Our Fearless Leaders - Technologically Incompetent?

Nothing brings President Bush’s references to “the Google” (and his apparent lack of technology literacy) closer to home than my recent experiences at the NFUSSD conference in Charleston, West Virginia.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of presenting (thrice) with Margo Shirley and Kathy Ridd at the National Federation of Urban & Suburban School Districts conference. The small, annual conference attracts an elite crowd of superintendents, school board members, and other high-ranking district administrators from various school districts across the United States. I was fortunate enough to give the closing segment of a presentation detailing the experiences I and my fellow team members have had while assisting in the creation the Jordan School District Comprehensive Balanced Literacy website. Our assigned task was to describe our collaborative efforts in creating the site – but my internal agenda pushed more toward a discussion of the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st Century, and our students’ heightened need for increased collaboration, global awareness, and social & cross-cultural skills. Essentially, I framed most of my points around the framework created by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the list of skills that they have published (giving pretty much an outline of our recent Social Software in the Classroom open PD class). Entitled Soaring to New Heights in Literacy Through Technology Integration, our presentation was well received by roughly thirty-five participants.

While presenting, I was struck (and rather severely) with the realization that many (certainly not all, but many) of the participants in the conference had extremely limited technology skills. Furthermore, this realization had even greater effect as I better understood to whom I was presenting: Remember, these participants were educational leaders (superintendents and the like) of school districts throughout the country. Indeed, I was literally awestruck as I was forced to throttle back my discussion (almost to the point of that famous right-clicking lesson), in order to help several of the participants to understand.

Which has left me to question: How can we expect our students to learn things that even our leaders clearly don’t understand? Furthermore, if we require our teachers to have some level of technology proficiency, shouldn't we equally require our administrators to posess somewhere near the same level of proficiency? If our students should be learning this stuff, why shouldn't we all?

To further illustrate, it may be helpful if I elaborate on the kinds of things that left me scratching my head:
  • Roughly thirty-five leaders in education viewed our presentation.
  • Many of the participants had, at least, heard of Wikipedia – most, however, had a negative impression of it. I attempted to dispel such wiki-disbelief using David Warlick’s Pluto example. “Go ahead, look up Pluto in Encyclopedia Britannica – you’ll see that it’s still a planet.”
  • Few of the participants actually knew what blogs were. While all had heard of them, few knew how they worked, or how they could be used educationally.
  • Not one of the participants had heard of Google Docs. Thirty-five participants, no Google Docs. I guess this makes me so upset because I consider Google Docs to be such a paradigm shift in the way we think about creating, editing, and storing documents.
  • Only two of the participants had heard of Second Life. “Yeah, I heard about that guy that had his own virtual family. His wife divorced him and it ruined his life.” I then proceeded to teach them about the Best Practices in Education Conference that was held entirely in Second Life. Did they know of any other way to hold a highly interactive educational conference, with participants coming from countries all around the world, for even a tenth of the price? Of course not.
  • Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to discuss social networks – a natural next-step in any discussion of social software. I’m afraid it would have taken ten minutes alone to dismiss the “evil MySpace” preconceptions – and unfortunately, I only had 15 minutes to leave my mark.
  • Some of the participants had very limited skills, as evidenced by the kinds of questions they asked:

    How do I go back to the page I was just viewing? - Try clicking on the browser's BACK button.

    How do I see the things that are at the bottom of the page? - Try the scroll bar on the right, experience the magic.

  • I finished our presentation with Pay Attention. I’m pretty sure that it was the first time that any of our district’s board members or our superintendent had seen it. Shhhhhh. This technology integration stuff is top secret. I am happy to report, however, that Pay Attention was received very well - not well enough to immediately change our district’s “No Cell Phone in the Classroom” policy, but I certainly made a lot of head-way.
In conclusion (sorry Jim – this was a long one), presenting at NFUSSD was an eye-opening experience – both for the things I have learned and because of the people I have taught. I guess the only thing I regret is that I don’t bring home the same kind of pay check as those I was able to teach. : )

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