It’s Collaborate or Perish, Brett. . .

I’ve got a bit of a confession to make, y’all:  I still haven’t gotten over the unexpected criticism that Brett and the boys of Kitchen Table Math laid on me last week over my confession that I struggle with evaluating the impact of my instruction.

And while I’m certainly comfortable with my responses to the gang about accountability, I haven’t had a chance yet to reply to their other assertion:  That the time I spend advocating for digital tools in the classroom is wasted.

Brett writes:

His blog focuses
on incorporating new technology (wikis, Twitter, etc.) into
instruction, and he argues forcefully for the use of these tools. But
you have to ask the question – to what end? Why would you advocate so
strongly for the use of technology – or the use of any other
instructional tool – when you admit up front that you have no idea
whatsoever whether it helps students learn…

He’s incorporating technology because he likes it;
there’s no other explanation. If he cared whether students were
learning, he’d make an effort to learn how to assess that learning, and
tailor his instruction based on their progress.

Clearly that’s not
going to happen – not, at least, until he retires.

Actually, Brett, I’m incorporating technology because it facilitates learning the required curriculum for my students, delivers instruction in a highly motivating format and prepares students for the workplaces of tomorrow.

You see, technology has the potential to make all learning easier.  Students today have access to information in ways that you and I never had access to information.  They can almost immediately find content that would have taken us hours to hunt down—and that information is far more engaging than any of the traditional resources that schools provide for classrooms.

Which means that one of the greatest challenges facing kids today is learning to manage the amazing amount of information that is available to them.

They need to learn to identify resources that are reliable and to streamline their searches for content that connects to personal and professional interests.  If I were to allow my students to leave my classroom without a developing foundation of strategies for working with online information, they would be hopelessly inefficient learners (and employees), wouldn’t they?

I also incorporate technology into my classroom because I know my students—and they are completely driven by communication with peers.  This innate and unrelenting desire to interact was probably best defined by Danah Boyd–a PhD student at the University of California-Berkeley studying the networks developing between digital youth–in a 2008 blog post when she wrote:

They are desperately craving an opportunity to connect with their friends; not surprisingly, their use of anything that enables socialization while at school is deeply desired.  [The value of social networks] is about the kinds of informal social learning that is required for maturation — understanding your community, learning to communicate with others, working through status games, building and maintaining friendships, working through personal values, etc…

We need to recognize that not all learning is about book learning — brains mature through experience, including social experiences.

So I’m decidedly unapologetic about creating opportunities for my kids to communicate around ideas related to our curriculum.  I see each of these conversations as motivating places for my students to wrestle with content together.  They polish their core beliefs, have their thinking challenged by peers, and revise notions that they once held as true.

Need proof?

Then take some time to poke through the thinking in this Voicethread presentation where my students wrestled with political cartoons on the genocide occurring in Darfur.

Interpreting political cartoons allowed me to address several of the required elements of my language arts curriculum (identifying bias, making inferences, challenging the thinking of peers) and of my social studies curriculum (identifying how governments treat their people, recognizing how culture joins and separates people, understanding how countries wrestle with issues of justice and injustice).

Oh yeah—and while viewing, remember that the 85 UNGRADED comments you’re looking at were ALL done out of class.  My students found this digital forum motivating enough to willingly engage in an ongoing conversation about classroom content without any formal assessment needed.  It was the social nature of the learning experience that mattered to them.

When was the last time that you’ve gotten students to willingly engage in an ongoing conversation about classroom content without attaching a grade to the final product?

For me, it happens all the time.

Here’s a follow-up conversation with over 250 comments that we had with a group of eighth graders on the idea of hatred after studying the cultural elements of conflicts that have divided the US, the Balkan countries and Northern Europe—also a part of our required curriculum.

Brett and the gang specifically mentioned wikis in their criticism, so I wanted to explain why wikis matter:

Wikis are tools that are designed to promote digital collaboration between individuals in an organization.  Easily editable websites, wikis can be used to develop shared final products by groups of people regardless of location or time.

