It’s not about tools. It’s about change.

Since I’ve started blogging and playing around with social technologies, most of my connections and contacts have been made within the educational or technology field. I connect with individuals who are aware of blogs (or might even be bloggers) and what’s called web 2.0…and more recently expressed as Personal Learning Environments. When I step outside of this fairly insular network, I need to operate on an entirely different set of assumptions and language. Have you tried sitting down with a colleague and talking about using Pageflakes to aggregate distributed/fragmented conversations through RSS? How about telling them that the best way to stay informed about emerging technology and trends is to use “live” search engines like Technorati or Icerocket? Use Google alerts to stay informed on a subject of interest? Use Trailfire to share browsing habits/history/commentary? StumpleUpon to comment on websites? Social bookmarking with Tags? Folksonomies? Creative Commons? Let’s not even get into digg or social news sites and user recommendations and ratings. Oh wait, I know, how about we tell them how to create and edit a podcast with Audacity? Better yet, the value of collaborative work with wikis…or more precisely, with Coventi. Or lets really let loose and tell them how easy it is to mashup data with Pipes? Or how to dress their avatar in Second Life? And, for good measure, let’s share with them how all of this relates to Vygotsky, Papert, or Piaget. Wow, what fun we can have with family and friends!
It is worth noting that those of us in the educational technology space draw on terms and concepts straddling numerous disciplines – psychology, learning theory, technology, and social trends (Freire/Illich-type power issues with a smattering of democracy and undertone of power and opression thrown in) – each generally viewed to be fairly incomprehensible, but when carefully blended, is absolutely alien to the daily thinking habits of most people.
If your experiences mirror my own, chances are you have only a few colleagues within your organization where you can have a conversation of this nature. Most of your “intellectual colleagues” are probably part of a social network you have created through blogs or other social technologies. So, here we are – more optimistic than educators have been in a long time, feeling that many of the tools we have at our disposal represent the beginnings of a true revolution in education (though we are periodically rebuked by those “who have seen it all before” and are happy to remind us that the same conversation was happening with radio, TV, and whatever else). Our experience confirms the tremendous values of connecting with others, forming networks, sharing and reusing content, collaborating, building together, fostering a crescendo dialogue threatening at any moment to break from our secluded networks into the broader consciousness of society. We already see these spikes of our dialogue moving into conferences, education reports, and university curriculum. But the victories feel a bit hollow. Teachers are talking blogs. We want them to talk educational reform. Administrators are talking about “learner-centric”. We want them to talk policy, faculty contact hours, preparation time, and open networks. It seems, in our edublog network, that transition and uncertainty have set in. Now the talk is on Personal Learning Environments (on a personal note, I’m becoming as impatient with this term as I was with Learning Management Systems six or seven years ago). We are at a point of transition – will our tools be absorbed by education systems, and then become part of the problem? Or do our tools result in real change?
I personally would like to see change. At deep levels. How we design curriculum. How we teach. How we assess. Our classrooms (break down the four walls…). But the language of our discipline will continue to render our activities impotent. Will the change come only from conference-tour academics that adopt current trends and present them without passion for change to an audience seeking to hear what’s new in tools, but not what’s new in process, knowledge exchange or society? I’m concerned that the current tone of talk about read/write web tools in the conference circuit is one of shoring up an approach to teaching and learning that is fundamentally at odds with how people learn and interact.
Or put another way – we are seeking a window dressing solution when it is the house that needs to be renovated. If we present blogs and wikis as ways to improve education, our aspirations are noble. If we present them as ways to fundamentally alter the system to align it with the knowledge needs of the next generation, then we are fighting for real change. Sure, people like Andrew Keen (erroneous though he may be) suggest it is all hype. And it is. Or, at least the tools are.
It’s the change underlying these tools that I’m trying to emphasize. Forget blogs…think open dialogue. Forget wikis…think collaboration. Forget podcasts…think democracy of voice. Forget RSS/aggregation…think personal networks. Forget any of the tools…and think instead of the fundamental restructuring of how knowledge is created, disseminated, shared, and validated.
But to create real change, we need to move our conversation beyond simply the tools and our jargon. Parents understand the importance of preparing their children for tomorrow’s world. They might not understand RSS, mashups, and blogs. Society understands the importance of a skilled workforce, of critical and creative thinkers. They may not understand wikis, podcasts, or user-created video or collaboratively written software. Unfortunately, where our aim should be about change, our sights are set on tools. And we wonder why we’re not hitting the mark we desire. Perhaps our vision for change is still unsettled. What would success look like if we achieved it? What would classrooms look like? How would learning occur? We require a vision for change. It’s reflected occasionally in classroom 2.0 or enterprise 2.0 projects. But the tool, not change centric, theme still arises. We may think we are talking about change, but our audience hears hype and complex jargon.
What is your vision for change?

