Sunday, December 16, 2007

It's the Technology, Stupid...

(Cross-posted from

OK, I don't even let my own kids use the word "stupid" around the house (if my 9-year old says that someone used the "s"-word, she means "stupid"), but for those of us who remember the 1992 presidential campaign, the phrase reminds us of the importance of focusing on what really matters.

For the last year or two, I've been in an internal dilemma over the importance of technology versus pedagogy, and I think I've just reached a breaking point. There is just no question in my mind now that we are witnessing the initial phases of a social, cultural, and scientific change that will rival--and likely eclipse--the advent of the printing press. And it is not because of the pedagogy. While this change confirms some core beliefs that many of us have with regard to teaching and learning, and reopens the door to implementing them, the cause of this dramatic change is technological, specifically the read/write Web (or Web 2.0). It is the use of the Web as a contributor as much as a consumer of information.

Last week I was in Denver, attending a KnowledgeWorks Foundation small-group brainstorm "Re-imagining Teaching for the Future." Through a series of exercises intended to construct scenarios about future forces that would affect the roles of teachers, we tried to imagine what teaching and learning will be like in 10 - 15 years. I suggested that the depth of integration of technology into formal education would be a significant factor in teachers' roles, but was told that in this particular kind of scenario building, that technology is almost never considered a critical force, because it can be assumed it will be adopted.

I beg to differ. I'm not sure we can make that assumption. Mike Huffman from Indiana calculated that his state had spent a billion dollars on computer technology over ten years, with the less-that-stunning result that each student had access to a computer for 35 minutes a week. Using a bottom-line approach to computing, with the goal of actual classroom and curricular integration, Mike and his colleague Laura Taylor have been helping to provide low-cost immersive computing in Indiana--but I get the feeling they still fight every day to keep their program. Our inability in our own small worlds to see the larger picture of dramatic change taking place because of the Internet and the read/write Web threatens to keep us on a path of continuing to see computers as an accessory in the classroom. I'm personally not convinced that schools are ready to adopt the computer as the new learning medium. They should, however, and the longer it takes us to recognize this important reality, the more we will wonder why we didn't act sooner.

I'm unsuccessfully trying to remind myself to be patient. Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of the blog (see It's actually the 10th anniversary of the word "weblog," as there have been forms of communication that were blog-like that preceded that day in 1997 when Jorn Barger coined the word. However, I think we can all agree that the blog has only recently burst upon our collective consciousness, and many of the other Web 2.0 tools can only be categorized as being in their infancy. But for anyone participating in Twitter, or Ning Networks, or any of a hundred other social technologies that create dialog and conversation, there is an amazing sense that we are in the middle of something of huge human significance. Ten years may not be that long, but if we have to go through ten more years of debating the value of computers in education, we're in trouble.

Yesterday I interviewed Lindsea (16), Sean (16), and Kevin (17), three of the youth bloggers who have started Students 2.0 (see David Jakes recent post). Sean was in Scotland, Lindsea in Hawaii, and Kevin in Illinois--all on Skype. I've posted the 25 minute interview on my site (along with a previous one by "Arthus" that generated quite a comment firestorm at, and it's well worth the listen; but here I'm fascinated by the role of technology, in this case, in promoting student voices and their perspective on education.

From Sean: "What's happened over the past few years, and in society, with technology and the web becoming a lot more important, I'd say that the stuff I'm doing at home [rather than at school] is right now a bit more relevant, in terms of the skills I will need later in life.... At the stage at which we are at school, I would say that we are not dumb, we've matured a bit, and I think we should have some form of say in what's happening... "

From Kevin: "It's an interesting model, the way school continues to operate, as opposed to the infinitely more learning that we can do outside of the classroom... I think that technology is a very important part of education today, and because of that the shift from the traditional student-teacher model is creating a whole bunch of new possibilities. The web is not the only method by which that will happen, but it is a very important one as well... At the core of everything else, all the technology usage, it's all about creating learners, not just students who are able to interpret the facts that the teachers just preach to them in the classroom... There are 300 - 400 teachers in my school district, maybe only a a handful, I can probably count on one hand, who actually read blogs, let alone write them." -Kevin, 17 years old, Illinois, USA

(Lindsea had less to say because she had to leave the interview early to get to class. She was on a world-wide Skype interview from her computer at school, cool as a cucumber, with all of the noise of a school campus in the background.)

