Five reasons you might be a romantic educator

Another way of looking at ‘integration’ of technology is to see it as a hybrid solution. I remember Top Gear reviewing the Toyota Hybrid car, suggesting “this car has two engines. Normally, in say a Bugatti, this would be fantastic, but here one’s electric the others petrol – neither are very good”. Rather awkwardly digital-traditional hybrids haven’t sat easily or consistently in school either. In many ways, like electric cars the infrstructure simply isn’t there. But I’m a romantic, and I think that rather than paint a picture of a ‘digital classroom’ – building romantic classrooms is what successful teachers are doing now, and these people are somewhat irrepressible because they understand digital culture and society more than the machine which seeks to control it. If this wasn’t the case, we would walk outside and the world would be steampunk. Here are five reasons I believe in the romantic classroom.

1. Ambivalence towards a tipping point.

Some teachers and students get a great deal, others nothing in between is ambivalent interest waiting for a tipping point. As classrooms and lectures today don’t operate in isolation from society, so it’s possible that kids don’t experience any continuance in how they learn with technology, and recent Australian report show no increase in student engagement or satisfaction in recent times. It would be easy to think if students have a laptop, then digital hybrid learning is changing learning on a wholesale bases. Without clear evidence on a wide scale, the question is how do we know hybrid education is better than an alternative? For example, government policy to allow parents to purchase a laptop for their child directly (as parents carry the risk anyway) and then to present digital education as a family and community concern.

Let’s pitch a something else. Say we create a digital department who’s sole job is to work on topics from and in the digital domain. Digital is already a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people
who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years – create a superstructure where a willingness to participate has a reward system. The department is publicly visible in ways to which education might be generally unaccustomed, yet where scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit.

2. The drop out zone

While this sounds exciting, even a depiction of the “connected educator”, the problem is that it doesn’t work (yet). Much of the current research is around how to identify students at risk of drop out which then leads to predictions of virtual school success. Overwhelmingly, they find digital-opportunities tend to benefit primarily already-advantaged learner and educational access does not equate to educational opportunity.  The advantage schools have in prediction lies in policy where kids are not really allowed to physically drop-out, where as online, dropping in and out is the experience loop itself – and completely normal. In higher education, students can easily drop out. In 2010 this cost Australian Universities billions of dollars. Drop out rates among teachers, in my experience is similar story. While 30 sign up for some technological training, only half show up and two percent will persist on a reflective process of experimentation – often  over 12 months before they believe it is successful. Along the way is a sea of self-doubt – and we know the human brain hates that sensation. This means very few become digital-explorers, most remain users of the provided infrastructures – and many do it perfectly well in the context of the institution. There’s no data on how long exploration lasts either, some feel happy to put down roots in some topic or interest, while others continue to roam the metaverse in search of wonder.  More pragmatically, when only 11% of Australian have a Twitter account (which doesn’t indicate activity), I seriously question how this use (exploration method) among educators can have all but marginal benefits,  It’s easy to tune in and drop out – and results little public-sphere or institutional improvement so far. It has no scale.

3. The utopian elevator to nowhere

The Gates Foundation paints a different picture, they believe “In this paradigm of next-generation learning models, students and teachers— both secondary and post secondary—will have access to high-quality, relevant, and engaging content in a variety of forms.” In addition they say they hold “a belief that providing investment capital to strengthen emerging information and learning technologies, collecting and sharing evidence of what works, and fostering a community of innovators and adopters will result in a robust marketplace of solutions and a larger pool of institutional participants”. In other words, throwing money at it will lead to greater participation and quality. It forgets that what people imagine and what they believe are quite different things – and that for many people, this is a very Victorian idea where mechanisation will lead to greater discipline. There are then people who are are going to challenge this – romantics if you like – those who highly value individual success, pastoral activity and local community (the rural life). Look on Twitter, which is more evident? People doing what Gates suggest, or the romantics?

4. The crash-zone

The point (to me) of using digital technologies is to shape it to discover something new and wonderful in it, to do things that are otherwise not humanly possible and open doors to break the illusion being presented by people who title things with cybertopian headings. None of what they espouse tackles perceptual infrastructure issues that hybrid idealism creates (making it worse). For example, we can use technology to demolish the utterly dysfunctional 9th grade electives and replace them with digital departments (which are not the same as virtual schools). Electives are generally a 2 line system that has been around as long as mass-education. It was a way of water shedding kids using the aggregate that the numbers who get what they want – are sufficient to perpetuate the chain, but not flood it.  In column A are four subjects and in B, another 4. You choose 1 from each line and there’s no guarantee of satisfaction or transparency. Typically is you like music and technology and they are on the same column, you can’t do it. This nightmare persists regardless of whether the school has laptops, iPads or a holo-deck. It’s insane to then moan kids are disengaged in a topic that they were herded into in the first place or think giving them a laptop will somehow make them more interested.

