Look Before Leaping #iste11

I took a picture this morning, of a guardrail strategically placed between buildings at the Philadelphia Conference Center. I think the whole guardrail idea is fascinating. Imagine what was happening before the rail was there...

Narrow enough to easily walk around, this safety feature prevents people from quickly but dangerously dashing out into traffic - because of their natural desire to quickly reach the other side. It's not that people want to walk right into traffic; but more that they may not realize the dangers present, especially when their focus on the end-goal might be so intense.

Pretty similar to the kinds of safeguards we need in place for kids while they're excitedly learning to use social media, isn't it.

The Continuing Shifts of Online Writing, Reading, and Thinking

Will Richardson announced this week that he has "decided to pretty much bring [his] run at Weblogg-ed to a close." Instead, he'll be using Tumblr to facilitate his sharing and provide a space for him to disseminate his thoughts.

Being one of the first to join the educational blogging scene, I see Will's abandonment of traditional blogging as a clear marker for the beginning of the end of long-form educational blogging. While I don't think blogging will disappear entirely, I have noticed and experienced a substantial shift in how people prefer to collaborate - and even share deep thinking. I elaborated further on these shifts three years ago, as I began to flesh out my own thinking on the matter.

Around that time, I took a graduate-level course on the diffusion of innovations from Dr. Gary Straquadine, one of my favorite professors and teachers with whom I've ever been able to associate. As I explained to Dr. Straquadine my efforts with blogging and OpenPD, he was naturally fascinated by the diffusion aspects of these technologies and seemed genuinely impressed with the potential afforded by these once-emerging collaborative techniques.

At the same time, he asked me pointedly, "Darren, do you think you'll still be blogging five years from now? Do you think it will be as popular then as it is now?"

Shocked that he might be suggesting that blogging would one day have an end, I defended how immersive and incredibly powerful the technology was and how I had hoped all teachers would embrace its use. He then expressed his apprehension in blogging's long-term shelf life and his heartfelt confidence that improved innovations would eventually and inevitably come along.

He was right.

While blogging, for me, has been an incredible experience and convenient method for collaborating and sharing deep thought, other tools have emerged that now make some of this sharing easier. Will Richardson is moving now to Tumblr because its "flow" better accommodates his preferences. Similarly, I've changed some of my procedures by using ifttt.com to automatically push my shared items in Google Reader, along with my comments, neatly and nicely to Twitter. Posterous makes it dead simple to grab content and comment, although I haven't yet used this tool to its full potential, and the Diigo bookmarks I add to a specific list likewise push to Twitter. Flow.

Regardless, I continue to appreciate this space, the feedback you're willing to give me here, and the platform traditional blogging provides me when I need to elaborate.

In the end, I'll be curious to know how many of Will's original followers decide to move with him over to Tumblr. We're becoming more flexible in the tools we use to share information; are we equally flexible in our manner of acquisition? (Currently there are 18,461 Weblogg-ed and 69 willrichardson.com subscribers in Google Reader. Perhaps Will would be willing to share his actual subscription numbers in the future.) Furthermore, I wonder how our increased tendency to share snippets of thought alongside snippets of 3rd-party content will continue to impact our level of truly deep thinking - presumably forced (or more openly embraced?) by the constraints of blogging as our once-preferred medium.

As a society, if our move toward more convenient flow also translates into at least equal levels of shared deep thinking, then I'm all for it. If not, however, then the increased-ease-of-use for increased-shallow-thinking trade-off will be harmful in the long run.

My challenge for you now is to help me understand just how harmful it will be.

Change a Culture and You've Changed the Future

Last week, Scot McLeod finally published the article he’s “always wanted to write.” In an open letter to educational leadership professors across the United States, he raised several issues and posed a variety of important question to the field. Namely:

  • Our world is changing quickly.
  • These changes dramatically impact learning.
  • Schools have largely failed to respond to these overarching societal changes.
  • This failure to quickly respond is dramatically damaging our profession.
  • We, as educational leadership [and by extension, all within the profession], must do better.
I agree completely with Dr. McLeod and have also said these things before. I think his article was very well researched and will play an important role in motivating many within the field toward a more intentional focus on contemporary needs and skills - while highlighting the role teachers and their behaviors play on influencing and preparing those that enter the profession. Because his article was published in a printed journal, I also think it has the potential of reaching a population of stubborn professors who may not have yet heard this message before.