Kids like Kevin and Lindsea and Sean are flying metaphorical jet planes overhead, while we're largely using computers in schools as the equivalent of earth-bound tricycles. And then we're wondering why the computer hasn't transformed or improved education. As Connie Weber has written about an encounter with another teacher in an amazing series of notes about the evolution of her homeroom class, "I got the feeling she thinks 'computers' are a 'subject' and that there should be a lesson on 'computer use' with a beginning, a middle, and an end, then perhaps a test on topic coverage. Oh dear." (Connie's candid notes about her journey into a new paradigm of teaching that started with a social network for her class are on my must-read list for anyone interested in the future of education and learning.)

For some reason that my wife has never understood, I saved every paper I wrote in high school and college. They are still in a box in my attic. "Why?" my wife keeps asking. In my heart, I think I know why. Because I had something significant to say, and I could never bear to throw them away because I never really felt that what I had to say was heard. (Chalk one up to profound insights while blogging.) Most of them only had one other reader than me: my teacher at the time. When our youth write today, their audience can be so much broader and so much more real. It may not be a huge audience, but even if it's a few others scattered around the country or the globe, their writing is much more about communicating effectively with others than mine was. As content producers as well as consumers, their relationship with information is so much richer than mine ever was at their age. I don't want my children to be attic-box writers. I want them passionately, actively engaged in learning and communicating--like they are more and more in their use of the Web, which takes place largely outside of any formal educational setting.

Do I feel shy about advocating increased use of technology in education because of curricular, administrative, teaching, safety, and financial impediments to adoption? Yes, a little. But when I re-frame the context, and ask if I am willing to devote my passion and energy to a complete rethinking of education in light of the impending read/write renaissance brought about by the Internet, it's an unqualified yes. Bring on the revolution.


  1. Anonymous3:12 PM

    Hi Steve,
    I enjoy your blogs and sites. They continue to inspire me to fight the good fight for Ed. Tech. It is always refreshing to read your thoughts and ideas. I too agree that the revolution is upon us and we need to continue with our Ed. Tech. passions and instructional practices that help to shape the 21st Century learners and future successes within our country. What a crime and complete disservice it is that so many or today's educators, administrators, board members and professionals still turn a blind eye to the current trends in education. Don't they see the big picture? Are there really only a few of us who truly get it? Thanks for all that you do for Educational Technology. Your efforts will continue to inspire me and others who share your passions and ideology.

  2. Steve: I liked your observation: "She still thinks technology is a subject." That mindset is a result of the assimilation of technology into the traditional school paradigm that Papert wrote about in '93 in "The Children's Thinking Machine." I am thinking we need to focus professional development on core technologies that can be used every day to process the world of information. At the political level, I think we have to wage war against the standards and accountability movements which, perhaps unwittingly, serve to trap us in the mindsets and behaviors of 19th century education.

  3. Hi, Cap. :)

    Part of the difficulty, and I realize it, is that we are so smack dab in the middle of something huge and powerful that many of us don't even know how to quantify or "systematize" it into our current educational structures. I think it is asking a lot for educators schooled in a traditional way to take up the banner of Web 2.0 and run with it--since there aren't curricular materials easily available, there is a suspicion of the "next computer push," and because their necks are on the line with regard to Internet safety issues.

    This is why I think there will have to be some kind of education "revolution," because it is so hard for us to imagine a course from where we are to where things might/could/should be. The hope for me is that the passion around education and learning that is coming from the read/write web is a wake-up call.

  4. Hi, Wes. Thanks for the comment.

    I listened to a great Papert talk the other day (again, confirming my love for technologies that allow me to do so).

    Somehow, I'm thinking that what we are going to experience will be hard to fit into even our traditional models of professional development or politics. I'm sure that sounds vague, but I'm wondering how much of our traditional methods for doing things exist because of the tools we have had at hand, and how many things will change when the tools are suddenly so different. What is teacher training when you have students creating their own education by starting a blog and having international Skype conversations about education while between classes?

    I don't want to go off into the wild blue yonder, but it just felt to me last week, for some reason, that we're about to experience something so dramatic and culture-altering in the next 5 - 10 years that we may have to accept the loss of many traditional structures as we watch the unfolding of completely new methods around learning. In 1997 Apple was failing, Office 97 was released, and the Celeron processor was just about to be released. Think of where we are now, of all the technology that we use that is so life-altering, and where we'll be in another 10 years.

  5. I just finished writing a post that basically said we are now out of Plato's Cave and 'There is no going back', and then I come here to read this. I got here thanks to Budtheteacher's Shared Items in Google Reader, which in turn I arrived at compliments of Twitter... and now I am contributing to the conversation.
    I've battled with letting technology supersede pedagogy in my class, but that is a reason to reflect not to revert.
    "O.K. class, let's all turn to page 28 and answer questions 1 to 15."

