Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Technology lets you say mean things

This whole piece is really good. Here's the goodest bit:
This is why I get so apoplectic when people talk about MOOCs as disruptive technology. There is not a single thing this “New University of California” does that could not have been done technologically in 1898. Has online education suddenly improved to the point where people can gain never-before-seen levels of competency without attending classes? Hardly. Most MOOCs I’ve looked at are poorly designed even by late 90s standards, and besides, education’s killer technology — the book — has made independent learning possible for at least 500 years.

The real question to ask is why policy proposals like this — formerly the domain of fringe elements — are increasingly seen as innovation. What has changed? The answers to that are complex, and have little to do with technology. But understanding the reasons behind *that* is what is crucial to understanding where we are headed and why we are headed there.  I think that “authorized to contract with qualified entities” clause is a piece of it. But the story goes much, much deeper than that….
Here's a story about a teacher. His name is Jerry. Some people don't like the way that Jerry teaches, but they don't want to say so. There's a lot of reasons why they don't want to criticize Jerry. The kids like him, and so do the parents. He's a devoted teacher. He's very not-awful, and there are lots of people that teach like him. And Jerry isn't so into change. He's seen the trends come and go. He's not so into learning the new edu-jargon that is research-based with pie charts and things.

And then some new technology comes out. Jerry's principal gets excited. The people from Teen Einstein (c) have all these awesome ideas about how you can get kids more involved, and they're talking about students taking control and being engaged and personalized whatever, and Jerry's principal is saying Yeah, that's how I'd like Jerry to teach.

And what's Jerry going to say? "No, I don't want to learn how to use that tech." Nah, Jerry's just got to admit that there's something to learn here, that the technology is new to him and so there's something worth looking at. So Jerry's principal is a big fan of technology. He's predisposed to calling it "revolutionary" or "a real game-changer."

Technology solves another problem for Jerry's principal -- how do you tell people that you're improving without admitting that you've got room to improve? You can't just walk behind a podium and tell everyone that you're ending things like hour-long lectures. That's not just change, that's an indictment of your teachers, your district, and everyone else's school experiences.

But technology is (by definition!) new and unanticipated. It's a chance to change without any of the responsibility of inviting change.


There are Jerry's in other areas of education, people or institutions that folks are too polite to tear to shreds, and I think that's what's going on with the MOOCs.

Of course (some) people can learn (some) things on their own. Of course, by the time you get to college in a lot of places there isn't a lot of difference between the classroom and learning on your own. But this is not an attractive argument to make because taking this up means indicting the college experiences of everyone, along with the quality of America's college teachers, along with the institutions themselves.

That's not very nice.

But there's this radically new technology that could really change the game. With the internet there has been a revolution in information distribution, and it's changing the way people learn. Something something youtube. Something something social. Something something personalization.

So, don't worry -- nobody's getting hurt. This change isn't about pedagogy, it's not about "You don't teach well" or "What does it mean to learn something anyway?" It's about technology.

Until we figure out a way to convince pretty much everyone that there's good teaching and there's bad teaching and that you can tell the difference between them just by watching carefully, we're going to need -- as a society -- technology to give us a chance to say what we're really thinking.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think you're wrong about this. If I had one thing to redo in my school's transition to 1:1 is that I would have been more explicit, more indicting during the early phases. We were so hung up on having everyone not freakout that we lost the chance for a clear statement of the ways we wanted classrooms/teaching to change. It's also fair to say that the folk driving that decision didn't have a clear description of that change, and hoped to figure it out as we moved along.

    I don't think the phenomena you're describing here is uniquely tied to tech, but to the tendency of schools and admins to use (or manufacture) disruptive moments with the primary goal of moving Jerry's. I'm in year 13 and I've watched lots of admins dance with a lot of Jerry's.

    "And Jerry isn't so into change. He's seen the trends come and go."

    Your sense that schools often lack a systemic, structured way for teachers to observe, analyze, reflect and improve their craft is absolutely correct. I think that's largely because what those practices take is time, and most schools lack the culture or contracts necessary to compel teachers to spend anything close to the time required for sustained reflection and improvement.

    What they do have is faculty meetings and PD workshops, and maybe a budget for some "game changers." Veteran teachers (and I'm including myself in that pool of Jerry's) have seen very similar "everything's gonna change!" movements spring up around new advisory models, new schedules, new assessments and new curriculum. Across the board, they all provide a narrative for "new" improvement and a framework that will (hopefully) encourage teachers to focus and reflect on some aspect of their practice. Beyond the relative merit's of any one proposal, they all serve as a manufactured "crisis" moment, which opens the space and opportunity to talk about hard/mean things. The edtech bubble of the last few years (aka, your teaching career) makes distinguishing the object from the process. I think this is just a default play for school leadership, create a totemic focus for the community to drive teachers into more reflective teaching practice.

    The obvious critique of this charade is that it creates far more Jerry's than rdkpickle's. In fact, it's a key factor that turns good reflective teachers (who are struggling to stay conscious long enough to keep up with their daily responsibilities and developing their craft) into Jerry's, which connects back to your earlier post about teacher lifespan and consistent improvement. It fills the air with fractally distracting issues that drown out our core concern, how can we best teach what matters most for our students?