New Technology > New Teaching Tools > New Teaching Partnerships

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This Groen Brothers commercial spoof of a cellphone with multiple fanciful functions is a good laugh. But it’s also a sobering reminder that the things we laugh about now will be the ordinary, everyday, un-eyebrow-raising facts of our students’ future. Our kids have been born into rapid change. New tools come and go fast. Marc Prensky made a bold statement when I saw him present at a conference a few months ago: he said YouTube will be obsolete by 2015. That’s a staggering prediction for those of us who were NOT born into this over-drive of technological evolution.

As teachers, we have to get prepared for and plan for continuous change. Show reverence for the past, but don’t live in it. This involves a shift: VERBS vs NOUNS.

We think about  tools like PowerPoint, Outlook, etc, but nouns change. In their lifetimes, our kids will see technology become one trillion times more powerful. Consider the 1960s mainframe compared to today’s iPhone. And then compared to the nanomachines being researched and developed today – machines so small and so sensitive we really could control them with our brains … Wasn’t this just science fiction until, well, yesterday?

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That’s why educators need to think in terms of verbs (skills), because they tend to stay the same, (e.g. communicating, collaborating, creating, etc).

Nevertheless, digital tools are required, not optional. Prensky dismissed his much-cited terminology, announcing that “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” are OLD. We are  ALL moving to something new. And we all require digital tools to live and work. (Now, perhaps, we are all “h.sapiens digital”!)

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In fact, says Prensky, wisdom requires digital tools – because our brains don’t do everything well, e.g. we forget data; we can’t unhook thoughts and emotions, etc. (Thus, a central problem for the future of education is: What do we keep in our heads, and what do we delegate to machines? Another issue is that technology is becoming more disposable.) Nevertheless, the importance of technology cannot be understated.

The conference, where Prensky was keynoting, was called “iGeneration: How the Digital Age is Altering Student Brains, Learning & Teaching.” Before he presented, I had heard a whole lot of neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators  getting very excited about the new things we are learning about the human brain, now that we have MRI technology and other medical/scientific advances, and the impact this should have on education. Now we know, for example, that multitaskers aren’t really what they say they are – they are, at the brain level, task-switchers…

But Prensky say: SO WHAT? This sort of talk is confusing levels of granularity: how we learn vs how we learn in the classroom. Educators need to be about the Right mix and the Right Motivation. Especially during this “perfect storm” of change – change in the type of students we see these days, change in technology. And both of these driving change in education.


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Educators come in at the point that technology needs to be integrated with the learning/teaching. For example, assessment. Prensky asked: Would you disallow your doctor to use his stethoscope in an examination? So why don’t we have open-phone tests? Teachers need to start evaluating students with their tools, even as we keep the verbs in mind.

We are a tool for educating kids, and we need to change to a 21st century tool too. Before, we taught our subjects. Now we need to teach our students. Changes in technology and education don’t need to be intimidating if we look to partner with students going forward. We should share the work: Students do what they do well (use technology, find content, create) + Teachers do what they do well (ask questions, add quality and rigor, put it into

To put this another way: Technology’s role is to support the partnering pedagogy, i.e. students teaching themselves with teachers as coach/guide. This was the Presnky Apostasy  in essence: Don’t waste time learning to create with new tools (unless you want to) because the students can do that (and they want to do it).

Another stress-reducing corollary of this position is: Teachers should never use the technology for the students. This brought past PD with Tom Daccord to mind because he was a big advocate for Smartboards. But he was an even bigger advocate for the fact that teachers shouldn’t use them – kids should.

This relates to my previous blog post on Paul Gee’s list of important learning principles, a critical one being student motivation. What is it that best motivates today’s kids to learn?  Their passion (which is all sorts of things). Learning comes from passion, not (external) discipline.


And kids are passionate about technology. They want to get real. And they want to be connected. So, as I plan my new Social Studies curriculum for next year in Grade 8, I guess I’d better keep it real by having them read tweets from Libya (or whatever the real-time equivalent is of the standard and benchmark I am focusing on), even if I still can’t quite get a handle on Twitter myself.

…Or the next new thing.

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My Digital Footprint Catches Up With Me

Ironically, not long after our last f2f class discussion about digital footprints and the importance of managing our online identities, I learned that my own digital footprint had grown by a photo and a couple of comments past my personal comfort level.