  6. Anonymous12:58 PM

    Hi Steve,
    Great food for thought! I think there are many subversive factors at play when thinking about technology and education. School districts are so tied into the textbook adoption cycle and its pot of money that they can't think outside "THE BOOK." Sure, most text book publishers now include CD's, DVD's and related websites, but it's still a textbook world -even if the textbook is outdated the minute it is published.

    The people who make decisions in school districts (superintendents, directors of curriculum, etc.) are usually ex-teachers. These people haven't been in the classroom since the advent of the Internet - they just don't get it! They not only don’t get it; they fear it and the possibilities of lawsuits. The easiest path is to say no and lock down the network.

    There has been a long held belief that teachers "advance" in a district by moving up to the high school level. This makes the secondary level staff some of the oldest members of the district. There is a tendency to resist change and hold to "what has always worked" -lectures followed by paper tests. It’s extremely difficult for some of these people to come off their pedestals and become facilitators of constructivist learning. We might literally have to wait until most of the Baby Boomers have retired before there is mental room for change.

    Every teacher I know is overworked, overstressed and spends evenings planning lessons. If they integrate technology into their lesson of the day and the technology fails in that moment in the classroom, they have to just move on. They realistically don't have the time to track down another resource. If this failure happens enough, they just stop thinking about technology in their classroom as a viable possibility.

    Because of this "down in the trenches" reality, most teachers don't have time to see the bigger picture of technology and how it is changing everything. So, they don’t even know what great things are just beyond their grasp.

    The cure? Money, staff development, timely tech support, risk-taking, and belief that teachers who are trusted with twenty to 160 students a day can be trusted with Web. 2.0 tools.

    -Alix Peshette
    Technology Training Specialist

  7. Anonymous12:05 AM

    I loved your comments, Steve.

    There are a lot of barriers working for hindering change in schools. The primary barrier is time in the classroom. The curriculum is so wide, that teachers are too stressed and pressed about teaching to worry about change. The best teaching practices require extra preparation time and energy, and many teachers just don't have enough left. There is just not enough time in the day to fit it all in.

    Second is lack of administrative vision for technology. Again, they are busy, too. However, they are the instruction leaders in their schools and districts, and they should be putting resources toward best teaching practices to facilitate a high quality, student-centered school.

    Finally, profession development is lacking in both quantity and quality. We teach the way we are taught. Lecture is the fastest, easiest, most efficient, most used, and least effective teaching technique used everywhere. Professional Development and beginning teacher training needs to be taught with the best teaching practices the teachers should be using in their classrooms. It needs to be long-term, ongoing, individualized, small-group, collaborative, project-based, just-in-time learning.

    Time, vision, and training are just the beginning of integrating technology with learning, but won't happen without it.

    James Sigler
    3rd grade teacher

    I crossposted this on my blog at What is School 2.0?

  8. Alix and James:

    Thanks for your comments. I've been hearing much the same thing for the last few years from others, especially the teachers themselves.

    Which is why I've been coming to the conclusion that it will be the technology that changes education, not the pedagogy... a statement that needs to be qualified, but that I'm finding more and more encapsulates my sense of what is to come.

    No matter how "truthful" or compelling pedagogies are, I find that they are too varied (as we as individuals are as well) and undervalued to actually create the changes in education that many of us see coming. But I do see the read/write web creating a larger cultural environment which will not be able to be ignored, and one which will bring in its wake many changes to education. Just as other technological revolutions created freedoms of different kinds (where we live, what we do for a living, when and how we work), I think the "New Web" will create freedoms in how we learn--and we will then want to evaluate and build on those freedoms within the context of philosophies of learning.

    That is to say, the more I have read about different, constructive, and inspiring pedagogies that have transformed learning, but still remain as under-appreciated pockets of a larger educational system that resists change--the more I have a hard time seeing the pedagogies driving the same level of change that I think the technologies will, but the more I hope the pedagogies will help us to evaluate the changes that are taking place and provide ample opportunity for discussing education in new ways.

  9. Anonymous9:19 PM

    Steve, your name has become well known in edtech circles but somehow your background and motivation have eluded me. I can tell from your posts that you are a father interested in bettering education through technology but is there more? What is your educational background? What is your business? What is the origin of your passion for education? Where were you before you emerged as a trusted voice in edtech?

  10. Hi, Kathy.

    I don't know that I'm a "trusted" voice. I hope I participate in the dialog in a way that is helpful--and that is understanding of the degree to which answering most of these questions will require the blending of different voices.

