The Atlantic published an article by Michael Godsey this morning entitled “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher” – a real pot-stirrer for those of us who find ourselves trying to square how all of this data-driven driven, venture-capital-funded, business of edtech startups fits into the ramshackle behemoth of government-mandated curriculum, publicly demonized unions, and enduring inequity that is the education system. The article discusses the changing nature of teaching in a brave new world of flipped classrooms, personalized-learning apps, and high-quality instructional resources that are being shared (and sold) online for anyone. The problem with all this technology and access, it seems, is that it “marginalize[s] the teacher’s expertise.” Godsey predicts that in the next 10 to 20 years (some colleagues of his suggest it’s more like half of that, or 5 to 10 years), the quality of and access to educational tools and resources online will be so high that it will essentially eradicate the need for a teaching profession as we know it today. If Godsey’s prediction is correct (which I don’t think it is), I see two incredible tragedies resulting from this “brave new world” as he calls it. First, it would mean the loss of what many consider to be one of the most humanizing and noble occupations in our society. And second, it would mean that decades of reform efforts would have failed miserably in destabilizing our oft-criticized “factory model” of education. The former would be a tragedy for obvious reasons. The latter, however, is more complicated today, precisely for the points Godsey addresses.
I’ve just been reading Howard Rheingold‘s case study on the Connected Learning website on Jim Groom’s “DS106” course, and was inspired to write down a couple of ideas. Coincidentally, one of the central elements to the success of the DS106 course (and Connected Courses in general) seems to be blogging – or maybe simply writing. Or maybe even more simply, producing materials/texts/ideas to share with the world – regardless if anyone is going to read it. I was particularly inspired to write down these thoughts when I got to Rheingold’s section on the “Assignment Bank” – a repository of various assignment types from which students could select to “[model] their learning for others.” What I found interesting about this wasn’t just that Groom had handed over logistic (and epistemic?) authority over to his students by letting them come up with their own assignments (and assignment genres), but the purpose of so doing was to encourage students to be accountable to their own learning, as well as to the larger learning community (i.e., the course). In my own teaching and research experience at the K-12 level, and perhaps even more so in higher ed, assignments seem to take on a weird role that straddles 1) the maintenance of a tradition of rigor (sometimes for rigor’s sake), and 2) getting more stuff “into the heads” of individuals (this is, presumably, important in formal educational contexts because of limited class periods – or in other words, limited access to “instruction”). But in the context of DS106, assignments seem at least to have a different, and arguably more impactful purpose. Assignments are meant to draw upon relevant themes and the production of digital artifacts, and additionally, to serve as content/material for exploring the ideas and concepts that are central to the course. It’s kind of meta, but it’s also an insanely awesome feedback loop, where the topics of the course are explored through student-produced artifacts. The success of the course as a learning experience is therefore dependent on the participation of those taking the course. In other words, the students are accountable for making the course what it is, and what it can be.
Stepping back a bit, it seems to me that one huge advantage of this is that the purpose of the assignment is to create and maintain two levels of accountability. Assignments that are interest-driven in this way are a vehicle for encouraging students (maybe we should just call them “participants”?) to be accountable for their own learning (i.e., they learn by participating in the creation of a digital artifact), as well as to be accountable to the knowledge community – their digital artifacts are, in a way, levers for collective knowledge construction. They support the group’s learning discourse. This seems particularly difficult to do in learning settings where all the decision making regarding assignments, assessments, and activities lie with a privileged authoritarian or institution. Just some thoughts…
As many teachers know, despite great attempts at innovating curriculum or instructional practice, some students still find themselves on the outside, either without interest, investment, or opportunities among their peers to participate in any range of learning activities. Unfortunately, many of these students fall into the same demographics that recent research in the areas of social justice, digital education inequities, and interest-based learning have tried to target: low socioeconomic, ethnic minority, non-native English speaking, or otherwise disenfranchised youth. Despite great efforts on the part of our teachers, these students simply tend to live in the margins of education. This has added to an already increasing call to reform our practices in ways that support student interest and engagement, oftentimes in opposition to standardized assessment and other canonical aspects of schooling.
There have been a number of great studies and articles coming out this past year on interest-based learning and adaptive curriculum – some of which has come from scholars whose work focuses on, and has even influenced, the Next Generation Science Standards that many states in this country are now trying to adopt. A number of scholars have even taken their work outside of the classroom and into the homes of nondominant and disadvantaged youth to study what kinds of personal learning supports (digital media tools, social connections or “brokers,” and opportunities for participation in communities of practice) might exist that can promote informal learning opportunities for students who might have little access to such opportunities in the classroom. By examining how youth participate in such informal learning activities outside of school, there is hope that we may be able to adapt existing classroom practices and structures to afford learning opportunities for youth that promote not just content or skills acquisition, but personal empowerment, autonomy, critical thinking, and community activism – possibilities that many agree exist in far too few of the learning experiences of today’s disadvantaged youth.
Indeed, a great achievement of this recent work has been to expose the dearth in access disenfranchised youth have to such learning opportunities. In many areas, this work has had the effect of prompting schools to adopt more student-centered instructional practices, inquiry- and project-based learning activities, and digital media tools. As such, there has been a narrowing effect in two chief areas of what was once called the “digital divide”: access to digital technologies, and access to learning opportunities in which those technologies might be used to promote agency and empowerment. Yet, a major difficulty of scholarship in this area, as I see it, is that a large amount of research has focused on settings in which youth willingly, or voluntarily, participate in such informal learning practices and communities on their own; after-school and community outreach programs, interest-based online communities, or other arenas in which youth participate in what might be called “productive.” For each student, however, who goes home or to the library after school to engage in Minecraft community forums or produce their own digital media, there are many students who simply do not, either because of other personal responsibilities (such as family care or employment), disruptive home lives, or lack of interest. For this reason, it makes sense to examine the roles that formal environments and institutional structures might play in how and why these youth in the margins either do or do not take up opportunities to engage in student-centered, as well as interest-, inquiry-, and project-based learning activities.
