply committed to quality. We’re building around principles of effective adult learning and we’re using the Influencer design framework to maximize possibility of actual implementation. No more sit-and-get. No more yawn-inducing, one-size-fits-all ‘training.’ And as little drive-by, short-term work as possible.
  3. We are deeply committed to trust and transparency. We will publicly post every single one of our evaluations. We will actively solicit and act upon your feedback. If you’ve got ideas for us, we will listen and adapt. We promise.
  4. We are deeply committed to service. It’s about you and your needs, not ours. We’ve got lots of ideas – and beliefs about powerful learning - but ultimately we’re here to serve you. No dictates. No mandates. Wherever you are, wherever you want to go, we’ll do our best to be of help.

We’re on a mission. A mission to #dreambigger, #designforit, and #makeitbetter. We hope that you’ll join us.

Thank you for the warm welcome, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to be of service to your amazing educators and students. Please stay in touch, and be sure to connect with us online. We are looking forward to our continued work together.

All our best.

SCOTT

Image credit: for Flickr friends 2011, mengjie jo

[cross-posted at rethink. redesign.]

Diane Ravitch and learning technologies: Here we go again

What if all students had EQUAL access to incredible learning tools?

I have previously expressed my concerns regarding Diane Ravitch’s denigration of the power of digital technologies for learning and teaching. Her blog gives her a very visible online platform and I think that she should be a little more careful with her wording and claims, particularly given her self-professed lack of computer fluency. Although she’s been relatively quiet on the technology front lately, I believe that a couple of her recent posts about digital learning tools are worth responding to…

Tablets are not real computers

Diane labels a post from Red Queen as ‘one of the best posts ever.’ She quotes Red Queen:

We all know this about tablet “computers”: they are not real “working” machines. When I proposed buying a tablet for my student the dude behind the counter told me: “Don’t do it. You’ll have to buy a keyboard, it has way less memory and no ports, a smaller screen and slower speed: it’s just not what a serious student needs. By the time you’re done adding on, you’ll have a machine almost as expensive as a real computer with far less functionality”.

Any parent will have received that advice from just about any computer salesman. And while there are a few serious students out there who no doubt feel otherwise, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that the word on the street is: tablets are no substitute for a computer; students need computers.

Red Queen goes on to say that tablet computers are ‘frivolous electronics‘ and Diane includes that quote too.

Of course this belies actual reality. Tablets and smartphones continue to become both more powerful and more popular with every iteration. It is projected that sometime this year total tablet shipments will begin to surpass total PC shipments. Schools and educators that are using tablets are finding that they are quite robust computing machines, often able to do things easier or better than is possible with the larger, heavier, and often clunkier form factor of a laptop or desktop. While many people still may prefer a more expensive and robust computing device, it is ludicrous to say in September 2014 that an iOS or Android tablet isn’t a ‘real computer’ or that ‘serious students’ only should use laptops or desktops.

Finland and South Korea and Poland don’t have digital technology in their classrooms

In another post, Diane cites excerpts from Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World:

The anecdotal evidence suggests that Americans waste an extraordinary amount of tax money on high-tech toys for teachers and students, most of which have no proven learning value whatsoever. . . . In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms.

Old-school can be good school. Eric’s high school in Busan, South Korea had austere classrooms with bare-bones computer labs. Out front, kids played soccer on a dirt field. From certain angles, the place looked like an American school from the 1950s. Most of Kim’s classrooms in Finland looked the same way: rows of desks in front of a simple chalkboard or an old-fashioned white board, the kind that was not connected to anything but the wall. . . . None of the classrooms in [Tom's] Polish school had interactive white boards.