13 Responses to “It’s not about tools. It’s about change.”

  1. Andre says:

    It’s funny that you mentioned this because I’ve been catching myself bookmarking all these great Web 2.0 tools nearly everyday but am I really putting them to use? And even so, how much of an impact are they really going to work towards. We definitely need to conceptualize the solution and focus on using the tools available to get to that goal. It’s not easy, especially for someone who loves just FINDING the goodies!

  2. Sue Thomas says:

    George, your post popped up on my aggregator and I thought I’d respond because I completely understand your frustration. However, I may have a solution for you. I think the answer could turn out to be the unifying concept of transliteracy. My research group at De Montfort University is working to define transliteracy – currently: ‘the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.’ You can follow our deliberations at and your comments would be very welcome.
    You ask for a ‘vision for change’. Print literacy is not enough, as we know – it has occupied only a tiny blip of years in the long stretch of time that humans have been busily talking and working together. So how about a transliterate society which is comfortable with many kinds of media, from chatrooms to campfire gatherings, from scrolls to hypertexts? A society which is open-minded, collaborative, and creative, which embraces innovation rather than shies away from it, which welcomes difference of all kinds whether transdisciplinary, ethnic, religious or cultural, and which understands that human history is very extensive.
    Transliteracy has many applications and education is of course one of them. So my practical suggestion for your new curriculum is to put transliteracy at its heart and focus on open communication, connection, synergy, and a sense of our place in history and the world. Or is that too idealistic? I hope not.

  3. David says:

    I think we stand at a precipice of an educational revolution akin to the Renaissance. The invention of the printing press, combined with other factors, changed the mechanics of education. I believe the Internet, combined with ubiquitous connected individual, will have a similar impact on education. I look at the simple Blackberry device as foreshadowing the revolution. This simple device has had a significant impact on how we do business. It is one of the key factors working to obliterate the 9-5 day in the informational work world.
    A short time ago I was able to participate in 3 online classes at a school I have never been to, with teachers I have never met, with students all over the globe, on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This is a glimpse of just one facet of the future of education.
    Recent articles in the news magazines talk about the rewiring of the connected person. They are more capable of multi-tasking than comparable people of a generation ago. We are adapting to the nearly limitless amount of information, and instantaneous communications. Parents, teachers, and children must adjust to this trend or be like the Neanderthals.
    This is the future I see as already here.

  4. Elaine Garofoli says:

    Your comments resonate deeply with me and clearly state feelings I have been struggling to articulate. I am a Program Director in a Master of Arts in Teaching in Internet Technologies at the Marlboro College Graduate Center (VT) as well as own my own company, currently called TLT Consulting (but soon to be renamed SparkFireLearning: Teaching, Learning & Technology to Ignite the Mind)
    My adult students are mostly open to my enthusiastic embrace of collaboration and the need for shifting to a “power to the people model”, but they invariably come back with the realities of the limitations of the K-12, or corporate, or non-profit, or community college environments in which they are employed.
    I recently developed and presented a couple of workshops relating to web 2.0 tools and facilitating collaborative learning as part of a well-known college’s faculty professional development symposium, and perhaps not surprisingly, there seemed to be a restrained embrace of the tools, as long as the more traditional environmental parameters remained in place.
    I am intrigued with David Weinberger’s notions of the power of the “new digital disorder”,inherent in which is a power shift from a centralized locale to a locus within the individual.
    I have been pondering, mulling, and otherwise trying to consolidate my thoughts enough to develop a conference presentation(s) on such a perspective but haven’t yet come up with a coherent message.
    I welcome continued exchange on this manner.