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I had brought the conversation about digital footprints into my own classroom with the Fahrenheit 451 theme-related question: “Does the media control you (and how would you know)?” As mentioned in a previous blog, I have found that the following video clip (“Digital Dossier” – a project related to the Digital Native concept, and more specifically, John Palfrey’s book, Born Digital) has elicited quite a sober response from students in the past.

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I have shown this clip a few times now since Palfrey visited our school and shared it with us. And I had always assumed that the students’ wide eyed silence represented a merging of perspectives between teacher and student – that they were finally beginning to “twig” that your digital footprint is a real, permanent, growing, parallel-self database growing out there, largely beyond our control. That this prospect, in turn, gives credence to the idea that the media really does control you to an extent unknown and unknowable. I, personally, feel some helplessness along with this realization. I even see some menace in the idea.

But this year, I discovered I was  mistaken. (Once again! Should I be surprised anymore?!) The students’ response, left to blossom with a little self-reflection, was one of awe, yes, but also one of fascination. Perhaps they were empowered by the sense of having a vastly greater impact on the digital scene than they had previously imagined. Some, I gathered, were a little daunted, but by and large the follow-up exercise produced little ripples of thrill around the room as students completed a digital-use survey.

Although I set this as an optional activity, many of my students were quite enamored with the process of measuring their digital footprint using the  Personal Digital Footprint Calculator.

This tool (as described in an article by the ReadWriteWeb people) “walks you through a questionnaire that calculates your impact based on the responses to questions about your computer usage, email usage, digital camera/camcorder usage, web downloading habits, potential surveillance areas, and geographical information, among other things. …[I]f you take the time to fill out the Digital Footprint Calculator correctly, you’ll be presented with your current ‘daily digital footprint,’ in megabytes. You can then click ‘Start Ticker’ to launch your own personal ticker that increments over time according to your digital information creation. You can even upload this, along with the .swf file, to your own web site and share your results with others.”

This process proved to be a real hit and students were soon busy with survey questions and comparison, and then also surprise at the big numbers that were churning out as a measure of their impact on the digital landscape. Their delight in big digits reminded me again of the generational divide between my feelings about being digitally exposed and their pleasure in this measure of being “out there.”

Here are a few of their digital footsteps:

(My students all came up with higher numbers than the example ticker created with wizard defaults, as presented by IDC, a Marketing and Intelligence Forecasting Firm and creators of the Calculator, sponsored by EMC).

But, back to my own digital footprint. Literally within days of this video/activity/lesson, I received a brief email from one of my quieter students. The subject line read:

“this picture of you taken by [student name] during the field trip”

…and in the body of the email:

“I print-screened the picture and comments.”

(So much for email etiquette, greetings and salutations, etc. But that’s another blog!)

Anyway, when I saw the screen shot attached to the email, I was shocked. It had been captured from a Facebook page. I was the subject of a photo, taken by a student without my knowledge, and now posted on a different student’s account. The commentary beneath lead me to believe that somehow the photographer had been able to upload it directly into his friend’s account (passwords freely shared amongst friends?), with only grudging assent from the owner of the account. I teach these two students, and each had commented. At least two other students, who I know but do not teach, had added comments.

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I was stunned by my own lesson hitting so close to home. By my digital footprint finally catching up with me this way. Suddenly my teaching points took on a sharp poignancy regarding becoming aware and beginning to manage your online identity.

Now, the image was not at all demeaning. (I had half a mind to ask for a copy, but that would have diluted the point of the conversation I was going to have to have with the students!) And the comments were more positive than negative. But it was a bit embarrassing, and I would also call it inappropriate.

I called out the two boys in the very next class, and said: “I believe my digital footprint has recently grown by one particular photo and several comments.”

They knew immediately what I was getting at. The Facebook account owner gave the photographer a bit of a shove and an embarrassed exclamation to signal blame-appointment. And the photographer, red-faced and grinning that furious teenage-boy grin of shame, tried a lame: “But it was a nice photo.”

I didn’t need to say much more. They didn’t seem to wonder about how I knew about it. I wasn’t going to give up my source, but it was interesting to note that they didn’t even question the notion that the public eye had somehow seen into a private account.