In education, wikis are largely being used by students to create repositories of knowledge about topics connected to the curriculum.  Two of my favorite examples of classroom wikis include the Carbon Fighters (a collection of jointly created letters to the Governor of North Carolina advocating for alternative energies) and The Flat Classroom Project (a collaborative project between students in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Camilla, Georgia).

Like the wikis that I use in my own classroom, both of these projects engaged students in the process of peer production.  Teams of students used digital tools to create content together while studying the required elements of their curriculum.

And while the learning outcomes of both of these projects are significant in and of themselves, I’d argue that teaching students the skills necessary for peer production are far more important.  You see, major industries are embracing peer production and creating work environments that are driven by digital collaboration.

Don’t believe me?

Then pick up Wikinomics someday.

Written by Dan Tapscott and Anthony Williams, Wikinomics works to explain how digital tools are changing today’s workplace.  In it, Tapscott and Williams highlight how industry giants like Proctor and Gamble are opening their companies and encouraging digital collaboration across borders, primarily because they recognize that the human capital beyond an organization will ALWAYS be greater than the human capital within an organization.

To Tapscott, Williams and other business leaders, this can only mean one thing:

“A power shift is underway and a tough new business rule is emerging:  Harness the new collaboration or perish.  Those who fail to grasp this will find themselves ever more isolated—cut off from the networks that are sharing, adapting, and updating knowledge to create value.

Heck, even IBM has recognized the importance of joining digital communities that are creating knowledge together.  They’ve released tons and tons of their proprietary information to the loose programming network building Linux—a free online operating system that probably best represents the new business marketplace.

IBM has also assigned hundreds of their programmers to work on the Linux project full-time.  That means IBM engineers are being paid by IBM to collaborate with dozens of volunteer programmers across the globe to create a free operating system.

Crazy, huh?

Why would a company join collaborative communities creating products that run in direct competition with their primary product line?

Simple.  It saves them HUGE amounts of cash:

IBM spends about $100 million per year on general Linux development.  If the Linux community puts in $1 billion of effort, and even half of that is useful to IBM customers, the company gets $500 million of software development for an investment of $100 million.

(Kindle location 1493)

So I guess what I figure, Brett, is that if companies like IBM and Proctor + Gamble are embracing peer production and open collaboration across borders today—and making huge amounts of money doing so!— more companies are likely to follow in the future.

Does this make sense?

Which means the skills necessary to be efficient digital collaborators will be of great value in the corporations of tomorrow.  If one of my charges is to prepare students for the workplace of the 21st Century (and it is—check out the State Board of Education’s recent mission and vision statements), then using collaborative tools like wikis is entirely appropriate, don’t you think?

Whew!  Glad I got that off my chest.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that digital tools have a well thought out place in my classroom.  They’re far more than just novelties that make me feel good.  Instead, they’re essential for delivering content, for engaging students, and for preparing kids for tomorrow.

If any of these goals are essential outcomes for education, then I guess I’m doing the right thing.

Push back, anyone?



8 thoughts on “It’s Collaborate or Perish, Brett. . .

  1. Bill Ferriter

    Denis wrote:
    The need to change education is one of the topics those of us engaged with wikinomics research on an ongoing basis are keenly interested – the broadcast model that is still far too often employed is clearly broken, and (as you reference in your post) this generation of students is clearly hungry for a different approach
    Hey Denis,
    Thanks for stopping by—and for being involved in a project that has caught my eye! I wasn’t sure what I would take from Wikinomics when I first picked it up, but I find that it’s helping me to better understand what the workplace of tomorrow will look like—which helps me to advocate for classrooms that make sense.
    Your reference here to the “broadcast model” of education is brilliant—and one that I hadn’t thought of even as I worked my way through Shirky, who speaks of the broadcast model of media more than once.
    It’s true, though—classrooms remain broadcast driven locations…One way transmission of ideas that leave students bored because they’ve grown up participating in media.
    I wonder if educators would be more convinced of the need to change if they looked at teaching as just another form of media transmission and then compared themselves to other media sources that allowed for engagement.
    I think you just gave me an idea for a new blog post!
    Rock on,

