It is technology planning season here in the school district. This yearly process pushes us to question how and what we are accomplishing in our quest for the perfect learning tool. I’ve been watching and participating in this “event” for over 10 years now, so I have developed some theories. Recently I have been reading (listening) to Kevin Kelly’s book, “What Technology Wants” and Howard Rheingold’s new book, “Net Smart”. These books, combined with my experience of how the humans around me choose has given me much food for thought. Writing always helps me formalize my theories and helps me make connections. So here goes…
“What Technology Wants” is a very, very, in-depth journey into the evolution of technology; it’s parallels to evolution in biology and human evolution and the ensuing creation of tools by homo sapiens. While the idea that technology could want something sounds whacky at first, Kelly provides a wealth of examples and some very compelling arguments for the comparison. Whether you buy the entire idea or not, in reading the book you will learn much about evolution in general, evolution of humans in particular, human invention and the gradual but steady evolution of our tools. Kelly brings many years of experience and thought to this subject. His description of the adoption of technology within the Amish community is especially thought provoking. What is instructive is not that they are 50 years behind in the adoption of technology but their process for choosing and rejecting. Key to this is their evaluation process which is continuous and includes the observation of the impact of a tool. They are willing to go back to the drawing board when something doesn’t fit with their culture.
While it doesn’t reach back into prehistory like Kelly’s book, “Net Smart” provides a history of the fast evolving tools of the Internet; a detailed view of the current state of communication, learning, online communities and collaboration. “Net Smart” is a user’s guide for anyone who would like to drive safely and effectively on the “information highway”. As a seasoned participant in virtual communities (a term he coined) Howard steers us to the practical potentials and pitfalls of participation. While he avoids prescriptions, he provides a concise guide for focusing our attention, sorting fact from fiction, associating with people of like interests, and making a difference through community effort and knowledge building.
What do these books have to say about the adoption of technology for schools? Perhaps most important, they provide insight into where we have come from and where we can go. While, both Kelly and Rheingold are optimistic about the potentials of online learning and collaboration, both provide a realistic and sober assessment of the pitfalls and dangers. Both enjoin us to take responsibility and shape our personal and community practice with online tools.
The trends that Rheingold and Kelly describe have critical implications for schools who (for the time being) have an opportunity to influence the choices made by our children. As Mimi Ito points out in her “Digital Youth Research“, our youth are learning to use the web in informal ways, outside the walls of school. It is time that we adults move out of our comfort zone and face the emerging forms of communication. It is time to get informed and organize our learning with them. We have an opportunity to emphasize technological literacy over technological consumption. This isn’t about control but education and it starts with an informed pedagogy. It is reflected in the “stuff” (tools) that we choose for/with students.
Re-thinking technology adoption is not an event but a mindset. As such, I would like to find new and continuous ways to engage students, administrators, teachers and parents on this subject. A Net Smart curriculum could form as a touch stone for this conversation. It could inform both informal adoption (personal expenditures) and formal adoptions (with public money). As I convene with school principals this spring I hope to bring this spirit to the table. I realize that the industrial model of learning (fact and memory driven) is the elephant in the room. Such a model lends itself to a strict adoption of technology that looks like a textbook or a workbook. I would like to broaden our concept of learning to include constructivist models, as described by Ito, Kelly, Rheingold, Jenkins, Hargadon, Warlick and many others. I hope the conversations we have will generate avenues for learning that are generative, relevant and rich for our students.