I asked them to help me reduce my footprint by a photo and several comments. And they shuffled away. (No apology, incidentally. But I wasn’t going to make a scene.) The next day when I made a vague reference to it, the boy said he had removed it.

So there it was – online reputation house-cleaning, one photo at a time.

It occurred to me that what my quiet student-friend had done for me in blowing the whistle on these guys, was exactly the way I want to think we can approach personal digital footprint management. And, it follows too, cyberbullying. I don’t think these two boys would have even remotely associated their actions with this concept, but I certainly was made to feel uncomfortable by the knowledge of that photo and those comments.

But if other students, friends, peers, acquaintances are willing to share what they know, in the way that my student did with a simple emailed screenshot, then what I think we can grow is a kind of Honor Code equivalent in the cyber-realm.

With social media well beyond the control of any one individual, I think this community-watch group-regulation, is critical.

Online predators don’t pack much of a punch, but the backyard bullies do

It is a lovely turn of events to find your reading on a particular edtech topic actually REDUCES fear and loathing. More often than not, the media careens from IT-related crisis to disaster, and the media consumer obligingly laps it up, while that black cloud that always seems to be hanging over the head of the new generation of internet users takes on an even deeper hue of gloom. The ominous prospect of an over-exposed, over-stimulated, over-predated new generation of technology users looms ever larger – or so it would seem.

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What deep delight it was, therefore, to read an article by The Times’s technology columnist, David Pogue (“How dangerous is the internet for children?”) which actually suggests that the tales of doom facing children online are over-hyped.

I particularly liked this point: “The tales of pedophiles luring children out of their homes are like plane crashes: they happen extremely rarely, but when they do, they make headlines everywhere.”

Now, that puts it into perspective. Pogue’s article serves as yet another reminder to me that, despite all the articles and blogging, frown lines and hand-wringing, the internet is “just another facet of socialization for the new generation.”

He follows this up with more sensible advice for us onlookers: “…as always, common sense and a level head are the best safeguards.”

Deep sigh! That’s what we want to hear, right?! (There’s that instinctive confidence that comes from assuming that our own good sense is part of that collective common sense the author has just invoked, and with that pronouncement, that we can relinquish our sense of spinning out of control.)

Pogue, in turn, references a  PBS “Frontline” documentary which confirms what we already know about the teenagers-online scene, i.e. that they are completely immersed in chat, Facebook, and other options that have simply become absorbed into their ordinary, every day lives. And it also reiterated that the sexual-predator scenario that keeps many parents and teachers awake at night, is just plain skewed.

Incidentally, the PBS report Pogue referred to in his article, also added one surprising tidbit to this aspect of online safety. It turns out, according to the data analysis, that giving out personal information over the Internet makes no difference whatsoever to a child’s likelihood of falling prey to a pedophile. Now, this seems to fly in the face of pretty much every spiel I’ve recited to my students as we’ve opened a VoiceThread account here or a Bubbl.Us account there.

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Another sobering point that was raised, and one that I can easily believe in, is that many sexual propositions that kids receive have come from their peers fooling around or people just “acting weird online.” Thus, according to Danah Boyd of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, an interview subject in the documentary: “Most of the sexual solicitations, they’re not that big a deal. Most of it is the 19-year-old saying to the 17-year old, ‘Hey, baby.’ Is that really the image that we come to when we think about sexual solicitations? No. We have found kids who engage in risky behavior online. The fact is, they’ve engaged in a lot more risky behavior offline.”

Of course, the reader is not allowed to walk away scot-free after all. Pogue can’t resist poking at our persistent dis-belief that our kids will grow up just fine if we let nature take its course, (i.e. without our intervention) by concluding his article with a focus on the fear that we really DO need to face: the more murky realm of cyber-bullying.

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Pogue describes cyber-bullying as the far more realistic and pernicious threat to our younger internet users because kids tend to use the virtual world as their own little social laboratory, trying on different personas and pushing boundaries, in ways that tend to be a lot nastier and extreme in this anonymous environment than they would ever dare to be in face-to-face interactions. Added to this, the nastiness is significantly more damaging and painful because it is public and permanent. Plus, kids just don’t see it for what it is.

This is the real problem that we need to face as guardians of our children’s innocence and self-concept. So, I guess it had better be the subject of my next post.

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