Future hope against today’s reality

I listened to a presentation last week by Gary Bertoline. I’m normally fairly non-committal in responding to the work of others, as I understand the nuances and challenges of developing and presenting opinions and views. Our expression is so heavily based on context – I can’t really take a single point emphasis without a clear understanding of the factors which influenced the development of their whole mindset.
Gary’s presentation was well argued (I enjoyed his discussion on the development of computer modeling and simulation as the “third pillar” (theory and experimentation being the other two) of science), but he made a few statements relating to technology that I find quite at odds with moving the learning technology industry forward:
1. Technology lust. “Use a new technology in your class everyday”. Ok…so that would equal 30 different tools over the course of a term. I lose students after 2 or 3 new tools dispersed over a course. While I imagine Gary’s point was for impact, the tone was largely one of “use technology for technologies sake”. We need to move forward with learner at the center
2. Students should drive curriculum. This is a challenging concept. Partly for educators, partly for student, partly for society. Most academic fields have structure and some type of accountability. Curriculum is bounded. A pure self-guided model of learning is not one that matches well with how academic institutions are structured. The learner’s exploration of curriculum is where we can innovate.
We are at a period of trying to find new balance points. What is the role of the expert? How much content should be predefined? Created by learners? What about “teaching” versus learner exploration? What’s the balance between content and conversation? Who filters?…and the list goes on. We are developing our sea legs in this new environment. We really can’t say with certainty where we are going to end up – it’s a function of adapting and reacting to the contexts that arise as we move forward.
For example, the success of Wikipedia has resulted in a competing project – Citizendium, which places greater emphasis on the role of experts in filtering and validating content. For some, the stamp of approval by experts raises the authenticity of a resource. We assume that experts have a greater breadth of understanding of a field, and can, as a result, provide a more nuanced interpretation of “what things mean”. That works well when we are in fairly stable environments where change is consistent or predictable. When even the experts are overwhelmed with change, it becomes difficult to filter information against a particular goal or target (or through the use of a particular metric). When the very foundation we use to compare, contrast, and make decisions changes, we can’t really move forward toward a clear target. We are largely in a “sense and respond” mode of relating to knowledge and the world around.
Our future hope for content, learning, and engagement clashes with our current reality. Too often the illustrations of what is possible centre on only a few illustrations (i.e. the use of blogs or wikis in a classroom). The skills and passion required by educators to use emerging technology are not distributed evenly across the academic community. We stand with a foot in the world of possibility…and a foot in the world of practicality with all its attendant frustrations and limitations. The hype of a brave new tomorrow is dulled, as it probably should be, by the challenges of today. Our blog/twitter/wiki/podcast/user-generated/vlog/social-networked/ distributed/decentralized/mashed-up hype storm will translate into reality only if we are able to provide relevance today…and accept that implementation will be a function of sharpening our hope against today’s reality. History is littered with numerous examples of great ideas that failed due not to validity, but to lack of connection to existing mindsets – essentially not providing a path for the majority to effectively adopt the ideas being espoused.
The “big ideas” (learner content-creation, active engagement, new tools – as listed above) being promoted by many edubloggers gain institutional relevance only when we can translate them into meaningful metaphors of how our discipline has changed. I know there are those who suggest the way out is to abolish education as we know it – a hangover from Illich’s provocative (but could be argued, impractical) assault on schools (though his learning web model is almost prophetic). Revolutions rarely succeed in abolishing entirely what existed before (often the power of the existing structure is reflected in how the revolutionaries react to it in the creation of an alternative model – not based solely on what works best, but out of a desire to destroy remnants of what exists…an activity that has the recursive effect of actually embedding the undesirable elements permanently in the new structure).
I’m not even sure of the defining, motivating principles that are moving us forward. For many, I think it’s simply “wow, this is cool…I can use this to improve learning”. Others have more clearly articulated the philosophical underpinnings, or guiding principles, that shape their actions. Some are adrift without a defining view, content to simply enjoy the high level of dialogue. We edubloggers are largely a ragamuffin band – dissatisfied with today’s reality, stepping forward tentatively to what the future might entail, uncertain of factors which will derail our actions, and seeking a philosophy which will steel our desires to continue. And, I think, in the spirit of the age, we shall not find this philosophy. Nor should we. Our path to change will wind, guided by context, loosely articulated (possibly competing) visions, hobbled by prematurely impose structure, and set in perpetual ambiguity.
This is the backdrop of where many of us stand today in our desire to create a better learning environment…a more equitable future. Our unsettled visions of technology as an enabler are buffeted by the reality of today’s institutions, society, and what seems to be, an emerging sense of distrust of technology as an academic tool (in recent conversations with educators in K-12 and higher education, I’ve noticed a strong emphasis of resistance…which isn’t bad, we need to critically evaluate everything we do. The problem arises when the perspective is not informed through experimentation, experience, or research, but is instead an outgrowth of personal beliefs).
As I try to balance practical implementation and adoption with glee-filled (and who wouldn’t like to be filled with glee?) encounters with new tools, I’m struck by how distant our two worlds of future hope and today’s reality have become. And I fear that the divisions are not resolving, but are becoming more entrenched. Moving into warring camps – each with its own terminology and ideologies – is not a path we should take. Maybe this is why I have some resistance to a premature articulation of what we are moving toward. Principles – yes. End target – no. The onus of communication rests on those who wish for revolution. We can’t do that as long as our language remains “they just don’t get it”.

