In the vast majority of the schools I work with or have taught in, it is definitely not the case that the internet has transformed K-12 education in ways that were unprecedented by giving everyone access to all the knowledge of the world. Neither, has it, in my experience, pushed classroom learning away from content and basic skills or enabled more authentic, situated learning. To date, I have only ever been in two classrooms out of the dozens of CPS schools I’ve worked with, visited, or toured where I saw practices that even remotely approach this description. Even then, the sophisticated use of BYOD and blended instructional methods were still teacher-driven and focused on content and skills. I must admit, my own classroom was not one of the two, knowing what I know now — though no doubt I would have said otherwise when last I had my own classroom in 2008.
Dynamics At Play
There were a number of dynamics at play in the early days of the internet that I believe short-circuited this utopic vision from becoming even a partial reality. To be sure, “there is an essential lesson we must take to heart if we are to construct a new informational paradigm for education — that Internet architecture by design undermines hierarchy and liberates the end users at their powerful personal computers and mobile Internet devices…. The machine is really a giant centrifuge, forcing power outward from hierarchical systems to computer end users, individually and collectively forming a networked global society” (pp. 68-69). In as much as this is true, the industrial model of schooling has a vested interest in preventing this educational nirvana from being realized. Still, there are some other specific dynamics I see as interfering.
High Stakes Testing and School Reform
The early 1990’s were the point where high-stakes testing and school reform were shifting into high gear. As Waks has noted, these have the effect of solidifying the industrial model of schooling. So even as some educators wanted to innovate as part of a “reform” agenda on one hand, they were bound even more closely to the industrial model on the other via the use of test scores to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of their reform methods.
Cost and the Digital Divide
Then as today, costs for digital hardware and some software are prohibitively expensive and out of the financial ranges of most schools. Beyond a few labs, hardware carts, and faculty laptops, schools lack the funding to put a device in the hands of every student. While doing so is far from guaranteeing high level learning via such devices, digital instruction and learning without them is impossible.
The high associated costs in the early days drove the digital divide separating the digital haves from the digital have-nots — whether a family or a school district. Costs for hardware, commercial software, and basic internet service, never mind even more expensive high-speed options, all contributed to setting up this initial divide. When thinking in terms of academic allocation and legitimacy, as Waks does, one can see a digital analog being set up by the initial and consequent digital divides. People with access to the internet have a far wider allocation to the new social and network structures of the digital age. So even as the internet can be a disruptor of the allocations made by the industrial society and its schools, the economic realities of the industrial society transferred its allocations to the early digital/information/knowledge society via the digital divide.
Roll of Professional Learning and Educator Mindsets
Professional learning for both teachers and administrators has a profound impact on the extent to which information and communication technology gets implemented in a given school. Peggy Ertmer and Anne Ottenbriet-Leftwich have researched (PDF) technology change in schools and have found that in schools where teachers adapted ICT in meaningful ways, all had six characteristics in common:
- They were well equipped for ICT.
- Their focus was on changing the process of learning using ICT.
- Skills were acquired as part of the process of using those skills purposefully.
- The school provided support.
- Teachers had opportunities to discuss, reflect and troubleshoot with peers and facilitators over time.
- The nature of student learning changed along with teachers’ beliefs and knowledge sets.
They have found that both teachers and administrators need quality, differentiated professional development that addresses their educational belief systems as well as the learning needed for any given digital tools. In fact, Ertmer and Ottenbriet-Leftwich found that substantive and lasting change around digital methods will not occur with out the former in particular. They also found that school culture is a major driver of change. In schools were the administrators believe incorporating digital learning is a vital aspect to teaching and learning, teachers are more likely to include them in their practices. Even where administrators had laissez-faire attitudes about technology, those schools did not make any meaningful shifts to include digital instructional practices.
When we think about Ertmer and Ottenbriet-Leftwich’s research and acknowledge the paucity of time, money, and attention given to substantive, quality, professional learning for most US teachers, it is no surprise that schools are not making the shifts they need to make to bring teaching and learning into the digital age.
Affordances of Web 2.0 and a Wishlist
Still, 2017 is not 1997. As Waks notes, Web 1.0 was about desktop hardware, dial-up connections, and downloaded applications. The internet was essentially an application in as much as it could only be accessed via the Netscape browser. However, Web 2.0 is mobile, apps and data live in “the cloud”, the browser and the internet have become an operating system in and of themselves through which we can work, play and interact with nearly anyone on the planet via millions of digital networks (p. 81). Even though the world has shifted to this more interactive and participatory model of Web 2.0, I wonder if many educators and parents are not thinking about it in Web 1.0 terms, even as many of them make use of the networked technologies in their personal lives.
What do I wish were different? To start, I wish that with the affordances of lower costs and greater access to what danah boyd calls “networked publics”, adults will realize what young people have. Namely, that Web 2.0 is indeed all about connecting people, not computers (p. 81). That it is defined by social and commercial factors and not technology (p. 82). I would like educators and parents to allow kids to engage more in the behaviors identified by Mimi Ito as hanging out, messing around, and geeking out in these digital spaces. I would like to see teachers push their own use past administrative mere tasks with email and online gradebooks and into more instructional practices. I would like to see students, educators, and parents all “make [their] web experience more interactive and engaging…with creative ideas” (p. 82) and realize that the digital sphere is not something separate from “real life”, but just another “social and commercial milieu, not [emphasis added] the underlying technologies” (p. 82). Finally (for now) I’d like teachers specifically to take hold of the “bisociation” Waks cites Arthur Koestler as describing (p. 86). Such “bisociation” in the era of the mash-up and Open Educational Resources provides a great frame for pushing teachers out of their isolation and towards more collaborative work. I’m imagining “bisociated” lesson plans, unit plans, and curricula. Perhaps even a time where the term “cross-curricular” planning fades away to be replaced by “bisociated planning”. A time when teachers creating user-generated content on web sites and wikis like Teachers Pay Teachers or the Smithsonian Learning Lab is de rigueur and not reserved for the “tech geeks” among us.
And, I see this all coming to pass. In the next 10 years? Perhaps. But given the tremendous impact and change the internet has wrought on global society, I don’t think even education can insulate itself from the changes for long.
For more, check out these other media sources.
Alan Kay on Arthur Koestler and “bisociation”.
Mimi Ito on connected learning
Waks, L. J. (2016). Education 2.0: The learningweb revolution and the transformation of the school. New York, NY: Routledge.