Apr 02

Don’t Lock it Down

I received an email today from an internet company that promised to “help teachers bring the power of the Internet to the classroom without the distractions that come with it.”

It is apparently a hyper-local filtering system that allows teachers to control what sites students can go to inside a class, which at first blush, probably sounds really appealing to a lot of people. All the bonuses of the internet with no ability to have kids get distracted by the rest of the internet. But what a reductive version of the internet, what a reductive vision of learning, and worst of all, what a reductive version of our students. From the email:

..if a teacher at your school wanted their students to only be allowed to go to Khan Academy during that class period, they could make that setting for all of the students in their class in two clicks. Now the only website their students can use is Khan Academy, and they don’t have to worry about their students going to inappropriate or time-wasting sites.

There’s no question that when you have the internet in your classroom, there is always a concern that students will be off-task. But that’s not because they are students. It’s because they are people. I admit it – I got more productive when the School District of Philadelphia started blocking Facebook. But I go home at the end of the day, and learning how to be productive on my home network where Facebook can be open at any time (and usually is) was important to my being a successful principal.

The same is true for the kids. Part of learning how to be a fully realized citizen in today’s world is learning how to be productive when the ability to be unproductive is, perhaps, more powerful than ever. (Although, judging by the box of high school notes passed to me that I found in my mom’s basement a while back, it’s always been pretty easy to be  unproductive in a classroom. We should remember that too.)

But that’s not the half of it.

Behind the theory that this company is selling is the idea that the teacher can still know everything that the students will need to learn. The time has come for that idea to die. When we lock down the internet, we send a powerful message to students that their ideas, their creativity, their interests have no place in our classrooms. That’s the wrong message to send.

It can be frustrating to have to manage all the distractions the internet can bring. It can be scary to realize that our role as teacher is not to be the arbiter of all information anymore – that our students may come to find information and ideas that do not neatly fit into the developmental lesson plan, but that’s where we need to go as educators. Honestly, it’s where we’ve always needed to be, but now the tools make it that much easier to do so.

I understand the impulse to try to create software that can limit our classrooms to four walls, floor and the tiniest of windows that the internet will allow. I get that there is a level of safety in the control that comes with being able to deeply restrict where our students can do, what they can read, what they will do. But educators have to fight that impulse, and work with students to help them to learn how to be productive digital citizens, which is, of course, part of being a citizen these days.

And we have to embrace the idea that if we thoughtfully teach, if we help kids to discover the power of their own ideas within whatever class they happen to be in, if we help them to discover the beauty and meaning and relevance of the ideas and concepts we introduce, then we have no reason to ever lock away 99% of the internet in our classroom. In fact, we have everything to gain.


Feb 05

Be Your Own Awesome – We Need More Awesome

I’ve noticed something lately.

There seem to be a lot of people in the education social media space who are defining what they are doing as being better than what other people are doing. Without naming names, I’ve seen too many instances lately of saying, “We’re great, and other people are less great than us.” And it hasn’t been framed in the space of “let’s discuss the relative merits of different educational ideas,” which is a conversation we still need to be having, but rather, as a way to elevate one’s own work at the expense of others.

And that is really too bad, because awesome is not a finite resource. In fact, the best of what all these amazing tools can mean is that we can share. We can make each other better by learning from what we do and building on each other’s work. But the spirit of collaboration and sharing necessary to do that kind of work is very difficult to do when others are treating the amount of awesome in the world as a zero-sum game.

If social media is a metaphor for our classroom, think about the kind of classroom we want… do we want the kind of classroom where students don’t share with one another because no one wants to give another classmate an advantage? Do we want the kind of classroom where, when grades are distributed, kids are saying, “I got a 93…” “Oh yeah, well I got a 94!!!” I don’t think we do. Those kinds of classes were toxic for too many kids, and the students who felt insecure about their abilities were made to feel worse.

Let’s have the humility necessary to celebrate our own successes without needing to tear down others when we do.

Because it’s my hope that we remember that we still need so much more awesome in the world of education than we currently have. And that every single school, teacher, student, district, conference, etc… that is able to do really amazing things is increasing the amount of awesome in the edu-space which is great. Every time someone shares something with an honest desire to share and learn, we all get a chance to learn and apply those lessons in our own spaces.

Let’s share with an open heart and an open mind. Let’s remember that there’s plenty of work to go around. Let’s remember that if the only way we can elevate ourselves is by belittling the work of others, any gains we may have made are illusory and fragile at best.

Let’s keep working to learn from each other and be as awesome as we can for the kids in all of our spaces. And let’s celebrate the awesome that others are doing, both where we live and all over the world.

We need more awesome.


Feb 04

#EduCon Reflection: What Ubiquitous, Necessary and Invisible Means

We’re now over a week past EduCon 2.7, and I’m still thinking a lot about what we saw this year.

What struck me was that this was the year that it really didn’t feel like an edu-tech conference at all – not because there wasn’t tech everywhere (Raghava KK said that it was the most tweeted conference he’d ever seen), but because it really wasn’t the thing we talked about much at all.

That’s what Ubiquitous, Necessary and Invisible can — and maybe even must — mean.

There’s no question in my mind that the schools we need much be technology rich. We have to make schools leverage the best of what we are and what we know. In the world we live in today, that means that we have to use the tools of the day – be they laptops, Chromebooks, smart phones, social media, Google Apps or anything else. But owning that the tools must be used is really only the very first baby step we have to take.

And once we’ve taken that baby step, we can ask the bigger and better questions that so very much need asking.

Those were the conversations I saw at EduCon – what will our classrooms and schools value? How can we make them more equitable places – especially in regard to issues of race, gender, class and sexuality? How can we ask hard questions about the world we live in and the world we hope our children will create? How can the work we do in schools help students become deeply thoughtful about the world around them? How can we empower them to believe in — and work toward — a vision of the world that is better than we have today? How do schools need to evolve to more authentically ask these questions?

And yes, how do we leverage the tools we have to do all of this better?

For eight years, we’ve tried to create a space where teachers can come together to talk about progressive pedagogy in a technology-rich environment. The eight years have seen incredible change in the world our schools inhabit – from Common Core to the rise of social media to a growing social justice movement to thousands of schools going 1:1 to unprecedented budget crisis in many districts across the country. With all of these changes, the conversations at EduCon have grown richer — and harder. Part of that is because there remains a critical mass of people who come every year, and who keep blogging and tweeting and talking, but also because there are more and more educators who have never been to EduCon before but who are looking for the difficult conversations, who are not settling for easy answers, and who know that it’s not enough just to look for edu-tech solutions, but rather are looking for the places and spaces where educators want to ask the harder questions.

The fact that we can create technology-rich spaces that aren’t about the tech but are about the next questions we have to ask is exciting to me. The fact that EduCon can be one of those spaces is tremendously humbling. The fact that these conversations will continue to happen far beyond the three days of the conference gives me hope.

See you all next year.