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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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May262006

The Rant that Rocked the Edtech World

For more than a decade now, I’ve been the moderator of WWWEDU, an online community of technology-using educators discussing the role of the Web in education. We’ve had many intense debates over the years, but this week, emotions rushed to the surface as teachers began examining their own role in making a broader difference in education.

It all started with a self-described rant by educator Jeff Cooper, who angrily lamented the pendulum swinging against blogs and online social networks in the name of student safety.

The reactionary “State of Filtering” in K-12 schools completely appalls me. Someone has an inappropriate blog? Ban all blogs. MySp@ce exists? Ban anything and everything with the word in it, and oh, let’s actually make illegal any website based upon community. Playboy exists? Ban all magazines. The list goes on and on and no one seems to care that all of these actions do not truly protect our kids, but completely erode freedom of speech, not to mention putting a huge damper on using the Net for educational purposes…. I think the negativist view of the Net coupled with the appalling lack of support for educators means that very few use the Net with their classes. I’d be amazed if more than 10% of educators nationwide integrate the Net into any of their classes even once a year. Pew, do you have a report on this? The chilling effect freezes the Net.

Many educators replied to Cooper’s post, including a message from Doug Johnson encouraging participants to get more engaged in policymaking, using their edtech expertise to inform political leaders about where they stand on the role of the Web in education. This soon led to a response by Ted Nellen, a pioneering Internet-using educator based in New York City:

Jeff, i loved your preamble and then that which followed. much of it does strike a cord and has been one of my private battles over the past dozen years. at this sad point in time for me, i am finding i use less and less tech to the point i am now teaching pre tech in my nyc school called Information Technology HS. it was supposed to be the premier tech school in nyc, but alas, for all the reasons your highlighted and a few more the NYC tech team could come up with, tech is dead in NYC. I use dto rant an drave and present and publish this for many years, but alas spitting in the wind has gotten the best of me and i have resigned myself to the demise of tech and substantial use of it in schools for the future because of the reactionary attitude of punishment and prohibition over the more intelligent choice of education of the user. as i have said before the adults who lead dont get it and never will. i have beat my head against this brick wall for too long, screamed and shouted till i’m hoarse, demonstrated the success potential for too long. as i near my twilight years, i am content to merely fade away on this topic as i see it getting worse and worse. we had our heyday and i dont see it happening again. camelot is dead and so it intelligent use of the tech in schools, IMHO.

Ted’s post has generated a flurry of responses on the discussion list. Educator Mark Ahlness, whose elementary school was the first in the world to have a website because of his leadership, posted an emotional, yet ultimately hopeful response:

Ted’s response to Jeff’s rant saddened me more than any email or blog posting I can remember recently. When I hear the sound of resignation and even defeat in a voice always so full of passion and pushing the envelope - well, it breaks my heart. His reaction is not one of weakness, but is testimony to the sheer muscle mass of the system that refuses to embrace and LEAD with technology.

I’ve been working in the classroom, using technology with my kids, pushing, pushing, for about as long as Ted, but I have always stood in awe of the voice he put to his passion. I could just never do that. Now his passion is fading, understandably, and I wonder about myself. How many battles can I lose and still keep fighting? We’ll see…

There are two things that give me hope right now.

1) the new medium of web 2.0. It’s not just email lists that spread the word anymore. We’re looking at blogs, wikis, kids as authors, rss feeds, news aggregators, podcasts, etc. There are so many more ways to influence people and induce change.

2) the new voices, the Ted Nellens of web 2.0. I hope I don’t offend here… Anybody reading Miguel Guhlin, Wesley Fryer, or David Warlick knows what I’m talking about. Anybody who cares about technology in education who does not follow them regularly, needs to. They are using all the incredible new tools at their disposal to get the word out, to spread the word in any way they can. Evangelists they are. And they are even here on web 1.0 lists like wwwedu. Heck, I even saw a post by Will Richardson on EdTech the other day.

So I have hope. And I hope to hear more from you, Ted. The fight is not over, hang in there, we need you.

