Thursday, December 17, 2009

Playing With Connectivism

I just finished reading a second book yesterday about education and technology called "The World Is Open" by Curtis Bonk. I also read Allan Collins and Richard Halverson's "Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology" earlier this semester. While Collins & Halverson call it "the life-long learning era" and Bonk dubs it "the open world," both books discuss three basic themes emerging from the networked information economy:
  1. The Internet is opening up immediate, mobile, personalized, interesting ways to find information and learn. (What George Siemens and Stephen Downes call "connectivism." I like that term).
  2. There are a whole bunch of tools that make these trends a reality. Some are good, some are bad, lots of them are free.
  3. These trends and networked tools are leaving the contemporary mass-production/assembly line-style of education completely in the dust.
Yet, as with a lot of new media theory, the question remains: "Sooo...what now?" We've established that things need to change, that the S.O.P of education is broken, or at least injured, and technology can save it...but how? What comes next?

While the literature always inspires me to keep learning about this stuff, both books were missing something. Some lack of focus, or too narrow of a focus on scratching the theoretical surface...something I can't quite put my finger on that is just not cutting it for me in pushing forward the dialogue about the role of technology in education. The books both have a healthy bit of skepticism, which is important in discussing technology. Maybe they just aren't written for me? Their audiences aren't EdTech scholars, but transitional, third-wave teachers unfamiliar with Web culture?

Perhaps more salient is that these books aren't written by digital natives. They are written by education psychologists and teachers that are in some way on the outside peering in. While the authors are clearly "users" and understand digital media on some level, there's something different about observing and writing about African culture and actually being an African growing up on the Niger Delta. They lack an "edge" that we frequent Web users can smell through text on a screen.

Additionally, I think they are, not missing... poorly explaining (?) larger changes in the cultural hierarchy that global citizens are absorbing from the Web and what these mean for society outside of the classroom. From this perspective, maybe we can move our attention away from specific technologies and start setting goals that we can realistically move towards. In this way, EdTech becomes a means to an end, not an end in itself; technology as a tool with which we can explore a stronger and more enjoyable learning structure in the networked/mediated world.

Early in my academic career, I don't want to make too many assumptions that could cloud my learning, but this is the basic ideology that is driving my research now. More specifically, here are a few trends that I am deeply interested in:
Building communities at the classroom, school, and local level
By stripping away competition from the culture of academic institutions, students can learn how to negotiate meaning between community members rather than working against each other. Furthermore, by giving students an audience of peers and community members, their motivations change from a system of merits and demerits to one of social reinforcement. Of course, this puts the scale of reward-based assessments in a strange place, but it is still a viable alternative to the performance-goal orientation of purely individualized, graded behavior.

Embedding EdTech into the natural Web behaviors of students
Most importantly here is: what are the natural Web behaviors of students? Establishing these norms will be an important branch of research as the social Web settles into a consistent readable/writable entity. Digital learning tools are still somewhat foreign to students who resist them based on the fact that they are not designed with digital natives in mind, a user base that is highly sensitive to the idiosyncratic nuances of the social Web. EdTech tools won't become a natural part of students' learning until we start building ways to connect WebCT accounts to Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and Second Life avatars. When these networked tools and online identities are seamlessly connected with everyday Web activities, critical learning skills will be embedded into them as well.

Teaching students how to live in the networked/mediated world
These books hardly mention media literacy skills or what this really means. We need to start clearly defining media literacy and how to teach it to give students the technical skills AND the intellectual skills to negotiate a networked world constructed through media. Although teachers should use networked tools- wikis, websites, videos- in their lessons, thinking critically about media does not necessarily include technology at all. Instead, users can compare old media to new media to stimulate contemporary debates: how would the court case in To Kill A Mockingbird be affected by Twitter, the blogosphere, or Digg? How does this algebra lesson relate to basic computer programming? With these conversations in mind, we need to give students digital play spaces (Photoshop, iMovie, Garage Band, Processing, blogs) to explore their mediated identities and make relevant contributions to the emerging digital folk culture prevalent on the Web. Simultaneously, instructors must open up a deep dialogue about copyright, remixing cultural sign systems, what it means to be human in a society with intelligent computers and cyberworlds, the distinctions between data sources (mass media vs. mass amateurization vs. crowd-sourced content). We must give students ways to talk about their "self-ness" in a world full of marketing campaigns and Hollywood movies designed to construct their notion of "self" for them. We must introduce Benkler's notion of the "networked public sphere" and how to be a part of it. In fact, if it were up to me, I would make "The Wealth Of Networks" required reading for all undergraduate students or even high school seniors (or some kind of abridged version, that book is quite a doozy).

Making the Web available for people living with disabilities
While the notion of the "digital divide" and how to un-divide it are arguable, the debate rarely involves people living with disabilities. As we move to a more multimedia-infused culture, where does that leave the visually, aurally and physically impaired? How can we efficiently include everyone? Furthermore, can technology and new media actually increase their autonomy? Do virtual worlds put typically developing children on the same social level as children with Asperger's? Can we use robotics and OCR technology to help the blind read metro signs? Will it be the norm to have classmates with bionic hearing who have blue tooth technology in their skulls that let them hear a lecturer better than people with organic cochlea? Will they also have digital podcasts uploaded into their devices by making the cochlear implant software open source? (Perhaps this last one is over the top, but that would be AWESOME and totally possible with freer access to the source codes).
And finally, underlying all of the above, how do we make these new practices the norm? How do we incorporate these changes within the boundaries of the contemporary education system and standardized testing that is currently in place? How can we begin training teachers to be effective leaders in the networked/mediated world?

So that's the framework that I'm coming from, and until there's a book that says all that, right up there, than I will stick to the separate media studies books and learning theory books and continue synthesizing them in my own research.

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