9 Responses to “Future hope against today’s reality”

  1. Lanny Arvan says:

    Interesting that you are describing a situation common to many of us (I’m struggling with it at my place) and reminiscent of the old New England joke:
    Q: Which Way to Millinocket?
    A: You can’t get there from here.
    I’m perhaps less concerned about where “there” is and more interested in making stepping stones and what do those look like. That seems to me like the right question to ask given that most instructors are not abandoning the old ways so readily. (And many who are seem to be in Writing Studies or like disciplines.)
    Are there reasons not to refocus on stepping stones, like seeming to abandon our ideals? Sometimes the practical need to make progress holds sway.

  2. Rita Kop says:

    Hi George
    This is a very realistic post and brings up all issues most learning technologists and educators interested in using the Net in their work are grappling with: we can see the possibilities that the tools and the Net can bring to education, but a revolution is not achievable as too many people would be left behind. Of course the digital natives-immigrants debate is relevent here, as most tutors are immigrants, but much more the issue of institutions losing control and the authority over knowledge. The question for educators is, how much energy they want to put into changing education(al institutions), and related to this, if they would work at the centre or from the margins. I expect that most educators interested in these developments will work from the margins and try to convince their colleagues of the strength of the new tools to create independent and autonomous learners. You mention Illich who was very interested in this, but not that he saw ’social control’ as the main purpose of educational institutions. He could see the educational development and empowerment of communities outside schools by the creation of informal networks through technology. Of course his views fit very well with connectivism! In the current climate, where technology is facilitating an ever greater level of control by bureaucrats, this seems a very long way off!

  3. craig nieminski says:

    It must have been difficult to write this! It is quite pessimistic if not quite realistic. It is difficult to consider the Borderland and the Speed of Creativity authors as leaders of the same band, let alone O’Daily’s part of subjective filter about objective orientated spin and defining the social character of the band.
    Just look at the average educational achievements of today’s teacher workforce, and how on earth could you imagine turning over control of the job to them. Imagine them in your class, you know the dynamics. Now I agree, some of them are into the power game, that takes much less intellectual power because they can use tried and tested primitive/social clubs. If we are lucky it will come down to the kids just as it did in the late 60s. Its about time we had another cleansing.
    The only problem with your position is that it reminds me of the global warming issues George. I remember saying the same things about scientists and DDT 33 years ago. It’s about earning as big a reward as you can, even if you are not worth it or the results are yet to be determined. Unfortunately, it was not all talk. Look at the result.
    It is time to play hardball. Education needs to be more than a means for business to determine who’s right for the job and who will lay down and take the blame for the company. It should not be just a service industry geared for “when you grow up”. It should be a place where dreams are not extinguished and replaced by competitiveness.
    Why is the scenario so familiar. The teachers of technology are not allowed to tweak the settings of their departmental laptops because the technology department sets them up so that they cannot. Why the conflict? Why are the departmental settings for technology so limiting? Why is it that departmental technology advisors sing the praises of the curriculum and continue to dumb down the necessity of learning how to use technology? George you may have gotten the answer here. It is so there is a clear and present connection between the haves and have nots so to speak. It does not pay to be confrontational when…you get my point.
    I was quite pleased when I started reading your article and saw that someone else saw the fruitlessness of being techno naïve, but as I read on I started to wonder what side of the fence you were actually on. If I misread please accept my apologies. I am sure Ghandi could not wait, nor those in the Ghettos. Global warming warnings have been around since the late 60s. We need spinners like yourself to keep positive and realistic and not be satisfied that compromise with the global warmers is ok.
    Craig Nieminski

  4. Hi Lanny – I’m somewhat interest in where “there” is…but I agree that we need to consider the types of stepping stones we need. I have this burning urge to react opposite to the context I’m in – so if I’m in an environment where others are dialoguing about “we need to do this stuff in small ways”, I’ll counter with, yes, but don’t forget the bigger picture – how the pieces fit. If others state “here’s the big picture”, my emphasis becomes, fine, what do the little pieces look like…how do we get there? Maybe I have a dysfunctional need to present counter perspectives :) .