  5. Jose Antonio says:

    First let me tell you how deeply I admire your work and your ideas. I am an EFL teacher in Brazil and I am a great fan of blogging and other web 2.0 tools.
    About this post, your comments do make ourselves wonder if we are really heading in the right direction when we sometimes sound snobish with so much jargon. This post is a wake up call for all of us involved in the edutech field.
    We do have to move beyond tools into communication, democracy and collaboration.
    Thank you once more for making one more of your valuable contributions

  6. Jay Cross says:

    Great post, George. I’ve been fretting about the same issue. This is not about blogs and wikis.
    As Nicholas Negroponte said, “Incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy.”
    Some smug folks seem to think blogs-wikis-RSS-got it. They don’t.

  7. John Jamison says:

    Thanks George, well said.
    I’ve been involved in the online environment of Second Life for over two years now, using that space for phd research on introducing traditional educators to the changing digital culture. I’ve watched thousands of those educators do exactly what you described; seeking to find how to ‘fit’ the virtual environment into their existing approaches to education. As a result, they point out all of the very real issues that make the virtual environment difficult to integrate, and write articles explaining why it doesn’t work for education.
    But once in a while, you have those special few who experience that digital environment as a personal change experience. A long term science educator attended an immersion workshop with me not long ago using Second Life. He came as a favor, and was openly negative about what we were going to do. Ten minutes into the experience, I hear a moan come from his corner of the lab and I hear him exclaim, “Oh my God, this changes everything.” Since that evening, he has now created in-world virtual science labs, holds tutoring sessions and office hours in-world, and has become an advocate for change.
    I think that one of the reasons we view education so differently is not because of the tools themselves, but because of what has happened inside of us because of our use of the tools…
    Thanks again,

  8. Sergio Alberto Ramírez Torres says:

    Iam from Poza Rica Veracruz, México, I am a student in the University of Veracruz, I do not speak English, I am doing a research on the Internet and the formation pedagogica, I am interested in his theory for the application of my project, Me gustaría tener su teoría traducido al español, de antemano, le doy las gracias por su atención.
    Sergio Alberto Ramírez Torres

  9. Dan Potts says:

    This post brings out great points. I do think learning however is something that occurs best when multiple venues are integrated into the learning process. Learners need to have a safety line when they are depending solely on technological methods.

  10. [...] from George Siemens: “It’s not about tools. It’s about change” It’s the change underlying these tools that I’m trying to emphasize. Forget [...]

  11. [...] Lastly, but very importantly, the context of your school. The financial position of your students, the maturity of your ICT adoption and traction and your schools readiness to change. Afterall, these learning tools will bring about change in how students (and teachers) interact and learn. To paraphrase George Siemens “It’s not about tools. It’s about change.” [...]

  12. Dan Bassill says:

    Not sure if I read this when you first posted it, but appreciate that you pointed to it again. My vision is that hundreds of classrooms in schools, faith communities and business, all over the world, would be using these tools to learn how other people have been supporting learning, and the distribution of learning tools and mentors, reaching educationally and economically disadvantaged youth living in high poverty areas of the US and the world.

    Based on what they are learning, and based on who they are (poor or rich, or in-between), they would use what they are learning to connect people together for the purpose of applying the good ideas of other people to the places and programs needed in one or more high poverty area, to make sure there is a system helping poor kids through school, into learning, and networking, and into jobs and careers.

    One class assignment might be to read the articles at and try to figure out what I mean by what I just wrote. Once the class understands and takes ownership, these tools and new ones that will emerge, will be powerful weapons that they can use to help others, and help themselves, for the rest of their lives.

  13. Lin armstrong says:

    I am sur I did read this repo years ago on the CCK08 course but now I have carried out research with blogs I totally agree! Some will blog some won’t but all reported they read others and felt they knew what blogs were good for, individual voice , reflection and learning was a theme but some very altruistic bloggers helped fellow students by recreating hard concepts . Making videos , new reference handouts and showing accademic essay writing. It really is not about the tools , not about the institutions assesments , not about the tutor’s kudos as tecnical fore runners but it is about the personal aspects of learning. Some want to externalise some don’t for all sorts of reasons!