Saturday, September 14, 2013

Two tales of digital disruption in the classroom

As we head back into the classroom this semester or quarter, the disruptive changes to the classroom teaching space have never been more dynamic, from a technology perspective.  Consider two recent stories in the New York Times.

In the first story, we learn how a brilliant young student in Mongolia benefits from an M.I.T. MOOC (Mass Open On-line Course) to secure a place in this year's M.I.T. freshman class.  It is an incredible story of the powerful reach of a mega-brand teaching institution into, of all places, Mongolia.  But, this tale is not just about the potential of MOOCs and connectivity to shrink the world. It is really about the vision and responsiveness of M.I.T. to accept highly capable students from around the globe, not just into its on-line courses, but ultimately--for a few--to reap the benefits of campus life at the physical institution.  It is also a story about mentors from top universities and the commitment of local teachers in Mongolia to transform their economic chances through information technologies.  See the story of Battushig Myanganbayar here.

The second story, written by an educator, details the pros and cons of secondary and even some primary schools requiring and, in some cases, providing tablet computers to all students.  This tale gives us a sense of the commercial companies--including Rupert Murdoch's mass media companies--that are developing the technological and development platforms for these initiatives.  We hear radical and reticent reactions to the idea of transforming classroom learning to more individualized instruction, centered primarily on the screen, i.e., the tablet computer.  While the technology providers and teachers both recognize the need for change and improvement in teaching techniques, both acknowledge that the technology itself is not the answer.  It is still about teaching, not the technology.  For more on the tabletization of teaching, see the NY Times story here.

Both stories illustrate what I believe is critical about teaching with technology.  These are drive, desire and design.  What drives the Mongolian teacher to embrace M.I.T.s MOOCs is a deep desire to improve the economic development of the region.  What seems to be driving some school districts' introduction of tablets is strong selling by the technology providers, mixed with a sense of desperation and frustration with America's world ranking in pre-collegiate education.  What is missing from the introduction of such technologies seems to be the development of the teachers' capability to creatively and confidently re-design their teaching techniques to accommodate the technology's affordances.  The point is that good courses require good design and good design in teaching is more than switching eyes back and forth from the teacher to the tablet.

Desire includes the individual learner's attitudes, needs and perceptions.  The Mongolian genius is constantly thinking of new problems to solve--elegantly--for others.  Force-feeding tablets to the full range of high school kids reminds me of the conversation I had a year or so ago with a 16-year old, who spoke derisively about being required to use a 'tablet' at school.  I was surprised to hear so much distain for what I thought would be 'cool' at school, until she made the distinction for me.  She said it would be great if we had iPads, but instead we have to use 'tablets.'  School boards hearing pitches from tablet providers should remember that teens and fashion are not going to be separated soon, or easily.

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