5. Great  teachers are romantics

I believe in creating romantic learning experiences, and these lead to deeper learning. It doesn’t matter if this is in adult, primary or secondary education. People are pre-wired mentally drop out if they believe something is crap or they can’t imagine any emotional engagement in it.  Kids who grow into using the Internet independently, focus at school on things they like (as do adults) – they create friend networks and vary interest towards their academic subjects based on their belief of success and intrinsic motivation – which they call ‘work’.  Kids now have so much access to digital youth culture that they can easily opt out of ‘work’ and into thier networks of i interest – most of which are highly romantic, based on friendship and binary opposites – as is the nature of youth. This is actioned as updating your profile, liking your friends, posting a photo, support a friend in crisis  and so on. This is what digital technology is for – to react against the machine and to escape reality (which itself is an illusion of the actual world).

To me, successful teachers which use hybrid technology (not opimal technology) almost always create romantic positive digital spaces. The poor ones use hammers and gears of the machine. The best create the illusion of a digital department (usually for almost no money) and bring in like-minded friends to fuel the richness of the experience loop they want- the bad ones hold a webinar and talk.

I think that by using technology is to discipline students. To me, those who use it to break the illusion, and open doors have a lot in common with romanticism and for the most part use it against the machine, just as Blake wrote deceptively simple poems, using the technology of his day. That seems kind of wonderful to me.

X-School in Newcastle?

Patterns and routines follow education as surely high tide follows low. A hundred years of mass education, sounded out by the bell of inevitability. The pattern and routines are rarely broken, but reinforced with each passing day.

Smart-kids know how to game the system. I recently spoke to a young woman, now doing a PhD, who said she went to a North Shore Sydney private school. She struggled to break the top 10 student list in grades, due to fierce competition. Rather than pay the fees and risk not getting into the Uni subject she wanted, her parents rented a flat for her in Western Sydney. She went to what she called a “band 3 school” instead. She aced every class, the teachers welcomed their ‘band 6 girl’ and lavished attention on her as she romped to first place in every class and the rest is history.

Smart-students know how to play the system. The patterns of study are repeated with marginal change, year in year out. Content get’s updated, but the mechanic stays almost the same. Those teachers who manage to break this cycle do it by creating new patterns of learning that defeat these mechanics. So why force them to find exploits, and just imagine for a moment that someone handed over some loot, and with that we created a learning center, were teachers were mentors,experts on learning design for the gamer generation.

Let’s call it X-School to be trendy. Why is no one brave enough to hand over the swag to make it happen? It makes perfect sense.

Answer: Because that would break the rules. We might have to ditch some current ideas, such as “ICT Integrators”, who are yet to find the right potion for the 21st Century. The rule is, thy shalt have but one ICT Manager and an Integrator and forsake all other options. We are so reluctant to even change job descriptions, we are hardly likely to open X-School in Newcastle. But I think we should. Part of the funding comes of course, from it being a model school and in that offering professional development to other schools. It’s a model that has worked elsewhere, so why not in Australia, why not Newcastle?

The plain fact that no one’s willing to try or fund it. Yet it’s within every systems grasp. Yes it might look strange, but strange isn’t a reason to pretend it’s not possible.

Take an office space, make it a learning space, teach half a dozen teachers in the ways of virtual goodness and allow them to create learning episodes that resonate with students for whom ‘regular’ school doesn’t work.

At the same time, open this is a hub to mentor teachers where they creating new learning episodes to re-connect students with the idea that they are good at life. It stands a good chance of breaking the cycle that will, without doubt, perpetuate another decade of anecdotal Power Points telling us about how technology will change lives if only we adopted Web2.0.

The total cost, is probably less that will be wasted on trying to secure an old building from vandals and following up kids who wag school.

Its high time social development replaced professional development and virtual teachers became as accessible as school counselors and geography teachers, so that students and teachers in classrooms everywhere have access to the same projects, specifically designed to do two things.

  1.  To address the real concerns teachers have ranging from low concern (I don’t care about technology), to high concern (my innovation ideas are ignored) and
  2.  Engage students for whom school does not and will not work as it is now – in ways that makes them feel good about themselves.

This might not be for all students, or for all parents. It might not appeal to all teachers either. However, if we want real reasons to use technology to build a learning community and so some serious social good, this is one easy way to do it.

