Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"Aha!" Moment on Adoption of Web 2.0 in the Classroom?

A couple of months ago I had lunch with Bonnie Plummer, who is the chair of Education, Arts, and Humanities for the University of California Davis Extension. She'd seen some of my work on the use of Linux in the classroom, and didn't have a real agenda, but just wanted to talk about the problem of computers in schools: "everything that we have done hasn't worked." Now, she allows that's a bit of an exaggeration, but her experience as an assistant superintendent over instructional support services left her feeling that a huge amount of money was being spent on computers that were sitting in the back of most classrooms gathering dust.

We had a long discussion, much of which focused on the insights from Larry Cuban and the adoption and use patterns for technology in schools. In short: teachers are overburdened; even if they are technologically savvy, bringing the computer into the curriculum is hard when you don't have good training, lessons plans, or an assurance that all the computers will be working. Also, technology decisions are being made at higher levels than the teachers, and those decisions have more to do with security and performance than they do with promoting educational effectiveness. We came to a tentative conclusion: computers won't be integrated into the average classroom or truly be transformative until a "killer application" comes along--something that is so amazing and also so simple to use that everyone will be willing to do whatever it takes to utilize the computers. Bonnie also pointed out to me that some huge percentage of teachers in California are women, and without falling into stereotypes, the female brain is not wired in the same ways as the male brain with regard to technology. Whatever it is that the computer does, it has to be as easy to use as a "garage door opener," Bonnie insisted. We left our lunch having wondered out loud if that killer application might be distance learning (and so I went back to work and called Susan Patrick of NACOL and set up an interview).

Some weeks later I met with Bonnie again. She wanted me to meet someone who is involved in instructional technology at a regional level. Bonnie and I rehearsed our previous discussion with this good man, and he helped to bring some of his experience to the dialog. In short, he wasn't very optimistic about the ability to technology to transform education, and said that he still feels that it's only a very small percentage of teachers who see the transformative potential there--and that percentage, in his view, hasn't really changed over the last 15 years. Early adopters are using the new technologies of the web (Web 2.0) and having exciting experiences, but even if what is currently on the cutting edge has changed, that edge is still very separate from the vast majority of teachers. Are blogs and wikis and the "write" component of the web significant changes that can transform education? According to him, even if they are, they will likely not be able to jump the chasm between the early adopters and the bulk of teachers.

Why? Because ever since he was teaching and brought an early DOS computer into his classroom, control of the computers has moved from the teacher to the school to the district, and even to the county. Teachers don't have control of the technology, and the higher-level decision-making about computers means that the emphasis is on control and legal protection. They've even moved away from black-list filtering to white-list filtering, so getting to a new website for a teacher is almost impossible. His feeling was that the conversion of textbooks to electronic editions (pushed by laws about the weight of textbooks) will be the most significant force to actually put computers in the classroom to use. (That sure didn't sound transformative to me...) He also felt that recent approvals to purchase LCD projectors for classrooms would make a difference for teachers to be able to use their laptops in front of the students. (Again, a forward step, but not transformative.)

Then I had an epiphany--an "aha" moment. Knowing how transformative the read/write web had been for me, I wanted to find out if he felt that these technologies, even though they are just another wave of innovation, hold something special for education. I asked him if he had blogged. He felt badly, I could tell, but said he really had not. I asked if he listened to podcasts. No, no time.

Now, this is a guy who likes technology, and is using Breeze for lots of distance learning, and arranges technology workshops for teachers. He's no slacker. But he hasn't personally experienced the amazing things that happen when you become a producer of content.

The light bulb went off for me. There is no way that teachers are going to be able to bring this technology into the classroom without support from the administration. So, the key would be to help the administrators experience the personal educational benefits from the read/write web technologies. And how would you do that? Maybe not providing them with just more information on the benefits of the read/write web, but actually providing them with some kind of training that actually helps them use these technologies in their jobs. They then would experience what happens, and can either promote or be more supportive of these technologies.

I copied Will Richardson on this concept, and it turns out he had come to this conclusion some time ago... Both Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Chris Lehmann feel that the new generation of teachers (anyone 32 or younger had access to email in college) are more likely to demand change from the bottom up. But that puts the burden on teachers to make changes to our schools--which Larry Cuban says does not really work... So maybe no "aha" for now.


  1. Anonymous4:51 PM

    Excellent information Steve! I am in total agreement with you on getting administrators to buy into new technologies as a way of diffusing the innovations we have access to but often don't use. These instructional leaders are the champions that can use their influence to spread the word on technology integration. If they use it themselves and serve as examples it would lead to a transformative process as other educators witnessed what can be accomplished. For example, a principal with a podcast for staff, parents, and students would be fun and welcomed!

  2. Web 2.0 as professional development tools for teachers is certainly a good path. I love the idea of a principal with a podcast--although I wonder how much podcasts get listened to, since they demand more time and attention than other forms of communication (I wonder this about my own podcasts!). Certainly, a blog by a principal could make a huge difference for creating a sense of community passion for a school, and might be easier to start. Thanks for the good feedback. Cheers.

  3. Anonymous6:04 PM

    My apolgies in advance for half-baked thoughts...
    The idea of the killer app you and Bonnie discussed reminded me of a classroom automation concept that my colleagues and I developed in 2004. I bring it up because there are some potentially counterintutitive aspects of it and I'd love to see how it resonates with you and your readers.
    Your post says:
    "killer application" must be something that is so amazing and also so simple to use that everyone will be willing to do whatever it takes to utilize the computers. Bonnie also pointed out most teachers are women, and the KillerApp has to be as easy to use as a "garage door opener" .

    THe insights that we had are:
    1. Apps that are simple and useful for the user are often undergirded by extremely complex automation systems (e.g., ATM machines). The problem we run into when we talk about "automating the classroom" is that people (teachers included) envision a classroom full of technology that either gets in the way of teacher/student interaction, is intended to replace the teacher, or breaks down daily. Yet we know from studies of automation in other professions that this need not be the case. Highly sophisticated technology can enhance teacher/student interaction and can be be nearly invisible. How do we get past inaccurate preconceptions?

    2. We tend to think of classroom apps as focusing on instruction and assessment, when perhaps the most useful apps are those that improve workflow. Think of how home appliances were marketed (to women) as time-saving work-saving automation. Perhaps the Killer app simply saves the teacher 5-10 minutes of "overhead" activities in each 50 min class period to focus on teaching as opposed to handing out and putting red stamps on homework. That adds up to a lot of time saved. Every teacher we spoke with wanted that technology. And with 1-to-1 technology we could build it tomorrow.
    Thoughts? Reactions?

  4. I'm beginning to think that Firefox is the killer app now. Basic, trouble-free access to the tools of the collaborative web that a small, but growing, group of educators are finding transformative to learning. And now including flash-based video-conferencing.

    I've been playing with a version of Linux called Puppy Linux (, and have the latest version of Firefox running fast on pretty old computers--with the stability of Linux. Hmmm....

    I also keep watching Moodle (, as their value is becoming increasingly apparent, and is web-based.


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