Technology: Helping This Old Dog Do New Tricks

I read some of Prensky’s previous work as part of the lit review for my masters project on technology integration in history, so I wasn’t surprised to see “Shaping Tech for the Classroom” show up in the course readings. Prensky discusses a model for technology adoption in schools:

  1. Dabbling
  2. Doing old things in old ways.
  3. Doing old things in new ways.
  4. Doing new things in new ways.

In the spirit of reflection and to help document how this program is changing my practice, I thought it would be useful exercise to apply this model to my own teaching. While I consider myself a “techie” individual, I do not necessarily consider myself a techie teacher. But let’s see if this self-assessment holds up once I enumerate my teaching practices.

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Teaching Research in an Internet Age?

In line with our curriculum’s emphasis on research, the 9/10 history team at my school has been discussing the best way to teach research. We’ve adopted (and adapted) the English Department’s handouts on what constitutes a reliable website and how to take notes on sources and cite research. To these we’ve added a research process flowchart to impress the importance of synthesizing sources and continuous research to fill in gaps. We felt the need to add two components to our modeling of skills: 1) how to construct a search query and scan search engine results pages, and 2) how to find information quickly in books. Why? Our students are great at typing words into Google and clicking the first three links, but they rarely evaluate whether those links are worth clicking on in the first place. They also have trouble when faced with the relative breadth of a book compared to what they can scan on a webpage. Hopefully our approach will address their deficiences. I’m curious as to what other teachers see are the research skills students need in this world of “connectivism” – how important is book-based research? Why require “print” sources when so much print material is duplicated online?

“Geeking Out” Authentically in the Classroom: A Response to “Living and Learning with New Media”

“Geeking out” is defined as “learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise. It is a mode of learning that is peer-driven, but focused on gaining deep knowledge and expertise in specific areas of interest” (28). It gives participants “peer-based sharing and feedback” (31) and “recognition and reputation as well as an audience for creative work” (32).

I’ll paraphrase and modify today’s essential question to consider this issue: How can we effectively, practically and authentically take advantage of the phenomenon of Geeking Out within our curricular areas?

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The Changing Goals of Learning: A Response to Siemens’ “Connectivism”

 

The NETs goal for this week asks us to “develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to pursue their individual curiosities.” Our Week 2 reading article by George Siemens advances one way to do this: by teaching students to adapt to new situations and changing conditions, a task identified in the article’s title as the new skill of connectivism. 

Connectivism Mind Map

Briefly put, Siemens makes the following points:

  • Knowing how and what (skills and content) is still important, but today’s students must also knowwhere - in other words, they must be able to “plug into sources” when knowledge is needed but not known.
  • Students must adapt to “pattern shifts,” or new situations and changing conditions, more than in the past
  • We must create our own patterns by connecting disparate sources of information, because the “ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.” 
  • The core rationale for connectivism is that in today’s world, “Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions,” so connectivism is needed to access and process this diversity.

For those of us trying to empower our students (and what teacher would admit to consciously NOT wanting to do this?), Siemens’ ideas provide ample food for thought. His assertion that a vital task is creating our own patterns by connecting various sources of information is supported by hot trends in “Web 2.0:”

Siemens puts connectivism forward as a new skill to be learned, and the question many teachers will have is: “is this yet ANOTHER thing I have to incorporate? Where will I make room?”

Luckily, a shift to connectivism won’t mean simply tacking new skills onto an existing curriculum. Knowing where to find information in order to adapt to patterns shifts is just techno-speak for having students research and then apply their knowledge to new situations: skill goals that most teachers find valuable. Extra time will certainly be required, but this will be on the front-end of things: ensuring that there are enough computing resources for students to work independently, on demand; vetting sources and scaffolding the connection process; and constructing student-centered activities that help them see that “learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.” My reading of Siemens is that connectivism skills might simply upgrade and extend the skills that we already teach.

I’ve just reoriented my 9/10 history curriculum around a similar principal: I’m making research, especially online research, a great focus in my classes. The reasons for this are manifold. First, using the textbook as a primary resource tends to blunt the intrinsically interesting nature of the content. It’s only when students dig deep into history to find the stories that history comes alive; the textbook is great at giving breadth but not depth. Secondly, helping students “see connections between fields, ideas and concepts” in history is more than a skill: it’s a way to prove the relevance of a course that can seem staid and far removed from their everyday experiences. I’d like to give students the skillset they need to identify and evaluate the patterns of civilization and society. 

What prevents me from moving further ahead? The main thing, I think, is access to resources. To make connectivism a central goal, I’m assuming – and correct me if I’m wrong – that constant, individual access to connective resources (i.e. the Internet) is essential. We simply don’t have the facilities at school to make this a requirement – neither the bandwidth nor a 1:1 program. While I could require students to do connectivism-inspired work at home where all of them do have Internet, I still face the task of being able to model effectively and provide timely feedback.

I’m interested to hear from educators in schools with a relatively limited infrastructure, then: how do work around technology access constraints?

