Friday, January 29, 2010

Stranded in the Last Century?


This was supposed to be a podcast but events outlined below precluded me from having the tools to complete it and upload the finished video. I had also planned to talk completely about a different topic but I made a change based on the experiences I had while attending the Michigan Association of School Administrators' mid-year conference this week.  

The conference, an annual event intended to bring superintendents and other leader up to date on the many challenges facing our schools, was held in the Marriott inside the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. This large, modern structure identifies the Detroit skyline and is typically highlighted anytime you see a view of downtown Detroit on television. Constructed about 30 years ago, the multi-towered building originally was owned by the Ford Motor Company but is now the world headquarters for General Motors.  

With that prestigious background, you would probably think the Renaissance Center is a world-class, high tech facility, and perhaps it is - but not in the Marriott Hotel. What's the problem? There is no wireless internet or even any consistent, easy way to plug into the internet, outside of the hotel lobby area. It's basically a 70-story structure full of bedrooms and spacious meeting places, but almost totally disconnected from the 21st century world. And it's smack dab in the middle of the world headquarters of an organization that used to be considered the most powerful corporation in the world, with profits that exceeded the gross national product of many developed nations, and considered a leader in world progress! Let me re-emphasize "used to be," but no longer is. The lack of easy public connectivity in Detroit's signature hotel and conference center is symbolic of the decline of the former number one automaker, a dying dinosaur mired in the previous century, headed for extinction.  

My point in all this is to highlight the need for our own district - Godfrey-Lee Public Schools - to continue moving forward, despite nagging financial problems due to Michigan's economy, and steer our schools and our classrooms into the 21st century. Our students are here to learn and they want to do so in an environment that reflects their world, not the world we grew up in. General Motors refused to move forward and lived for decades on the laurels of the 50's and 60's, the heyday of automotive manufacturing, and look where that attitude got it. Will schools continue to do the same at the risk of suffering similar consequences?  

Not the Godfrey-Lee school district, not on my watch! Like most school systems, I recognize that we have been changing far more slowly than the various modes of inventive, collaborative, participatory learning offered by the Internet, rapidly expanding through an array of contemporary mobile technologies available to our students. Our students, unlike most of us, have no memory of the historical moment before the advent of the Internet, and no understanding of what life is like cut off from their friends, disconnected from the world, and unable to actively participate, create, and publish in a digital world. Students entering our classrooms and schools have come to rely on participatory learning for information about virtually everything in their lives. There should be no doubt, we either choose to change with our students to meet this expanding reality or we risk becoming irrelevant.  

Technology is not about learning to use computers or common software applications - it's about using digital technology to learn. To this end, we've been working on the initial steps of crafting a new technology environment through our RebelNet Stoneware project, purchased several netbook carts, recently completed our wireless access, and opened our new 6th Grade Campus for 21st century learning. Our next and most significant step will be moving forward this fall with a 1-to-1 technology initiative that begins with the incoming 6th grade class. The intent of our plan is to put mobile wireless digital technology in the hands of every student, beginning at the secondary level, to ultimately create an "anytime, anywhere, any device" collaborative learning environment. The plan also calls for sufficient classroom technology that complements and supports these networking devices that not only expand on the ability of teachers and students to explore an expanding world of knowledge, but will also help to cut back on the costs of traditional, paper-based media.  
To help us get to our vision, I am working alongside our Board of Education, administrative leadership team, change leadership team, and technology and media staff to identify existing as well as new resources, align our budget to reflect digital learning priorities, and develop the definitive course of action that will move us forward into the future. I am envisioning a five-year plan centered on the 1-to-1 concept that keeps in mind the following key principles from a recent report on digital media published by the MacArthur Foundation:

· First is self-learning, where we collectively recognize that discovering online possibilities is a skill now developed from early childhood through advanced adult life. Access to technology is not limited by age, it is not owned by any one generation.

· Second is the creation of horizontal learning structures which recognize that learning is no longer top-down, but rather a collaborative process that focuses more on discovering and discerning reliable information instead of simply memorizing information. Our students have unlimited access to information but it's up to us to help them learn where to look, how to analyze its validity, and how it can be used to further their own learning.

· This leads into the principle of collective credibility to replace the old school standard of presumed individual authority. Classrooms will no longer be the bastion of one authoritarian instructor - the so-called sage on a stage - but instead will become increasingly interactive, interdisciplinary, and collaborative knowledge-creating learning environments. It will be here that students of all ages will learn by analyzing and researching multi-dimensional, complex problems that cannot be resolved by any single academic discipline.

· The fourth principle is the practice of collaborative learning in ways that extend some of the most established practices, virtues, and habits of individualized learning, but in a world of social-networking, instant global communications, and expectations to work as a contributing member of a team.

· And finally, the recognition that increasingly rapid changes in our world's makeup require that teachers and administrators necessarily learn anew, acquiring new knowledge and skills, facing up to the unprecedented situations and challenges that face us as primarily immigrants in a digital-age.

I've probably talked too much, so let me wrap this up by reminding members of our staff that several days ago, I sent around a link to a video of first graders in the town of Moose Jaw, a city smaller than Wyoming located in south-central Saskatchewan, Canada. This short video, titled Little Kids...Big Potential , goes much further than anything I said in this message in illustrating the future of learning. If you haven't viewed it, you really should. Burying our heads in the sand with regards to technology just plain and simple will not work. The digital age is here to stay.

Now, you may be wondering how I was able to upload this to my blog this afternoon. Thank goodness for McDonald's and its free wireless internet access! At least one corporation understands the significance of moving into the 21st century.