Miguel Guhlin, who also discusses this conversation on his blog, offered another perspective:

While I can’t necessarily offer an easy solution, I offer comfort that has worked for me. Maybe, changing the world is too big for us. Maybe, the expectation is that I change myself and let the world see what happens when one person is committed to transformation. Time and again, we’ve seen the power of transformation and divinity in a person’s life. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jesus, and others you may know. Each of us is called to be a leader, to unleash the power that is within us.

I’ve kept quiet on the conversation because I’m still struggling with my own thinking on the matter. I look at people like Nellen and Ahlness as among the earliest heroes of education technology. The Internet still feels so new to most of us, yet we easily forget that many educators have been using it in their classroom practice for upwards of 15 years now, if not more. So reading Nellen’s words saddens me as well, because I’ve watched him and others fight the good fight over the last decade, demonstrating the promise of the Internet. And as Ahlness notes, we now have a new generation of educators demonstrating the promise of “Web 2.0” - those online activities that allow students, teachers and others to become virtual collaborators - creators of content rather than just consumers of it. In so many ways, there’s never been a more exciting time to be using the Internet in the classroom. But given all the concerns over online safety and student behavior, it’s perhaps never been scarier for a lot of people as well. Will fear overtake the Internet’s potential - and a generation of pioneering educators with it? -andy

Filed under : Policy

Responses

It’s so hard to hear about teacher’s that are getting too worn out to fight. It breaks my heart when I hear stories like this. I hope Mr. Nellen knows that without teachers like him the younger generation of educators, such as myself, would not have the courage to keep pushing forward. The battles which he has fought have not been a waste of time, but a gift to future educators and students. This post has inspired me to write a post on my own blog about the importance of keeping the interent open in schools and solutions other than filtering to keep students safe and on task.

Yes Andy, that was one good rant and discussion. I hope readers remember that the feelings behind Jeff’s rant continue there still - and are shared by many, myself included. Just speaking the problem does not solve it, make it go away, or lessen the feeling that produced it.

And yet I wonder what those just tuning in on this discussion think about all this? Are those ranters really a bunch of loose cannons, spurred on by some wild hair of a crazy idea? I think it would be pretty easy to think that, if you’ve not been involved in the discussion. Don’t schools have computers? Aren’t they connected to the Internet? What’s the problem then, for goodness sake? Just settle down and keep the kids safe.

So I do worry about that. I think those of us waving our arms around so wildly at times at this or that windmill need to remember the most powerful change agent in the US - public opinion. I hope we are not shooting our cause in the foot, adding, in our passion, to the fear that may “overtake the Internetís potential…”

Thanks for the thoughtful and kind remarks Andy. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. - Mark

Wow… I guess I uncorked a bottle here. I’m certainly honored to have Andy think that my rant and subsequent responses worth of a blog here. I think that I vocalized something that goes through faculty lunch rooms and minds across the country and bears some discussion.

When Mark states:
Donít schools have computers? Arenít they connected to the Internet? Whatís the problem then, for goodness sake? Just settle down and keep the kids safe.
I wonder if he’s being serious or tongue in cheek. Statistics about kids having Internet accessibility in schools are misleading. Of course schools are wired. However, how much time do kids actually get to use them, and when they do, how do they use it?

Sure there are early adopters. Sure there are a number of us who have done (and continue to do) some great things with the Net at school. My “cry in the wilderness” (thanks Miguel) certainly speaks of despair, as did Ted’s subsequent response. I’m wondering how many educators feel like us and haven’t had their voice heard at all. I’m speaking of the large number of educators who quit the profession within five years of becoming credentialed.

When I sat on the Teacher Credential Commmittee at San Francisco State (as the student representative), the chancellor had given an edict to create a testing process for educators in the credential program. If they were found wanting, they would have to retake undergraduate courses. I pointed out to the committee that there were already waiver programs in place that the university deemed worthy, and that this testing process was superfluous, and amounted to “increasing the complexity of the maze without improving the quality of the cheese.” The professors shrugged and said “yes, you’re right, but the chancellor tells us to do this, so we’re doing it.”