Many, nevertheless, have heard this message - on a number of different occasions - and I believe the time to move beyond mere motivation has clearly come. Until we strategically attack each of the barriers that hold so many back, we will continue to move slowly, our schools will continue in (relative) irrelevance, and the faces of many-an-ISTE-goer will proceed through every shade of blue imaginable while singing this same sad tune. Additionally, I think some cultural circles will simply never adopt technology as a primary tool for instruction.

To be clear, I think looking to the knowledge gained in other fields, at this time, can drastically help ours as we continue to battle the sociocultural and other issues that obviously plague our population. Just as Dr. McLeod has called on his peers to clue in on "the largest transformation in learning that ever has occurred in human history," I call on these same peers and others to:
  1. Consider carefully Everett Rogers' five intrinsic characteristics of innovations that influence an individual's decision to adopt or reject an innovation. Is the technology we're expecting teachers to embrace during instruction adequately compatible with the curriculum they're expected to teach and the learning environments they're required to inhabit? If not, then what needs to change, and how? Is the technology's trialability sufficient and are teachers able to graciously learn from their mistakes? If not, then why are we really pushing so hard?
  2. Analyze the processes and procedures followed by engineers while constructing dams or other structures designed to divert the current flow. In this set of photographs (for example), taken while the Flaming Gorge dam was under construction, note the use of a diversionary tunnel - painstakingly created to allow the traditional flow of water while construction of an eventual regulation of water flow was under way. What might we learn from this practice, and how might we apply it to our field?
  3. Contemplate diligently the role of sociocultural evolutionism and its parallels to the changes we hope take place in schools. Defined as "the creation and change of social roles through new knowledge that changes and creates social rules," sociocultural evolution "alters and enlarges a society in the two dimensions of social structure and culture." In other words, with new social rules (i.e., we must change our traditional pedagogical practices in order to better prepare students), which essential social roles might schools be lacking, such that more members of traditional education cultures will more easily evolve? Surely these roles must consist of more than mere motivators. (A combination of Break-fix and Ed-Tech support roles has begun to work very well in our new District!)
  4. Recall how a gardener facilitates change in the plants under her care. While some plants never react well to external stimuli guiding growth and others respond only after extended periods of time, a willingness to trim and scaffold, where needed, will often produce amazing results!
  5. Like the gardener and the selection of plants with which she has to work, accept that in many areas of curricular focus, technology simply isn't the best avenue for providing beneficial instruction. Trust me: there are many.
  6. Alternatively, explore the viability of punctuated equilibrium in the evolution of school cultures. While I remain unconvinced that our society is headed toward an intellectual event horizon (beyond which the future becomes impossible to comprehend), I do think that the cultural evolution in schools also exhibits a type of punctuated equilibrium. Is it not plausible that after a lengthy period of evolutionary stasis (i.e., the last hundred years), we'll eventually experience a dramatic and rapid shift? Are we not currently in the midst of that shift? Moreover, if this be the case, is there really anything that can be done to prevent these phenomenal transformations from eventually taking place? If not, then why are we still trying so hard to make people change?

Sometimes I think we work too hard to push (force?) those along who will eventually - and very naturally - be left behind. Sometimes I also think that if we're really serious about making change happen more quickly in our schools, then we need to do a better job of understanding and helping the culture within these schools to change. Change a culture, and you've changed the future; for better or for worse.
  • Why do you think change happens so slowly in education?
  • Which barriers to change might we most easily overcome?
  • Ultimately, what does it take to transform a culture – and is it even feasible on this scale and at this magnitude?

Update: This post was updated and refined after the original publishing (ahhh, the trialability of blogging!). Its cross-posting on Tech Learning represents only the first draft.

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