It is not beyond the realms of immediate reason to connect schools and teachers to a centre like this, or to allow students and parents to choose an alternative. It might be for an hour a week, it might be for the kids who are suspended from school or kids who are scared to go to school … but without the will to make an attempt to build a space that extends into virtual space, we’re likely to keep putting lipstick on a pig.

I suggest giving me the money. I’m even happy to call it the CISCO-Pearson-Dick Smith School of blah, if that brings in new ideas.

There are some great old buildings in Newcastle, just begging to be occupied. Why not open one as a virtual school? Create some project ideas with the local community and start to engage kids.

Connect it to regular schools everywhere and get on with connecting a physical building a virtual, project based school that reconnects kids. They’ll still do the tests, still follow the syllabus, no one needs to panic, it’s not de-schooling, it’s re-schooling. Not distance education, immersive learning.

I think I post one of these virtual school posts every year. Maybe next year, it will be a different story. I’d enroll my kid day one. He’s playing tank.

MInd your language!

Two re-occuring terms I keep encountering are ‘integrating technology’ and ‘cyber-culture’. I am never sure if they are used to be astute or divisive. Perhaps they should be retired from the discourse of educational technology entirely.

‘Integrating technology’ seems an odd term, as technology is itself empty. It presumes there are at least two components to combine (technology plus something). All to often, we here people talk about ‘Integrating technology into teaching’.

A more evocative term is ‘integral technology’ – as technology today is not a peripheral to be combined, nor is it empty, but abundant with information, services, access and purpose.

‘Cyberculture’ notionally suggests online technology users are part of divergent cybernetic system. The term is steeped in fictional perceptions and suspicion of technology. It is interpretative and contrastive –  used to infer both strangeness and fresh-originality, depending on the agenda of the writer/speaker and is almost always contextual.

To describe it as a ‘culture’ is problematic, with multiple meanings. It could refer to intellectual achievements, conditions suitable for growth, exposure to ‘the arts’ or a refined, sophistication.

A more suspicious mind may morphologically relate it with negativity – ‘drug-culture’ for example – as popular media often tries to demote groups of society which do not directly support their ideology – which is unavoidably biased, due to institutional ownership and the personal belief those directing it.We also associate ‘cyber’ negatively – cyber-sex, cyber-crime, cyber-virus – horrid things that combine technology (especially electronic communication) with some dubious social action. Participants are rarely identified in a positive light, but as ‘cyberpunks’ – individuals in a lawless subculture in an oppressive society, dominated by computer technology – usually with malice.

Both ‘integrating technology’ and ‘cyberculture’ are fashionable terms – but feel dated.

Those teachers who are filling technology with meaning and see it as integral to learning -become more informed, self-directed, conversant and knowledgeable. They are clued into a generation who has, and is – growing up with technology and online communities as an integral part of life. The disappointing reality is the personal cost of doing it, is not reflected or recognised much of the time by ignorant human resource policy and belief.

Children easily differentiate the past from the present, fantasy from reality and are adept distinguishing effective from in-effective teachers.

Youth-online has become self-directed and self-interested in learning to use technology; most teachers are used to, and assume their own learning will be directed though ‘professional development’.

Those who don’t, who have taken personal control, are constrained at work by institutional demands, policy and belief. I think that these two terms too often dominate and fail to accurately reflect or encourage substantial consideration or exploration of the pedagogical change by the majority – which I would put as high as 90% of all teachers.

Increasing change comes at a cost. Right now, those exploring ‘beyond the basic’ are picking up the bill. Of the multiple scenarios being offered, a prediction made in 2008, by the PEW “Future of the Internet III” report – holds continued sway with me.

“The divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who’s connected, and the results will be mixed in terms of social relations.”

We can’t call avoiders Luddites -as they don’t rally or smash technology with a hammer. They simply avoid all engagement, unless directed – then dis-engage as soon as possible – like going to a party where you hate the music, people and conversation – “is it too soon to leave?”.

Avoiderculture sees technology as separate according to the cyberculturals, whom are in turn seen as a small group of radicals who need to get a real life. This has been going on for decades, so perhaps we should blame Thatcher, The Sex Pistols and William Gibson too.

Technology is yet to be integral to the design of norm-curriculum – but set aside. ACARA is yet to propose any teacher or student standards for technology capabilities beyond verbose motherhood statements, choosing to focus on politically more palatable and ‘do-able’ subjects such as English and History. They are not even suggesting ISTE NETs as a guideline.

I’m opting out of any conversation that talks about ‘integrating technology’ or ‘cyberculture’, unless there is real discussion about what this actually means to change them (and action). Almost certainly the conversation is starting from an assumption, that I really don’t feel comfortable with anymore – and burned out having. Wow, making decisions to avoid really is empowering!