Enabling Possibility

At Teachthought, Terry Heick writes about The Only Thing You Need To Be A 21st Century Teacher. It’s probably no what you think:

The reality is, in 2013 there are an incredible variety of digital tools, learning models, and supporting data to suggest a thousand different approaches to preparing students for the work of their lives. That may be the defining characteristic of learning early in the 21st century learning.


If nothing else, every classroom should be an highly curious, question-based, connected and joyful petri dish of learning experimentation, adaptation, and change.

It could well be that embracing rapid change is the most important skill that we can help our students develop. Learning to recognize and respond to new possibilities as they emerge has always been an important skill, but never more so than in what has been described as both the age possibility and the age of capability. The two go hand in hand. An environment rich in possibility is one where students truly can unlock their own potential. We have to help them expand not only their view of the world, but their view of themselves and the role they can play in the world.

All implementations of technology for education should be evaluated with this challenge in mind.

Photo by Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps

Higher Ed Tech Resistance

As technology continues to become more deeply embedded into the fabric of primary and secondary education, it’s interesting to note where resistance is still occurring. Writing at the Daily Beast, Ashley Mungiguerra notes that Print Textbooks Still Dominate Campus Textbook Market, and provides this observation:

But just because I prefer e-books doesn’t mean everyone else does. I’m a sophomore at Hofstra University in New York, and most of my professors have allowed me to buy digital editions of my books. However, some of them (the same professors who prohibit note taking on laptops) are still against technology in their classrooms. They prohibit e-books, iPads, laptops, and cellphones and instead require students to use (and haul around) physical editions of the book.

Resistance to the electronic version of textbooks is one thing. But the rejection of all electronic technology in the classroom seems a bit extreme. Presumably these students are forced to take physical notes with pen and paper. That might not sound like much of a hardship to many of us who did the same back in our college days, but imagine if back then you had been required to take notes using a quill pen with a little pot of ink. Requiring students to take physical notes is actually a bigger burden than that restriction would have been, and serves exactly the same purpose — which is to say, none whatsoever.

Mungiguerra notes that e-books make up only about 3% of the current total textbook usage in higher education. There are a number of factors at work, here. There are teachers like those described above, who simply won’t allow ebooks. There are students who prefer the feel of real books and who like being able to make notes in the margins. And then there are the peculiarities of the textbook publishing industry:

The revenues of the textbook industry continue to grow, but that’s largely because of the rise in prices. Textbook prices have tripled since 1986, at twice the rate of inflation.

The increase in textbook costs goes hand in hand with the overall sharp rise in the cost of higher education. And there’s your problem. An industry that has a captive audience whom they have been gouging for decades is going to be less likely than others to embrace disruptive innovation, particularly the kind that can drive costs down. No doubt that is one of the reasons that e-book editions of college texts, when they are available, aren’t sold for that much less than the print editions.

And swinging it back around to those Luddite professors who insist that print editions be used: I can’t help but wonder how many of them have their names on the cover of one of those expensive books?

In any case, higher-ed resistance to technology in general, and e-books in particular, can go on for only so much longer. Each new high school graduating class is even more tech literate and tech savvy (and tech dependent) than the year before. What’s happening in primary and secondary schools mirrors what’s happening in society overall. Higher ed is in an uncomfortable position, lying between secondary education and the real world, but falling further behind both where technology is concerned.

The Sandbox

As we explore the social side of EdTEch, we are quickly learning that “social” interaction is a lot more than links and likes and friend requests. At its best, social educational technology enables not just a connection but a shared experience.

In his post on Social EdTech and Making Stuff, Phil wrote that augmented reality technology is is usually also social technology because it allows the learners to re-create the social space they are in. Look at this example of a learning space that students can change with their hands in real time.

The topology is projected from above and is based on the height of the sand. So a student can change a  blistering sand dune into a fertile valley just by running her hand through the sand. Working together or independently, students can quickly redefine the entire landscape — creating lakes, building islands, damming rivers.

This literal sandbox is a great example of how students work together to create and redefine a social space. But, as Phil wrote, the sandbox doesn’t have to be a physical space. Using solutions like Glosgter, students are creating amazing shared learning spaces in poster form. And with solutions like BoomWriter, they are creating whole new fictional worlds together.

This is a great opportunity and challenge for teachers, of course. It’s one thing to manage a classroom, and another to manage a classroom that includes many whole worlds of learning.

Social EdTech and Making Stuff

There is more to social educational technology than Quora and Twitter. Some technologies have a social component that we might not immediately recognize.

Augmented reality (AR) is frequently touted as one of the hot trends in education, and with good reason. Embedding the world around us with relevant information — and making that information easily accessible in real time and in conjunction with our experience of the real world — is perhaps the next big leap forward in computing.  The educational applications of such technology are  profound. Solutions such as Aurasma — which puts accessible “auras” around real-world objects, providing access to information in context —  are already being deployed in a wide variety of educational settings. Participants in classes using such technologies are involved in a new kind of social experience, one wherein the social space overlaps with the actual space in which the participants find themselves.

Another kind of of social experience occurs when students use technology to make something new. The act of creating and sharing something in the real world is one of the most fundamental of social activities. Where a technology such as Aurasma turns the surrounding space into a platform for consuming information, a technology such as MakeyMakey enables users to turn objects in the real world into devices that manipulate the cyber world. When students make a working keyboard out of alphabet soup or a musical instrument out of a bunch of bananas (both real examples of MakeyMakey projects), they are making changes to the shared social space.

And this is true whether the technology in question produces real-world artifacts (such as you get from a 3-D printer) or purely virtual ones. That’s why technologies such as Glogster and Vine  (and Youtube, for that matter) all have a very important social component. To create something new is to introduce something into the shared space, whether that shared space is real, or virtual, or a combination of the two. A technology such as BoomWriter is particularly interesting in this regard because it involves both a creative social experience — a class writes a book by selecting chapters written by class members — and the creation of a shared space, where the book itself becomes a new world that the class members have created together.

Increasingly, technology enables us all to be makers of things — whether they be musical compositions, sculptures, or 140-character masterpieces of wit. Recognizing and leveraging the inherent social nature of all such creative activities is a critical challenge both for educators and for the producers of edtech solutions.