New models of learning? A response to Richardson

As a new teacher, I frequently reflect on what my role in the classroom should be – especially at a time when human civilization is changing at a more rapid pace than at any time in history. Consequently, I feel that Richardson’s vision of education’s future deserves a thorough examination.
Richardson makes several assumptions about how the Internet is changing the need for and goal of education. He says that it is connecting us to 1/7 of the world’s population, meaning that “experts are at our fingertips…if we know how to find and connect to them.” In other words, we have vast opportunities to find information. The Internet has also had an effect on the creation and dissemination of knowledge: “Paper is not the best way to share our work, facts and truths are constantly changing, and working together is becoming the norm, not the exception.” Our purpose is now “about solving problems together and sharing the knowledge we’ve gained with wide audiences.”
These assertions are backed with conviction but few examples. “Facts and truths are constantly changing?” As a history teacher, I must evaluate these claims within the context of my academic discipline, and I find that for Ancient and Modern World History, at least, “facts” and “truths” are not changing at all. Are there more interpretations of history? Perhaps – our textbook takes pains to discuss the role of women in each civilization, however perfunctory its treatment of the subject might be. But the divergence and profileration of competing interpretations is as much a function of changing social attitudes as it is of evolving technology. The facts themselves remain static – 305,000 soldiers died at the Battle of the Somme, whether we are learning about it in 1964 or 2004. It would be more accurate to say that for today’s history teachers, the Internet has made the facts more vivid – we can explore topics in much greater depth because sites like the Modern History Sourcebook and Google Images’ Life Magazine archive expose us to so much more than textbooks can.

Richardson further claims that “working together is becoming the norm, not the exception.” For a niche of motivated and wordly individuals, this is certainly the case. Wikipedia is the perfect example of asynchronous, anonymous collaboration – tens of thousands of volunteers working together to synthesize and evaluate what “facts and truths” are. Look at the discussion tab of any Wikipedia entry and you can see the spirited, sometimes-combative-sometimes-collaborative exchanges that underly each entry. Yet “working together” is hardly something that has been an EXCEPTION throughout history. Most significant achievements and advancements have been the product of group efforts: the space program, the Manhattan Project, the assembly line, the union, representative government… the list goes on. Working together is being made easier by the Internet and technology – and therefore more common – but I’m not convinced by the suggestion that collaboration is somehow a new phenomenon.

The assertion that collaboration is becoming the “norm” also implies some equality of contribution between all parties involved. Extant paradigms of both real-world interactions and the anonymous, distributed Internet do not support such an implication. On the Internet, the number of commenters is but a fraction of the readers of a given blog post. The number of “seeders” of a torrent is about a quarter of the number of “leechers.” And the number of students in a mixed-ability group who contribute actively and meaningfully to a group project is rarely 100%.

I don’t write this critically to suggest that the impact of the Internet is inconsequential. It is indisputably changing how humans produce, consume, and interact with information. It is responsible for the downfall of governments (in Egypt), the obsolescence of business models (in the case of record labels), and the demise of retail/brick-and-mortar stores (in the case of Blockbuster, Borders, local music stores, and Best Buy). However, we teachers should not subscribe to some soft-focus vision of a utopian, communitarian vision of learning without examining the skills that students and teachers need to successfully leverage the technology. We must also be conscious of the fact that these predictions about collaboration and information-sharing are predicated on an active, critical population.
Richardson does address some of these concerns. He sees the new role of teachers as “connectors first and content experts second.” This is presumably because the Internet has replaced the teacher as the best source of content. Richardson anticipates the objections of librarians everywhere who argue that the Internet has enabled as many crackpots as it has experts by exhorting us to model “editorial skills” that will help our students to “think critically about the deluge of information now being produced by millions of amateur authors.” My recognition of this need has led me to orient my 9th- and 10th- grade classes more around information literacy and research – and, of course, influenced me to enroll in this program. My students’ dogged trust in sources like “OMGFacts.com” and the veracity of numerous sites detailing the insidious influence of the Illuminati convinced me of the need for editorial skills long before I read Richardson’s work. But I feel that “editorial skills” are merely skepticism and criticism applied to a new medium. After all, the world was hardly short of charlatans (Hitler, Mao, Stalin, the Confederacy, Manifest Destiny, any number of religious leaders who aren’t recognized by your own religion) before the Internet. The web has merely given them a bigger megaphone through which to speak.
If you’ve read this far, then I congratulate you for two reasons. One, because contemporary research has raised the concern many times that the advent of instant gratificaiton has shortened peoples’ attention spans – this is something I certainly worry about with my students. Two, I have neglected to adhere to the rubric’s stipulation that my blog post include multimedia enhancement, which might in this case have taken the form of citations to research backing up my claims. I’m going to blame my iPad for this shortcoming – it’s great for reading books, listening to music, and watching movies, but woefully inadequate for any real productivity. But this, I suspect, is a conversation topic for a future date.