    I graduated in history from Stanford, and worked in educational travel programs for 5 years, after which I spent the next twenty years running a business buying and selling used/refurbished computers. The last six or seven years were devoted to providing quality, refurbished computers (mostly Dell) to schools, but that was a dying business. The combination of the PC becoming a commodity, loss of ed tech funding, and other factors meant that each year we sold fewer and fewer computers. No matter what the financial, environmental, or technical arguments for computer reuse are (and they are very compelling), it was obvious we just weren't meeting enough of a need for schools. Now feeling committed to helping schools with technology, and having developed some passion to find ways to do so that were effective and economical, I spent several years demonstrating and installing Linux thin client solutions--that is, using an inexpensive server to allow a school to repurpose large numbers of old computers as good-functioning thin clients. Linux thin client, from Jim McQuillan's LTSP project ( and the solution are wonderful ways to provide amazingly inexpensive, stable, productive computing in a school environment, and three and a half years ago, I was invited to set up a lab at NECC showcasing Linux and Open Source Software (it had been done before by Paul Nelson, but he wasn't available that particular year).

    I continued to engage in this passion for computer reuse and the use of Linux as a means of helping schools, and the NECC lab turned into a regular event, along with the CUE show in California. After the first year I started developing a speaker series with each conference which is part of the main program.

    At the same time, I also began to look for ways to bring basic computing to those in need. A business partner and I worked to develop a humanitarian program called "," which was a "live cd" version of Linux just running Firefox that the Katrina and Rita hurricane shelters could use.

    While these passions kept the fire in me, it turned out to be much harder to "sell" schools on Linux and Open Source solutions than I thought it would, and when asked me to lead their K-12 Open Technologies Initiative, I was ready to make the change from "vendor" to "consultant." Much of that willingness came from beginning to blog about these issues, and a podcast series I started by interviewing Open Source "pioneers" about the use of Open Source in education ( Vendors in the education market have a hard time balancing the need for profitability and the desire to help schools, and since I wasn't doing the former well, I was pretty excited to focus on the latter.

    I'd also met Will Richardson and David Warlick and many others as a part of the confluence between Open Source Software and Web 2.0, and found myself very drawn to the discussions of technology use in education. My interview series began to shift from just talking about Open Source to now discussing technology in education, and I have largely seen myself less as a "trusted voice" and more as someone who feels interested in these matters and tries to bring other voices in. I'm a better moderator than a speaker, and have often felt that not having taught puts me in a position of needing to bring some adequate humility with me on this quest.

    Last year I promoted and ran an "edubloggercon" just before NECC in Atlanta, and found some pleasure, again, in playing the role of facilitator. I started Classroom 2.0 ( a way to bridge the gap I was seeing between the discussions of Web 2.0 at conferences, and the great bulk of educators I knew who were not ready to jump into that world. It's relative "success" has been a bit of a surprise, but I had a sense it would be something valuable.

    When I saw Classroom 2.0 was expanding, found myself spending more and more time workign on it, and seeing that educators were starting their own networks, I had a choice to make. I could either try and find a way to try and "commercialize" it, or find a way to feel good about promoting social networking in education without feeling "proprietary" about it. Since I'd interviewed the founders of Ning, I emailed them and asked if they'd ever consider hiring me as an educational consultant. They were delighted to do so, and so I found I really had become a full-time consultant.

    I do think we are going to see some significant discussions about education that I hope are going to be more nationally engaging, and that I also hope will draw from the broader community and body politic. Along with the previously-mentioned humility, I also hope I bring the perspective of a parent of public-school children, a parent of home-schooled children, a passionate learner, an advocate of technology, and a vendor to schools.

    Probably more than you wanted to know, but a good question, and a way for me to record what drives me. I'm still discouraged that we do such a poor job re-using computers in this country (which is different than recycling), and I'm still devoted to finding a way to bring computing to those who don't have access to it. And I hope my voice adds in some positive way to the dialog in ed tech.

  11. Anonymous12:48 PM

    Your candor is much appreciated and will certainly lend to your credibility as a trusted voice in edtech.
    Thank you!
    Kathy Shields

  12. Anonymous12:37 PM

    Hello Steve,

    I have to say that I enjoy the work you are doing in the web 2.0 space. It has helped myself as well as other folks that I know.

    I was wondering if I can reference your site here on my page:

    Its a work in progress, but I hope it will be another resource for educators.

    Let me know your thoughts.

  13. Clifford:

    Love the site, and your idea. Would love to find a way to integrate into Classroom 2.0! :)


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