It is that type of non-thinking and blind obedience to authority that pervades our collective educational institutions today at all levels. NCLB says this or that and everyone tows the line. Don’t think, don’t fight back, don’t argue the point. It seems certainly that the options are either “give in or give up.” Doug Johnson took me to task to basically “fight the power.”

I am of the opinion that the system is so ass backwards and entrenched in outdated pedagogy, thinking that “reform” movements such as NCLB will suffice, that nothing short of full blown revolution within K-12 (and beyond) education will truly succeed. I do work towards change here in my local district (and elsewhere) only to be ignored for the most part, probably because the admin don’t want to face the necessary changes. Perhaps investing in charter or private schools is the way to go.

I continue to plug away, helping teachers at Tapped In every day. It’s one way I feel productive in a profession where productivity seems to be measured quantitatively rather than in truly motivating and supporting students with a 21st Century education.

Jeff Cooper, Ted Nellen and Andy Carvin. Wow. Three people I admire and whose comments I will always pay attention to and think about. It amazes me that such good people continue the day to day struggle to help the education community learn about and take advantage of the technological “magic” that has been evolving for more than a decade now. Rant on!

Andy,

The frustration and indignation of your respondents to this thread are palpable. They see a sea change in education through digital technology, and are perturbed that exaggerated fears stymie and thwart their efforts to usher in what should seem obvious. I think I understand it: several are pioneers in digital education and seem weary from the battles already fought and the thought of those yet to come. I donít blame them.

I wish I could offer more hope, but I look at my own small school district here in the upper Midwest and how many of my colleagues seem reluctant, or downright hostile, to learning and using this revolutionary technology that I despair that it will ever change (A big argument looms on the horizon about using a Web-based grade book program v. the non-Web-based grade book we now have. But the catch is that less than half the staff even uses the program we now have!).

Many of us complain about the amount of spam our spam filters donít get, but few seem to be aware of how many sites (many of them unobjectionable or innocuous) weíre denied access to by our mandated Web filtering software. Most donít know, I suspect, what I use the Web for in my classes, and I likewise am largely unaware of othersí use. Iím not claiming, either, that my use of the Internet in my classes is inventive or all that creative. It seems quite pedestrian , in fact, compared to what Iíve been reading in this blog. My overall sense, however, is that the computer labs in our district are underutilized. When they are used, itís mostly for word-processing and Internet game playing, a sad commentary on the use of the district taxpayersí dollar. I wish sometimes that I heard the complaints about the matters discussed in this blog.

Iíve left out a number of things—a school network that up until our new tech administrator was hired last year was a nightmare, the lack of teacher training (itís difficult to find the time and the gumption), the extra planning that often goes along with Web-based lessons, the ease and disease of plagiarizing othersí work—that serve to frustrate all of us in my district. No easy solutions lie there for the picking, and the task at times seems Sisyphean.

Having said all of this, however, Iím not planning to throw in the towel just yet. I look at the potential of the new technologies, and I can either get on board or get left behind, and Iím 57 and could retire if I wanted to. I look at it this way: thereís a ship in the harbor filled with wonderful potential and some problems below deck but still seaworthy. Many want to see her sail but a significant number fear the dangers that lurk on the high seas and within. Several tugboats have lines hooked to her bow, and they’re trying to nudge her out of the harbor. Some other tugs, the b***ards, are pulling in the opposite direction trying to keep the ship in safe harbor, on the limited cruise plan. Where am I? I see myself on one of the tugs and many others on other tugs straining to get her out to sea. I don’t know if this is what Mr. Guhlin means about being a leader and unleashing the power within or not. I’m just a toiler on board a tugboat trying to do my part to help kids become smarter and better (oh, and also myself). If that doesn’t make the struggle worth it, what does?

I think it’s important to remember that not just computers comprise technology. The earliest technology involved pen and pencil. My student do so much more than just computers-they think through what they are doing, using webs, outlines and good old fashioned discussions to get their ideas out first. I’m not an enthusiastic newbie, just a teacher who’s learning with her students and going with them for the ride.

The efforts to integrate technology with education have taken so many forms during the last few years. However, I believe that computers still represent the most important element in the equation, as they give the ability to simulate the work of other elements using industry-specific, or application-specific software.

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