  2. Denis Hancock

    Thanks for the wikinomics mention Bill (and note you might find the education tags on our blog interesting!).
    The need to change education is one of the topics those of us engaged with wikinomics research on an ongoing basis are keenly interested – the broadcast model that is still far too often employed is clearly broken, and (as you reference in your post) this generation of students is clearly hungry for a different approach. It’s always great to find stories about teachers trying to help them out…

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    I wouldn’t work myself overmuch about those folks, Bill. I had a few rounds of discussion there, and decided that discretion was the better part of valor
    Thanks a ton for the kind words, Mike. I definitely agree that continuing the conversation over at KTM is likely to be a bit of a Pyrrhic victory.
    I enjoyed writing this post, though—it helped me to articulate my own thinking about my decisions to use digital tools in the classroom.
    And anytime I’m forced to articulate on instructional decisions, my own teaching improves!
    Anyway….Rock on,

  4. Mike

    I wouldn’t work myself overmuch about those folks, Bill. I had a few rounds of discussion there, and decided that discretion was the better part of valor.
    One fellow (or lady?) was unwilling to admit that individuals must learn for themselves (bear individual responsibility for their learning) finally asserting that if one was young and learning to read, they had no responsibility whatever for their own learning. I’m still puzzling out how learning may be imparted to one who makes no effort to learn, regardless of age. They also suggested that because X % of kids at X grade level aren’t reading on grade level, all teachers cannot be trusted to do their jobs. I won’t even go into the ad hominem attacks. There really isn’t much to be gained through discussion in such circumstances.
    By the way, Karen Fichter, you’ll probably be happier if I don’t tell you real, true-to-life SIOP horror stories.

  5. Karen Fichter

    It’s interesting that you have actually tapped in to a base of research going on in the Limited English Proficient (LEP/ESL) world right now, Bill. That social learning enhances the limited English speaker’s ability to learn content more quickly. One of the 8 components of the SIOP model that our district has adopted is interaction- between students, teachers, and peers- and limiting the amount of “teacher talk” that occurs in a classroom. So the craving of social interaction you’re talking about is a benefit to LEP students, and has actually been shown to help other students as well- far more than another worksheet or multiple choice test. So, if Brett needs proof that interaction works, and technology is a way to get there, have him go to, or just google Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol- there is a lot of research on it out there. hope that helps you prove your point a bit more…

  6. James O'Hagan

    I casually opened Moodle to students in my district manly to run a few surveys and test out the system. I left it on and forgot it. Towards the end of the year the server went offline and a number of students asked what had happened to Moodle? When I checked back with the server and read some of the logs, sure there off topic conversations via the built in chat server, but also interesting connections in class as well (we have a 1:1 deployment)

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Karen wrote:
    I also find it interesting that we edtech folks always seem to be in the position of defending our choices of pedagogical uses of technology. Maybe it’s good because it forces us to reflect on our practices, the way you have here.
    I definitely agree, Karen—the benefit of the (seemingly constant) criticism that people level at me for using digital tools in the classroom is that I’m almost always thinking through the instructional benefits of my decisions.
    That reflection actually improves my practice and makes me a more effective teacher. For all of those reasons, I embrace critics.
    But man—it gets tiring sometimes, doesn’t it?!
    Do you think there is an inherent tension between what we’re asking schools to do in theory and what we actually expect of schools in reality?
    I mean, I hear everyone talking about the importance of 21st Century learning but I don’t see anyone doing anything to put the screws to those who embrace instructional practices that have remained unchanged for decades!
    Anyway….thanks for the comment.
    Rock on,

  8. Karen

    Maybe the problem is that Brett and the gang are thinking about traditional assessments (ie, my students learned the material and did well on the test) and you are struggling with how to assess things like how well your students will be able to function in the real world. I’m reading Wikinomics right now and I agree that the latter assessment is the more powerful one and also the more difficult, potentially impossible, one. You are right to struggle with it and thanks for being willing to make that struggle public.
    I also find it interesting that we edtech folks always seem to be in the position of defending our choices of pedagogical uses of technology. Maybe it’s good because it forces us to reflect on our practices, the way you have here. I wonder when the last time Brett and the gang were asked to defend the choices they make in the classroom. Why did you use that worksheet? Why did you use small groups? Or, even better, why did you choose NOT to use digital technologies?

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