Throwing Rocks at the Ivory Tower. . .

On Friday, I had an interesting opportunity that took me out of my comfort zone a bit.  I’d been contacted by two professors at a major Northeastern university who were interested in learning more about Voicethread and the role that it could play in classroom instruction at the college level.  We scheduled an interview that they planned to use in some upcoming work with their colleagues.

Our conversation quickly drifted away from Voicethread, however, when one of the two professors asked me about my decision to post tons and tons of resources that I’ve developed online for others to use.  “I wonder if you can explain that decision for our audience,” he asked.  “That’s going to run counter to everything that our peers—who earn tenure and status by publishing—hold dear.

“Why would you just give your ideas away?”

Ironically, my original decision to freely share nearly everything I create was heavily influenced by higher education!  Several years ago, I read about MIT’s decision to post all of their coursework on the web.  Students with Internet connections anywhere can access syllabi, notes, and class readings—as well as audio and video lectures—from one of the world’s leading universities for free.

Described as one of the greatest acts of “intellectual philanthropy” in history, MIT is seeking to democratize knowledge in a world where knowledge is the key commodity.  As Ann Margulies—executive director of the open course project at MIT—explains in this Christian Science Monitor article, “We believe strongly that education can be best advanced when knowledge is shared openly and freely.  MIT is using the power of the Internet to give away all of the educational materials created here.”

For me, the idea of intellectual philanthropy had great resonance.  I’m a passionate advocate for public education and have written often about my desire to see students in every school succeed.  Advancing knowledge is what I’m about.  I’m also a passionate advocate for the effective use of technology in classrooms.  Blending those passions convinced me that sharing was the right thing to do.

What’s more, I’ve taken as much from the digital community of learners as I’ve given.  I spend the first 30 minutes of every day reading the thoughts of other powerful educators around the world.  They challenge my thinking and force me to refine and revise what I’m already doing with students.  Professionally, I’ve grown exponentially from the free knowledge posted on dozens of blogs and wikis—responsible participation in this ongoing conversation requires that I offer ideas for others to learn from.

Finally, making my work transparent has forced me to carefully articulate what it is that I believe about teaching and learning.  The pressure of a public audience that can question what I do raises my level of reflection.  I know that if my ideas are not centered, I’ll be questioned—and that questioning is the “refining fire” that helps me to understand my own practices and positions better, both before and after I post my thinking for others to review.

Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?

Now, before you go and think I’m making a pitch for Sainthood, I’d better come clean:  Giving material away for free online has also raised my profile to a point where people are willing to pay me cold hard cash, too!

I’ve been offered—and signed—multiple book contracts, I’ve written for countless top-flight educational publications, I’ve been given all-expenses paid trips to conferences for presentations, I’ve been hired to write regular columns and I’ve been contracted as an expert adviser by national educational policy and technology organizations.

Not bad for a guy who is “just a classroom teacher,” huh?  It turns out that giving knowledge away hasn’t been a professional mistake at all.  It has improved the quality of my thinking, changed my positions, exposed me to new ideas, forced me to articulate positions, elevated my voice, established my credibility and helped to pay my bills all at once!

When I was finished explaining my reasoning for joining in the “share-and-share-alike” world of the Internet, my interviewers were semi-speechless.  “Your thinking makes perfect sense,” they said, “and your ability to generate opportunities after freely sharing resources proves that freely sharing resources doesn’t hinder one’s professional career.  These ideas are going to be controversial, though.  They’re sure to spark debate among our peers.”

Which is why I doubt that colleges can effectively prepare teachers for tomorrow!

Think about it:  We live in a knowledge-based world where collaboration and creative thinking is becoming the key to success in nearly every industry.  Organizations that paint pictures of the 21st Century workplace emphasize the need for employees that can work on interdependent, multi-cultural teams.  Innovation and design are skills enhanced by cooperation—and hindered by isolation.

This changing reality has had a profound impact on the way that K-12 public schools operate.  A profession once defined by isolation has worked to embrace collaboration.  It would be nearly impossible to find a district that hadn’t experimented with professional learning communities—and while old habits are hard to break, buildings across America are becoming places of professional synergy where colleagues learn from each other and improve practice together.

As classroom educators begin to see the benefit of learning together, they are also incorporating more collaborative opportunities into their classroom instruction.  Driven by a passion to show others how to learn—and valuing the ideas gleaned from peers—-teachers are convinced that cooperative work around ideas must drive the learning of their students.

Yet undergraduate students are studying under professors who not only work in isolation, but who openly fear cooperation because it could jeopardize their professional standing and career track.  How can we possibly expect to change the isolated culture of public schools when the role models for our newest teachers are educators who see little value in sharing what they know?

