05 November 2010

Teachers using web technologies must stay agile

I'm not against using cutting-edge technologies in the classroom.  I'm all for teachers experimenting with new information technologies for student learning, but we need to recognize that in today's world, applied technologies is moving faster than any traditional research methodologies can plausibly keep up with.

That puts pressure on teachers to stay up-to-date in ways where educational technology research actually doesn't help very much. Case in point, Ferriter writes for Educational Leadership the article, Drop.io: One-Stop Sharing, sharing how Drop.io can be used to enable more effective teaching practice.  That was published in September 2010.

In October 2010, Drop.io is purchased by Facebook and then shut-down.  The relevant lifespan of that article has been only about one month!

Actually, educators everywhere are lucky that the lifespan of that article was so short.  Had it been a year, for example, there might have been a principal somewhere who reads that article, implements professional development for teachers to learn to use Drop.io, then only to find it was all for naught a year later.


That is why educators wanting to include information technologies into their classroom must be agile, be aggressively experimenting to see whether a technology is effective, and be pivoting to other technologies or deployment strategies when one proves less than effective.

Especially when the field is so immature, as web technologies are these days (relatively speaking, say compared to calculators), agility is essential.  It would be insane to hard code specific web technologies into professional development or long-term school technology improvement plans, as many of those "Web 2.0" technologies may be shut-down or bought out at any moment.

As another example, consider Second Life.  I've seen university professors in education departments do research into how Second Life could be incorporated into the classroom.  I suppose there's nothing wrong with such research if it were descriptive, like a sociologist studying how society uses a certain technology.  But this is research for the purpose of providing normative recommendations of how a certain technology — a particular company's technology — ought to be used! [1]

Sure, Second Life was a pretty "hot" technology, I suppose, at one point, and some educators have hitched themselves onto that band wagon.  But as I look around, nowadays, it seems more and more that it is a "has been" technology, especially when it comes to education purposes.

That's not surprising, of course, since the building of real relationships is essential to the education process.  Nowadays, if you want to build real relationships online between non-anonymous people (students and teachers), who in their right mind [2] would not use Facebook and Skype?  Facebook for asynchronous communication, and Skype for voice and face-to-face communication.  They're multi-platform, so they work on Linux, Macs, Windows, and even cell-phones.

There is just no mainstream space for a heavy application like Second Life with a difficult learning curve that doesn't even have the market penetration or mind-share with youths as that of Facebook or Skype.  But who could've made that call back in 2004?  Imagine how foolish a professional development or school technology improvement plan would look in 2007, if three years earlier it advocated the use of Second Life. [3]

Three years is a long time on the web.  Even one year is a very long time.  Any plan that doesn't allow the educator in a classroom to make changes month-to-month is an overly restrictive plan.  Because, don't forget, before Facebook, there was MySpace and Friendster too.

The technology milieu is bound to change, and change fast on the web.  It's unrealistic for teachers to stubbornly follow whatever recommendations waterfalls down to them from educational technologists.  Instead, educational technologists should be helping teachers become more confident with the learning of new web technologies, so that the front-line teachers in the classrooms can stay agile.

[1] I should mention that that professor was essentially using public tax dollars that's funding her salary to help a private corporation figure out how to market their product to teachers.

[2] "Who in their right mind" refers to classroom teachers, and in particular, teachers in the K-12 classroom (of students 13 or older).  There are particular arguments to be made about using Second Life for distance education and for adults, but I won't go into that here, except to note that for asynchronous and group discussions of any academically serious length, something like Facebook really is better, and that for synchronous "face time" between a teacher and a student, video calls is second only to meeting in person in terms of effectiveness.

[3] You might ask, has any professional development or school technology improvement plan ever actually advocated for the use of Second Life? I suspect there has.

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