  5. Hi Rita – I’ve spent many years at the edges that you mention. It’s a fairly nice place…but after a while, a sense of “am I making the kind of impact I want to make” sets in. I think I’m at the point of realizing that most of the small scale projects and changes I’ve been involved with have not made a huge impact beyond what happens between myself and the learners. And that may be enough. But I’m becoming increasingly more frustrated with what’s happening on other organizational levels. Higher education is not simply an institution that reacts to trends occuring in society – we have an interconnected relationship – we don’t only react to trends and innovations…we initiate trends and innovations. Or at least we have in the past. When I see entire departments talking about taking 5 years (or more) to move their course content online, I’m struck by how big of a gap we have between what is possible and what we are doing. And then, as you rightly note, the space of increased openness risks becoming a space of increased monitoring and control. The powerful effect we have seen with social transformation (the wisdom of the crowds type stuff) seems to have surprised most people…but it doesn’t take long for sites like youtube to begin monetizing those activities.

  6. Hi Craig – it’s difficult to see beyond our current context. You mention global warming – the discussion surrounding the environmental concerns has been present for decades. But most people are too preoccupied with the small details of life to notice the larger issues. We see it with crime, poverty, disease (especially in developing countries). Awareness alone doesn’t translate into action. It’s only when we are personally impacted that most of us are inclined to respond. I don’t have an answer for how to counter this innate resistance to change outside of the scope of what personally (directly) impacts us.
    In terms of what side of the fence I’m on…I prefer not to see a fence. I think the issue of technology use in education is one that requires a critical evaluation in each context. In some cases, technology can enable and extend classrooms significantly. In other, technology doesn’t provide as much value. One answer does not serve all situations.
    In terms of education’s role in society, my view is that its first task is one of creating opportunity for people. It’s second task is to expand and explore knowledge. It’s third task is of creating better citizens to inherent and re-invent society. It’s fourth task is to prepare learners for careers (though that may be embedded in the first task). I remember speaking to a friend about 15 years ago – he dropped out of university to take a job with a tech firm. I asked him why he wasn’t continuing his education. His response was telling of the mindset of most students: I went to school to get a job. That’s a perfectly good (and practical) reason for getting an education. But, in my idealistic state, I would hope that the “other” aspects of education (contributing to society, advancing knowledge, growing personally) would play at least some role. Being a bit of a cynic on this, I think those considerations are less and less of a concern for most learners.

  7. Lanny Arvan says:

    George -
    Thanks for the response. I too have a tendency to respond with a contrary view; perhaps that’s natural skepticism on whether a real point is being made. To delve a little further in whether there is a point to my comment, let me try to sketch the issue as I see it, using the teacher and the student as my metaphor.
    The teacher needs to pursue her own inquiry. This is where current thinking differs from older views of master and apprentice, where the master simply practices the art and transfers knowledge of that to the apprentice, and it even differs from Schon’s Reflective Practitioner in that while he talked about learning in action he did that within the context of a discipline that was more or less stable in its approaches and precepts. A more current approach would make those precepts itself part of the inquiry. Your own work has done a fair amount of that.
    The student needs to pursue his own inquiry too. If there is one point that comes out of active learning approaches, it is that one. The teacher in her role as guide, has to situate her suggestions in the inquiry of the student. The student will embrace those suggestions as he sees their relevance to his inquiry and reject, perhaps out of being contrary but more likely, because he doesn’t see how the suggestions fit into his own thinking. Effective teacher suggestions are stepping stones.
    There is a complex interplay between the inquiry of the teacher and the creation of stepping stones for the student, but I don’t believe the goal of teacher in the teacher role should be to to bring the student up to her own level. That would be the goal of the master with respect to the apprentice. But we now longer live in that world. The goal of the teacher is to further the student’s inquiry and see that the student has moved from where he started. If the teacher has achieved movement in conception, that should be sufficient. And while teaching is underway seeing continued movement has to be goal.
    This metaphor might be enhanced by taking an evolutionary view to inquiry. Evolution creates multiple branches, each viable, the instructor may have traversed a few of those. The student might very well travel down others. Occasionally, there are random events that select a particular branch and then there will be some convergence. But there can be persistent diversity.
    Our own egos are wrapped up in this. We get a visceral reaction from the students treating us as the master. And in those moments we want to bring the students to our place. But when we are more reflective we can let go of that.

  8. Jon Darkow says:

    George,
    I am in the “wow, this is cool…I can use this to improve learning” camp. In fact that is what makes the wiki type environments so powerful. For me, the greater the interconnections made via participation the more organic the wiki becomes. Programs like Citizendium detract from the chaotic beauty of the all democratic, equal-footing wikipedia.org . The massive collective conciousness being created is stifled by arguments from authority. In my opinion I say open the gates of anarchy and let’s observe if the attractors of chaos mold the wikis, with our students engaging in one of the greatest experiments in human history.

  9. eve says:

    This thought might help: “All things change, nothing perishes.” (Ovid)