Pots, Kettles, and other small appliances of like appearance

I have two main points to communicate:
1) We have to embrace critiques of emerging learning technology in meaningful dialogue and debate, not hype-based inflammatory conversations
2) We are at a point of real change in education (k-12, university, even corporate training). We (the edublog community) still carry the baton of change, but if we are unable to conceive a broader vision of systemic change, we’ll find ourselves passing the baton to others. I’m not being overly idealistic on this point. What we’ve been talking about for the last five to seven years is now increasingly on conference agendas. Whether we are actually driving the change, or simply seeing it first because we’re more connected to the change source, is up for debate.
Point One:
The edublog community (not sure if I can still place it under one umbrella any more, it has grown so significantly in the last two years) is a tremendous source of learning for me. I’ll comfortably say the writers and thinkers I follow online are at the centre of the most intense period of learning in my life. Key ideas and critiques put forward by others are quickly dissected. It was apparent with Andrew Keen’s book. And it is apparent now with Gary Stager’s contentious post on the state of web 2.0 adoption. Now, Andrew wrote his book to sell copies. He is intentionally antagonistic in order to gain attention. That’s why he’s on talk shows, radio programs, and the conference circuit. He’s the anti-voice to what is starting to look less like a trend and more like a revolution. And Gary may well have had a similar intent in mind when he wrote his post. Some have provided a thoughtful analysis (Stephen Downes, even David Warlick who was one of the sources of criticism in Gary’s article), others opted for a bit of humor and mockery (James Farmer), some offered support (Miguel McGuhlin), and some shifted the focus back to learning (Jeff Utecht).
I find this type of dialogue rewarding and satisfying. A simple concept or article is filtered through multiple lenses, providing a rather complete analysis. I would suggest, this is likely our greatest strength as edubloggers. How many traditional academics have access to a network that can pick apart an idea or concept in a matter of 48 hours?
It’s a rare thing indeed to find someone who is absolutely wrong on all accounts. Ideas have merit in context and in frameworks. When we encounter disagreements or opposing perspectives, we can either outright reject them, consider contexts in which they might be true, or engage in dialogue to explore the frameworks that contribute to the formation of what we perceive to be erroneous ideas. Why engage in dialogue instead of dismissing opponents? Obviously a main reason is so we can learn. Another important, often overlooked, motivation is found in what dissenting voices represent. Keen represents the viewpoint of many in society. Just like the Myspace backlash did last year and the current actions of school boards banning Facebook and numerous other applications. The actions may seem ludicrous to us, but we can’t ignore that they represent a majority. Smugly dismissing them as signs of “the unenlightened in need of conversion” doesn’t help our cause. There are real concerns behind the statements of Keen, Stager, Oppenheimer, and others. We don’t have to convince them. We do have to understand them and their framework.
We haven’t cornered truth. We – in the edublogger space – don’t yet have a comprehensive solution to what ails education. We have a small part, a lever if you will, that we can (and are) applying in our classrooms and work habits. We don’t know what administration would look like under the rule of our ideas. In many ways, I don’t think we fully know what we want yet. Do we want physical buildings for schools? Do we want to dismantle the system of public education that has brought our society to its current point of progress and development? We say we trust learners to make good choices – but do we believe it? Create your vision for the perfect education system. What does it look like? Where does the money come from? How do we ensure it attends to the diverse needs of society (especially those least likely to function in a system of self-motivation)? Do we teach math in a different manner than literature and art? What about biology? Chemistry? Or information literacy skills – how will we teach them? How will we evaluate learners?
As I’ve stated previously, we know what we want to move away from. But we don’t have a clear vision of where we want to go. It was that part of Gary’s post that most resonated with me. Tool use alone does not equate with school reform. This message has been overtaken by strong negative reactions to the perceived condescension of his post. (btw, if you’re ever in an argument with educators you find offensive, the web 2.0 way to solve it is to state that the other person is a) condescending elitist (while ignoring that we similarly implicate ourselves), b) they just don’t get it, c) say things like “industrial education” model and vague, but unsupported, references to the nature of the change. And, when asked for statistics or research-based evidence, instead of acknowledging that it is still emerging, question the whole general notion of research. Rely instead on personal experiences).
Here I need to pause for some self-reflection. I’ve spent much of my time in presentations and in my writing advocating for a different conception of education. One that alters the system itself, not only the tools of the classroom. One that has a different concept of knowledge, learning, and research. I’ve hyped these tools. I remember five years ago standing in front of 100 educators (VP’s, instructors, and deans) at Red River College, and telling them that they should all blog. I’ve thrown out vague statements like “education has to change to meet the needs of today’s learners”. I’ve also had moments of secret joyful condescension while reflecting on educators “who just don’t get it”. Such are the growing pains of coming to know.
The passion that drives initial revolution is found in these types of statements and feelings. Revolutions aren’t about logic. They’re about change, about doing things differently. Any tool, resource, or emotion that advances our aims is employed to grow the swelling masses of converts.
However, if a revolution is to have life and permanence, the passion and rhetoric must give way to (or at minimum, be augmented by) logic and research. That’s where we are now. We have the attention of “the establishment” – just look at how many edubloggers figure prominently into conference presentations (even keynotes) around the world. Administrators, principals, academics, and even politicians are taking note – and even blogging. Look at themes of conferences in general – the dual prong of conceptual revolution (organizing educational models under new frameworks of openness, learner contributions, evolving curriculum) and tool-based revolution form the basis of many international conferences. Yes, in the process, the tool-based hype is extended (I’m certifiably sick of seeing Second Life sessions and hype). Even during these stages, the low tide mark of our influence rises.
Criticism is the hallmark of progress. The periods of disagreement within a discipline are the most vital for growth. When we share a common framework, as Kuhn states, we are freed from the “need constantly to re-examine…first principles”. Constant examinations of first principles are signs of a discipline seeking its identity. In this spirit, I invite people like Gary and Andrew Keen (with less marketing hype, please) to provide their perspectives so our own can be tested and examined. The doors of reform in education are slowly opening. Critiques – when well answered, not dismissed – help to prepare us for the experiences we will encounter once we walk through the doorway. Our greatest strength is the connections we’ve formed during the last five to seven years. Let’s not blow it by failing to afford others the civil dialogue that we were often denied as we started on this path.
Point two:
Behind these petitions of extending a spirit of dialogue to critiques, rests the work of people like Will Richardson, Vicki Davis, Clarence Fisher, Darren Kuropatwa, Terry Anderson, and too many others to name. We’re seeing a slow awakening of traditional venues of scholarly dialogue (books, journals, conferences). A real impetus for change exists. I’m aware of several web 2.0 in education books in the works. I know of many well known journals that either have or are considering articles on emerging technologies. In an experience mirrored by other edubloggers, I’ve been invited to sit on numerous conference boards, institutes, journal boards, and so on.
Now is a great opportunity to be willing to grow up. To embrace those who are pursuing formal research. To engage those who criticize what we promote. We need to move away from the jargon terms that served us well the first few years (you know: industrial revolution model of education, teacher in control, closed hierarchical education).
I suspect part of the reason we are still adrift is due to still trying to “fight the system”. Forget the system. Offer an alternative model of education that is attractive, realistic, and appealing to learners and parents. Offer a model that addresses real problems. That will involve more than public declarations of love for blogs, wikis, podcasts, twitter, social network applications, secondlife, and the really cool new tool we will encounter next month. It will involve time in reflection. What do we want to be? How do we want our children to be educated? How do we want to educate employees? What works? What is the model that will serve our needs tomorrow?
Now is a great time to think deeply, ask tough questions, challenge rhetoric, and ensure our message has the legs to carry it forward into traditional academic environments. When Gary questioned the research basis of web 2.0, his error was quickly corrected. Read/write web technologies are not on trial. Our willingness to change is. Research in online education, blogs, wikis, community formation, distributed teams, and virtual worlds is abundant. Where research is sometimes still developing, practice – whether in classrooms or corporate environments – is able to fill the gap. Personally, I’m well past asking “is technology effective in education”. That question has been answered satisfactorily. Today, I’m focused on questions like “How do we best use these tools for learning? What systemic changes are required to enhance effective learning? What are the new skills learners need in order to succeed?”.
Finally, my concern for our edublog community is one of continued relevance. I suspect many people don’t blog to impact systemic change. Their interest rests more in teaching well. But a few of us are focused on creating change. I address my comments to this camp. Our insular world is changing. Days of sharing links, articles and discussions with a handful of bloggers are gone. Newspapers quote edubloggers. Radio interviews are common. References to our work are increasingly found in policy documents. To continue a passion-based focus will not carry us far if our goal is change. We must begin to speak the language of research, validation, and academic credibility that forms the basis of progress for the last several centuries. I’m not suggesting we adopt the existing system. I’m suggesting we adopt principles that place emerging technology advocacy on a firmer footing in order to extend use, appeal, and impact.
For all the progress we’ve made, we stand at a decision point. Are we willing to model the standards to which we hold? We don’t have to agree with each other, but we have to listen. We do have to acknowledge, however, that we are all currently in roughly the same boat. Sure, there are some bloggers who are in the boat for themselves and their own ego. Recently, while pruning my bloglines account, I found how far I’ve shifted from interest in following the increasingly hype-based conversations of “new evangelists”. If a “web 2.0″ proponent can’t pause and question their own rhetoric (as Gary has done), she/he is no different from the narrow mindedness they propose to assault. To neglect self-reflection is the cause of much failure.