This past June, I presented some research findings on this topic at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences in Boulder. Specifically, my research focused on forms of student resistance to these activities. The group I studied had access to digital media and digital media tools through a one-to-one laptop program, and a progressive, knowledgeable teacher with over 15 years of technology integration experience. In spite of his efforts to introduce open-ended, student-centered, and inquiry-based learning activities to the class, a number of focal students in my study simply did not participate in these activities, or equally disappointing for the teacher, “satisficed” their work, doing the minimal amount necessary to receive a non-failing grade. While we consider the importance of student engagement in informal learning communities and practice, I therefore think it is critical that we examine the structural supports and social mobility of youth in these environments, specifically, “in the margins.” Schooling represents a particular, heavily enculturated structure to which many disenfranchised youth have negative orientations. Beyond promoting instructional practices that foreground student interest and access to resources, I believe it is imperative that we similarly interrogate the social configurations of interest-based learning environments, and how those configurations might inform the structure of schooling. Particularly in how youth see themselves within those configurations, in relation to their peers, to authority, and to institutional structures. This will be a long, difficult process, but it is nonetheless one that I believe is worthy of significantly more attention than it is currently being paid by large grant funding institutions and ed tech start ups.
A colleague of mine once highlighted how we might start thinking about how to ameliorate these problems, tweeting, “Much of edtech creates more access. The affluent have more capacity (financial, technical, social) to use that access, leading to inequity.” In response, I asked, “What can schools do to eliminate this inequity?” His reply: “Design for the margins.” Taking this cue, I think it will be increasingly important to consider what learning looks like in the margins, and what structures produce and reify the existence of those margins – especially in the face of advances in instruction and access to resources. Otherwise, we risk oversimplifying the longstanding inequities that persist today as solvable through high tech tools and money. If twenty years of the “digital divide” have taught us anything, its that the more things change, the more things stay the same. It’s time we begin to focus on the “sameness” part of that maxim, rather than on the “changes” that appear forever on the horizon. Perhaps we can get some venture capital to invest in that, for a change.
I was at the American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting in Philadelphia this past week, and in addition to meeting a whole slew of amazing scholars, particularly in the field of the Learning Sciences, I was greatly encouraged by the research and work being done with technology in support of student learning. Interest in educational technologies is growing fast, and is gaining a lot of momentum due to large philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Macarthur Foundation, both of which seem to be fueling a rapidly innovating field. This is exciting. In years past, it seems that much of the research being done in education technology surrounded behaviorist theories of cognition and learning, and focused heavily on the concept of “transfer” – being able to apply the knowledge gained in one domain in other areas. Nowadays, it seems that “learning as participation” has garnered a lot of attention, placing a much-needed focus on student autonomy, authority, and the production of learning artifacts. These form much of the basis of student-centered pedagogies, and are part of the growing popularity in interest-driven learning, such as maker-spaces and digital media hubs, and even “gaming*”.
*I put the word “gaming” here in quotes, because typically, the term “educational game” inspires a lot of suspicion and skepticism, and belief that “gaming” is synonymous with “entertainment”. A lot of media attention and venture capital have been given to educational games that fit this description, and while this is great for Silicon Valley, such games have questionable value for education on the whole (test preparation, maybe, but critical thinking, collaboration, civic action?). But while these entertainment games seem to dominate our perception of gaming in school, there has been considerable research done on what aspects of games actually foster learning, and promote engagement, persistence, and reflection. Anyone familiar with James Paul Gee’s work for instance, will tell you that education has a lot to learn about gaming, without watering down content, or sacrificing rigor, in favor of entertainment.
A great primer on the “participation as learning” approach is Henry Jenkins’ work on “Participatory Culture”. Basically, this approach to learning suggests that by engaging in community-based practices, such as collaborating on a media project together, contributing to the knowledge of fan forums (such as the Minecraft forum), remixing songs or other cultural artifacts, we are in a sense, learning by doing – coordinating distributed knowledge resources (people, tools, websites, etc.) across multiple multimedia, jointly solving problems (especially community-based problems), appropriating materials to remix them for an audience, apprenticing people into the valued practices and ways of thinking about the world around us.
A central part of this type of learning is developing literacies across multiple domains, and applying those literacies in ways to empower our students and ourselves. Nichole Pinkard, whose work focuses on youth-based programs for developing digital literacies. Through the use of mentors to learn various digital tools, students in Pinkard’s Digital Youth Network who develop a strong passion for a medium can then go on to mentor younger/less-experienced students with similar interests.
Another significant aspect of this type of learning, and one that seems to be just finally gaining some legitimacy in schools, is social networking – building connections across settings to access knowledge resources. Facebook and Twitter come to mind as obvious examples of social networking, and these have largely been used for un-academic purposes. But that does not mean they are not powerful tools for things like mobilizing political action (remember the Arab Spring?), or building connections with professionals and experts in a field (see Jen Lavenberg’s post on Personal Learning Networks).
These areas of participation and learning are invaluable for our children, especially since many of them are already doing these things. The trouble is that many children might not see the connection between participating in digital ecologies and “what counts” as learning in school. The question we need to start asking, is how we can legitimize their participation as a valued part of learning, and how we can incorporate the vast range of resources we now have access to into ways of teaching that actually empower students.