Light at the end of the tunnel: driving ed reform with tech

HP wrapped up their Innovations in Education Worldwide Summit on Wednesday. I had the opportunity to speak with both Jim Vanides, HP's Education Program Manager in the Office of Global Social Innovation (I'll translate that into English shortly) and two students who were attending the conference who had some very interesting things to say about social media in schools.

HP wrapped up their Innovations in Education Worldwide Summit on Wednesday. I had the opportunity to speak with both Jim Vanides, HP's Education Program Manager in the Office of Global Social Innovation (I'll translate that into English shortly) and two students who were attending the conference who had some very interesting things to say about social media in schools.

Jim Vanides, first of all, has one of the cooler jobs on the planet. He actually gets paid to interact with students; educators; and a variety of engineers, designers, and project managers at HP to find new and innovative ways to teach kids with and through technology. It's an ed tech geek's dream job. You can read his blog here, where he talks about the work that he does and interesting projects that he encounters. Obviously, some of it is HP Corporate schtick, but there's a lot cutting edge pedagogy and technology-driven educational content in there too.

As we spoke before the conference a central theme emerged that has certainly been hitting home for me lately. We're beyond the point at which we just need to have computers in schools. That no longer counts as Ed Tech and, quite frankly, hasn't since the early part of the last decade. Ed Tech, rather, is about engaging students and, most importantly, using technology to drive instruction through regular formative assessments and teacher-student/student-student interactions.

One other point that really resonated: "21st Century Skills" are far less about the technology itself than teaming and collaboration using technology as an enabling tool.

On that note, two students from Woodside High School in California (Mr. Locke Alexander, 17, High School Senior and Miss Catherine Smith, 15, High School Sophomore) joined the conversation after finishing a panel discussion centered around the touchy subject of social media in education. It was a real pleasure to talk with them and it was clear that they'd actually given serious thought to why social media had a place in education and the ways in which it could be successful. These weren't kids who just wanted their schools to unblock MySpace. Rather, these were students who saw the value in extending their learning time through services they accessed on a regular basis anyway.

Most schools (ours included), frown upon teachers "friending" students. Unfortunately, that has ended badly in enough cases to just make it a generally unwise practice. However, as Miss Smith pointed out in our discussion, there are already mechanisms within Facebook (pages, discussion boards, and other messaging applications) that support communication around a given topic (say a class or a club) without requiring a friend relationship in Facebook.

When I mentioned Ning and the other social media tools that educators often try to leverage to provide social functions without the worries and stigma of Facebook, both students were clear: it's been tried before and it won't be successful because students are on Facebook anyway. The utter ubiquity of Facebook certainly makes it a compelling platform for continued learning beyond the classroom. Students have no motivation to check yet another social site; they can barely be bothered with Twitter, let alone 4 Nings for their classes. One more page on Facebook, though? This makes sense.

Interestingly, the two students had no real interest in using Facebook in class or during the school day. At school, they specifically wanted face-to-face interactions with their peers and teachers. However, they saw no reason why those same peers and teachers shouldn't be available outside of school as well. Of course, this makes complete sense in today's society. How many of us work a 9-5 job and then leave our work behind until the next morning at 9:00? My Blackberry goes off when I collapse into bed eventually and comes back on when I get up at 6:00. I'm not whining, by the way; this is simply the way that I work and, quite frankly, it allows me to be far more flexible (and productive) than I could have been with a 9-5 job in 1953, coming home every night to a double martini prepared by my pearl-clad wife. My point is simply that students have embraced our hyperconnected world; it has no downside for them and they expect learning to be a part of this world.

All right then. What are we going to do for them? They are, after all, completely right. Are we hoping that our students will enter the job force and work from 7:45-2:30 every day? Do we want them to ignore that vast communications infrastructure that they tap so easily now? Students are already communicating via Facebook about and around school topics every night: "What did you think about the prompt on Mr. Smith's essay?" "How did you solve the 3rd equation for pre-calc?" "What was the assignment for English?" Why can't these questions extend into real conversations and collaborative efforts?

For my part, I'll be starting a conversation with teachers and administrators next week. If we want to reach out to students and extend learning opportunities beyond the brief time we have with them during the day, how do we leverage Facebook in a way that is safe, acceptable, and reasonable? What sort of policies do we need that allow us to see Facebook (or whatever social media tool catches the fancy of the next wave of students) as a tool for learning rather than the latest way kids bully each other? It wasn't long ago that recording our homework assignments on a "homework hotline" was a big deal worthy of collective bargaining. This is, however, 2010. If we expect to reach our most at risk students and engage those we might lose to what they perceive as more interesting pursuits, it's time we embraced their communication medium of choice.

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