There are numerous issues with these types of quotes. For instance…

  • The unstated assumption that performance on standardized assessments of low-level thinking is how we should judge educational success. I agree that if our goal is better bubble test achievement, we can drill-and-kill kids all day without any technology whatsoever. We’ve had over a century to perfect the numbing of student minds in analog environments. But if we want to prepare students to be empowered learners and doers within current and future information, economic, and learning landscapes, it’s impossible to do that while shunning technology.
  • The disparagement of digital technologies as ‘toys.’ Digital tools and environments are transforming everything around us in substantive, transformative, and disruptive ways. They are not mere toys unless we choose to only use them in that way. It’s a sad indictment of us as educators and communities that it is taking us so long to awaken to the educational possibilities of learning technologies and the Internet.
  • The equation of interactive white boards (and, in a later quote, student response systems) as the sum and substance of educational technology. Those of us who decry such replicative technologies agree that those are insufficiently empowering of students and thus unlikely to make much of an impact. But putting powerful digital tools into the hands of students that let them create, make, connect, collaborate, and make an impact, both locally and globally? That’s a different story. We need a different vision, one in which we don’t merely use digital technologies – and rows of desks in tight formation – to broadcast to students while they sit passively and watch or listen. And we need to stop pointing at those lackluster wastes of learning power and saying, “See? Told you technology doesn’t make a difference.”
  • The nostalgic yearning for the simple classrooms and schools of yesteryear, uncomplicated by modern learning tools (or, apparently, grass in the schoolyard). Ah, yes, remember when life (supposedly) wasn’t so complicated? Does anyone really want to return to 1950s beliefs and worldviews about learning and society? And if they do, what disservice do we do our youth when we prepare them for 60 years ago rather than now and tomorrow?

Wrap-Up

So, to sum up, so far Diane appears to be against online learning and digital educational games and simulations, and she shares posts that are against tablet computers or paint all technologies as disruptive and distracting. And that’s dangerous because people listen to her. She and many of her fans seem to ignore the fact that it’s awfully difficult to prepare students for success in a digital, global world without giving them access to digital technologies and Internet access. Railing against computer expenditures and Internet connectivity for our children is irresponsible, especially when those funds come from different sources and thus can’t be spent on teachers, support staff, professional development, or educational programming.

Now, to give Diane some credit, there are a few concerns raised in these posts that are worth noting:

  1. It’s a reasonable question to ask whether school equipment and construction funds would be better spent on upgrading facilities or purchasing computers for students, particularly given the time horizons of both construction bonds and technology obsolescence. That’s a difficult decision and I’m glad that I don’t have to make it at the scale that the L.A. Unified school district does.
  2. I, too, have grave misgivings about the Amplify tablets that are being used in Guilford County, North Carolina, but not just because they’re tablets.
  3. When Andreas Schleicher from OECD is quoted as saying that ‘people always matter than props,’ of course that is dead on. The success or failure of learning technologies in schools always will depend more on us as educators than on the tools themselves.
  4. Diane quotes Carlo Rotella, who says that “if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool. . . . Are our overwhelmed, besieged, haphazardly recruited, variably trained, underpaid, not-so-elite teachers, in fact, the potential weak link in Amplify’s bid to disrupt American schooling?” Leaving aside the false dichotomy of ‘we can strengthen the teaching profession or we can give students computers but not both,’ this is a pretty insightful statement. As I noted in an earlier post, we have an appalling lack of technology support and training for our educators. We have to stop pretending that if we insert computers into the learning-teaching process that magic will happen and start doing a much better job of helping educators empower students with potentially-transformative digital tools.

These concerns, however, are more specific and nuanced and aren’t painted with an extremely broad anti-technology brush. If Diane typically discussed learning technologies in thoughtful and careful ways like these, I’d have much less concern. Loyal readers here know that I myself often express misgivings about ineffective technology integration and implementation in schools. But to say that there’s no educational worth whatsoever in online learning, educational simulations, tablet computers, or whatever Diane rants against next is patently false.

Whether we like it or not, digital technologies in education are here to stay. As I said in my earlier post,

the issue is not – as [Diane] seems to believe – that [digital tools] never have any value. The issues are 1) Under what circumstances do these new learning tools and spaces have value?, and 2) How do we create learning and policy environments in which that value is most likely to be realized?

I’ll keep wishing that Diane one day recognizes this. I’ll also keep wishing that Diane one day recognizes the irony (hypocrisy?) of decrying students’ use of digital technologies while simultaneously employing those tools herself to great effect to further her goals and increase her visibility.

Your thoughts?

Image credit: What if…, Darren Kuropatwa

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