Having been stuck at home with a chest infection for the past three days, I’ve had and taken the valuable opportunity to reflect on some of the biggest technology lessons my students have taught me in 2010. As a teacher, university student and web 2.0 enthusiast, I’m constantly looking to bridge the divide between theory and practice and I’m convinced that this isn’t possible unless we take time to reflect – something that I’m ashamed to admit I need to do MUCH more often.
Anyway – here are my technology learning curbs for this year:
1. The HOW in collaboration: specificity without straight-jackets
Throughout most of this year, I’ve thrown myself into modelling, promoting and developing resources related to the collaborative potential of Google Apps for Education. With services like this one now widely available and used in classrooms the world over (Google Apps Education recently passed the 10 million user mark), collaboration is definitely all the rage. But many teachers still struggle with processes like collaborative writing because: (a) they’ve never done it themselves; and (b) there are too many strategic decisions to be made.
So what’s the solution? In developing my own framework for collaboration (watch this blog), I’ve hopefully hit the nail on the five most important organising principles when planning any collaborative activity. In short, we need to:
- decide on the nature and purpose of the content;then
- let that determine the structure; before you
- negotiate roles and modes of interaction for the participants in the collaborative space; then
- decide on the processes and/or benchmarks that indicate effective collaboration; and
- work towards a final product that can be demonstrated or reflected on in some way.
In all of the above, what we really need is a balance between some specificity from the teacher (kids are unlikely to determine all the rules without some help) AND the flexibility and freedom beyond the straight-jacket of an activity that is too hard-coded to allow for the individuality of our kids.
2. You’re only as good as your contingency plan
I work with two distinct kinds of teachers. First, there are those that expect the technology to work a certain way and, when it doesn’t, they lay blame in any direction possible – to me, themselves, the kids, whoever… and the lesson goes up in smoke. Secondly, there are those who good-naturedly chuckle in the face of technological adversity; who admit that they don’t have all the answers and that they often stand to learn much more about the world than they can necessarily teach about it. Fortunately, my school is largely devoid of the former and replete with the latter. It’s these colleagues who re-enforce the value of the expert novice: technology-empowered teaching is as much about imparting our real-time learning with technology as it is imparting the skills and knowledge we already have.
All of this reminds us of the importance of the contingency plans we create for the many detours in learning that happen on the journey.
3. Leadership is not management (and vice versa)
As a relatively junior teacher and having been a technology coordinator for much of my late twenties (and now early thirties), I can forgive myself for having partially been under the illusion that being a technology leader
necessitates the same technical fluency of an industry-trained IT manager. In short, that’s not what technology leadership in schools should be about. As the corporate sector (and now many progressive schools) has shown, superb IT managers are able to coordinate repairs to broken printers, patch network servers, re-image hundreds of computers and administer a spaghetti mess of network permissions, among a million other things. That many highly-trained teachers are constantly compromising the learning of their students in roles that force them to both manage and lead is a source of frustration for me when I hear from many of my colleagues in other schools. Lucky for me though, the frustration isn’t first-hand. I have one of the finest, professional IT managers to support my initiatives and give my ideas wings. Every school needs to have the same. Principals need to be aware that leadership is not management (and vice versa)!
4. OPEN is the door to the future – as long as we put the doorstop in
It’s easy to be philosophical without substance. I often wax lyrical on the value of open source, open standards and the open web. Taking Web 2.0 as the basis of my technology-enabled teaching, I have a lot to be thankful for in all-things-open. I think I’m gradually moving from philosophy to politics, though. As Berners-Lee points out in this recent article, the choices we make when using proprietary technologies and services impact on the openness of the web, even in ways most of us don’t realise. For instance, I find it incredibly scary that for a vastly increasing number of people, Facebook is the internet. We teachers have a vital role to play in empowering the kids to become critical users of – and participants in – the future of the open web. This means that promoting open source, encouraging Web 2.0 technologies like RSS that take advantage of the web’s open architecture and talking about net neutrality in the classroom are all imperative for the future of the web that we know and love. If this means putting a doorstop (e.g. government legislation) firmly in place to keep things open, then so be it. Start the conversation now.
When all is said and done, kids are amazing. As long as we share the learning with them, offering guidance, framing the conversation, leading our own learning in a way that is honest, open and transparent, kids will continue to astound us in ways we will never know until it hits us in the classroom. Although Prensky’s (2001) analogy of digital natives and immigrants is one with which I’ve never entirely agreed, kids are the future and the best way to keep ourselves as young as possible is to learn as much from them as often as possible.
So there you have it – five technology lessons from the classroom for 2010. Hopefully I’ll be back in action by Monday so I can get started on the sixth lesson before school’s out for summer.