Sunday, May 12, 2013

Learning and Technology are Better Together

I can’t remember what event or forum I was at where I heard this but the facilitator asked the group “what do you teach?” and each teacher shared what they teach… “I teach English”, “I teach Math”, “I teach PE”, “I teach grade 5”, etc.  The facilitator than iStock_000019575299Largeasked “Don’t you teach students?”.  Profoundly, teaching isn’t the goal, learning is.  I think we lose focus of this at times.  Teaching does not guarantee that learning is happening.  Learning is not necessarily dependent on teaching.  I know there will be those that disagree with me but I think we’re on a trajectory in time where learning will be dependent on technology.  However, today I suspect most of us would agree that technology is still seen as optional in schools, just a tool.

In my travels through Vancouver schools, I hear a lot about the barriers to using technology: networks are slow and unreliable, no wireless access, not nearly enough access to useful digital learning tools (computers, tablets, handhelds) for kids or teachers, not enough technical support.  No coherent way to store, share, collaborate: “how do I get this iMovie or iStopMotion video, etc. off the iPads”.  Cloud service privacy issues – a British Columbia phenomenon.  There’s not enough time for teachers to learn how to use technology for teaching and learning and to transform the teaching and learning processes.  I believe that as we build the case, the imperative so to speak, for learning through technology that these things will take care of themselves.  People do connect to important purposes and changes when they are part of the journey.  Our “system” will prioritize its scarce resources for what makes a difference in the the learning of kids.  The challenge though is to demonstrate the imperative where so many people in the education field still don’t see it – the way things were and are works just fine, we think. 

As part of removing barriers, we will transform our infrastructure to a utility grade “invisible” support where there is always enough and it’s always on – just like oxygen.  We will focus scarce resources on learning technologies and make BYOT a priority ensuring equity is kept at the forefront.  We will build (where necessary) and integrate online and mobile spaces for students, teachers, parents, and staffs to store learning evidence, to undertake learning, to teach through, to inform, and to transform work to efficient connected processes.  We have to!

So, barriers being removed, what then?  To take learning to whole new levels, the process and activities of learning need to be immersed in the use of effective technologies.  Take writing for instance.  When writing is done on paper, the words, the ideas, they are trapped on and enslaved to that single dimension medium.  The students thoughts can not be easily shared beyond their teacher.  Shift to digital writing and their ideas are lifted up, free to be broadcast to real audiences, to be shared and remixed, to be improved upon by others.  Their ideas can be enriched through otherflickr - langwitches - media fluency - 5603703139 mediums such as video, audio, pictures, and 3D virtual learning worlds.  Or how about art?  Using an iPad, I’ve seen young students learning to take effective (and respectful) pictures of each other and then negotiate with classmates on what they feel is appropriate finger painting.  Not only did they have fun and they were engaged, they learned how to take good photos, how to negotiated, how to practice social responsibility, and how to be creative with art.  This would be difficult, if not impossible, without technology.  For Physical Education, kids with SmartPhones could use apps to track their heart rate, breathing, caloric burn, and if on a run, hike, or bike ride, their route, the elevations, etc.  They can post this information on a class blog to share with each other and their families, compare and contrast each others data or just their own, forecast improvements and develop plans to accomplish that, and use the data to track their progress.  Not possible without the technology.

I was visiting with an elementary school Principal and Teacher last week and we were talking about new possibilities with technology.  I showed them how with SIRI on my iPhone I can ask questions like “what is X^2 – 3X + 8” and it taps into Wolfram Alpha to solve the equation, show and name the graph, show the roots, derivative, integral, and show its work in doing so, in seconds!  I asked SIRI about earthquakes near Japan and in seconds, again with Wolfram Alpha it plotted them on a map indicating their magnitude, dates, and times.  These are activities kids are asked to do without technology. Or, perhaps they are told to “google it” to do the research and then do the work by hand (create the table, draw the graph or map, color the picture, etc.) while consuming hours of precious learning time.  Why not use the technology to do the grunt “robotic” work and then ask big questions that require thinking.  Ask: “For that 5.2 quake, 9km off the coast, research what damage the coastal towns experienced.  What if that 5.2 quake was 6.2?  Estimate the damage you think would occur then and justify your thinking.  Now move that 5.2 quake to within 5km of the coast, what affect do you think that would have on the coastal towns?  What advice would you give the towns people to prepare for these alternative scenarios?”.  There are a lot of cross-curricular learning outcomes coverable with problems like this.  How often is there time for students to solve real problems like this?  Unfortunately, they are often too busy doing what computers do best.  We need to leverage technology’s “magic” to free learning, to free teaching, to move to whole new levels of engagement, knowledge acquisition and development, and personal growth.  Learning and Technology are better together!

I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in what technology will do to disrupt and transform learning.  Currently most use of technology in classrooms is either for teaching or under the direction of the teacher.  Kids usually don’t get to choose when they will use technology or what that technology is – it’s “assigned” to them.  The problem is school systems and those of us in them, continue to stand in the way of the potential.  I would like to see education systems move to a model where it is a student’s right to use technology, to choose what that is, and the school systems provide safe spaces for them to store their learning, share it, reuse it, and enable teachersiStock_000010314279Small and families to be plugged into the kids learning, provide easy feedback on it, and to highlight great work.  Obviously the degree of choice and teacher direction will need to evolve from K to 12 but we need to arrive quickly in a place where kids really do own their learning.  Until all learning has either a digital focus or at a minimum, a digital trace, learning will remain trapped in physical spaces with very limited value.  Isn’t it an imperative for education systems to free the learning from the technologies of the past?