One Response to “Pots, Kettles, and other small appliances of like appearance”

  1. KIeran Ryan says:

    Well said. The evangelism of many edubloggers is in itelf a huge turn-off for teachers, schools etc for a number of reasons. One, evangelism is evangelistic and, as such, it’s annoying and non-persuasive to many intelligent, articulate people (and, despite the frequently patronising comments of said bloggers, teachers ARE generally pretty bright, in my experience). Two, it’s simplistic and inaccurate in a lot of cases – when I look around my classroom, I really don’t see a bunch of disaffected ‘digital natives’ staring back at me. Many bloggers write about a homogeneous mass of kids who, by and large, don’t actually exist. This simplistic reductiveness is, I believe, born of inexperience and ignorance; many of those offering opinions aren’t teachers and haven’t spent much time in schools or with young people apart from their own kids. As such, their opinions are certainly valid but need to be recognised for what they are. Much of the supposed iconoclastic theory informing much debate comes from the same place; people who are advocating complete change, who think that we need to completely abandon everything and start getting learning agents to facilitate learning via second-life based virtual nodes really need to think more about what schools do and what they’re for. Or even go and visit a few schools (actual schools in session, that is, not schools that are hosting conferences!)
    I agree that change is needed, that it is coming and that technology offers probably the most powerful tools for facilitating these changes. I also recognise that, in order to initiate change, it is often necessary to overstate a case. The case for Ed 2.0 has been overstated in many cases, but there’s a lot of valuable insight behind the hyperbole, pseudo-science, dodgy research and general waffle. It could well be time to start engaging and stop pontificating.