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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Teaching 21st century skills - oh, the irony...

A colleague of mine earlier today sent out a link to the article A Taste of Web 2.0, as published by T.H.E. Journal. While the article spends eight pages discussing a variety of web-based tools - many of them free or with ad-free educator plans - that might be desirable to teachers and even school administrators, one thing that caught my attention was the short summary on the first page:

[E]ducators have concerns about risks for K-12 students and wasting time. Many are banning school use of the very applications (e.g., social networking, blogs, wikis, chat) integral to online learning systems[...]. Even without a ban, another contributing factor for avoiding Web 2.0 might be educator fears about changing their teaching methods to better engage learners. The International Society for Technology in Education [hyperlink added]...indicates that to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly digital world, students should know and be able to use technology for creativity and innovation; communication and collaboration; research and information fluency; critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making; digital citizenship; and technology operations and concepts. Thus one might say such banning limits development of skills valued for the 21st century. [emphasis added]

Later in the article, Wikipedia is cited as an example of a Web 2.0 site that is addressing the need for "21st-century-skill instruction" - greater encouragement of citations in articles, encouraging contributors (read: students) to verify posted information. Thus, Wikipedia users are now given one more tool to help them think critically - not everything on the web can be taken at face value; what is the veracity, the "weight" of this particular piece you're reading? (Does this effort mean that Wikipedia is really Web 2.1?)

Emil, a teacher at my school who also received the email about the post - he teaches networking, robotics, and engineering - replied back with the teacher-in-the-trenches perspective:

I see the distraction factor daily. I think it is not so much a teacher’s risk or inability or fear to use the tools as it is “knowing” the tangents that kids will go off on that are not related to a given project. We all do it to a certain extent, but the kids go off with total abandonment. We have a sense of responsibility to get the job done, that we have NOT passed on to the kids. They would play games, blog, etc. all day every day with no focused purpose if we let them. We must show them a purpose to their exploration. THAT I have not found a way to do just yet, as there are no real consequences for anyone’s actions...except for the teacher of course. Any recommendations??

Sorry, Emil. The bad news is that I don't think it's a quick fix - we're talking about changing the fundamental way a lot of us (myself included, although less and less every day) think about education. How can we structure classroom learning that does impart some "weight" to what students are doing in the classroom? The irony is, I think that allowing students to use these tools - to start to produce learning products that are on the world's desktops, not just the teachers - can provide us with a venue for that kind of instruction, but until they get that kind of instruction, we can't trust them to use these tools.

The other disparity is that while the change is occuring within education - from one teacher to another, conversation by conversation - it is a slow change, like most in education. But the pace at which technology and its tools changes might find us prepared to use Web 2.0 in the classroom - and we look to find that we're now facing Web 3.0 (or 4.0, or...)

But when students do get a chance to use these tools, man, can they shine! I'll close with this additional anecdote that Emil shared:

...you should see the networking of my Robotic Club kids and their phones, texting other clubs in the robotics world when a new release is eminent. The providers are being “Hush Hush” just before the info is made public. Kids can connect and get the lowdown as fast as it is put out. Sometimes, before it hits the official websites. When they have a purpose, stand back and be amazed.

When [standardized tests] have questions/tasks that expect students to social network and engineer a solution to a problem instead of taking a multiple guess test, then maybe we will have a handle on it. I look forward to that day.

Me too, Emil. Me too.


Charlie A. Roy said...

Sounds like a great discussion. My school is currently looking at out net usage policies and deciding what to block and what not to block. It is funny as the principal to hear teachers complain about the students using social networking sites. Sometimes i want to scream imagine how much professional development you could accomplish if you used social networking sites related to your employment. The shift is coming.

Jeff White said...

I agree, Charlie. I think it's interesting that so often, new technologies are adopted by the youngest generation - and it takes a while to filter upwards. Seems kind of opposite of how knowledge is normally transmitted in schools, huh?

Thanks for chiming in!