I think it might just be time to pressure universities to change, don’t you?

Why should tenure and career status be tied to behaviors that award isolated behaviors in a world where collaboration has become the key to the kingdom?  Is it possible that we’ve taken direction from colleges for too long—-and that stagnancy has left our primary institutions for higher learning behind?

 

8 thoughts on “Throwing Rocks at the Ivory Tower. . .

  1. elementaryhistoryteacher

    Hi! Great post and I agree with you as my experience has been much of the same….it would seem the more you give the more opportunities open up to you. One other area where I see it as a benefit to the education community to be transparently online is the fact that the general public reads many of our sites as well and can clearly learn about our challenges and our successes. By being open on the web we also serve as ambassadors for our often belittled profession.

  2. Renee Moore

    Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful insights and for pushing us to look at things differently. Fortunately, many (more than it might appear) inside higher ed are also asking exactly the questions you pose here–particularly about teacher ed programs. In fact, there has been a movement within higher ed for some years now to broaden the tenure process away from the heavy dependency on individual research and publication cycle, to emphasize teaching (imagine that). Helps to keep up pressure from without as well as within, however.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Karen wrote:
    Ouch! That stone hurt a little. I do understand that many professors are not as collaborative and open as we would like, often because of the system in which they work.
    Hey Karen—good to hear from you, and I couldn’t agree more. Like public school teachers, university professors work in a system that has rewarded isolation for far too long.
    Which is why the system needs to change! I’d love to see collaboration emphasized in tenure agreements and decisions—much like it has been in the new teacher evaluation instruments that I’m being judged by this year.
    Looking from the inside, where should the pressure for change at the university level come from?
    Karen also wrote:
    But it’s not completely hopeless. I’ve moved from the K-12 classroom to higher ed and I, at least, have taken my share and share alike attitude with me.
    I’d love to know how well you’re received by your peers! I have several friends who moved to higher ed that are looked at like they’re from another planet.
    They rarely receive “insider status,” and sad as it might be, they’re never seen as credible. Classroom experience in K-12 schools means nothing to the career profs in their schools of ed!
    That being said, my favorite profs are those who came from classrooms because their instruction bears the credibility of experience. You have my respect—and probably the respect of your students—because you’ve “been there, done that!”
    Rock on,
    Bill

  4. Bob Heiny

    I appreciate your comeback, Bill. Since you asked, Yes, I’m cautious about any slogan, including 21st Century (insert your noun). (That was an attention getting slogan stem in the early 1990s with declining impact for almost a decade.) As I think you know, I’m arguing that collaboration consists of exchanges (nothing new) between individuals and results after individuals have something others want. Industries exist as competitive enterprises inside and against others even when they form joint ventures (also not new). Yes, the PC rhetoric of collaboration softens the appearance of competition to those not engaged in the industry, but not the reality of giving something if you want to continue or improve your position with others. I agree that settings continue to require exchanges of information in competitive settings. (I don’t think technical agreement exist about what “knowledge” means beyond a variety of dictionary definitions.) As for teacher prep, make it clear that individuals learn, not aggregates. Require student teachers to demonstrate that they can increase measured individual student learning rates before signing off on teaching certificates. Yes? 🙂

  5. Karen Richardson

    Ouch! That stone hurt a little. I do understand that many professors are not as collaborative and open as we would like, often because of the system in which they work. But it’s not completely hopeless. I’ve moved from the K-12 classroom to higher ed and I, at least, have taken my share and share alike attitude with me. My course (http://kwrich.wmwikis.wikispaces.net/) is available through wikispaces rather than Blackboard and I have at least one other colleague who is doing the same.
    You might also want to take a look at Connexions (http://www.cnx.org), a largely higher ed driven open courseware site.
    I might suggest you also look at some of the other closed systems around, you, especially the textbook publishers. This is one industry that is still very far from being collaborative but are very much worried about how the open education movement is going to influence their bottom line. Here’s the stone I threw recently: http://kwrich.wmwikis.wikispaces.net/
    Thanks as always for your thoughtful ideas about how we can improve teaching and learning!

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Bob wrote:
    At the same time, your call for changes in teacher prep appear consistent with your premise of 21st century expectations, a premise that many in and out of schools see as an incomplete and perhaps short sighted construction of reality.
    So Bob,
    Are you arguing that workplaces aren’t changing to become more collaborative and knowledge driven?
    Seems to me that’s a construction of reality that is generally observable across industries—and one well-detailed in recent years.
    Check out Wikinomics, The World is Flat, A Whole New Mind. All written by highly respected writers and all arguing that success in the future depends on different work patterns than we’re currently preparing children for in schools.
    Bob also wrote:
    I’m sure you also know that your assumptions about higher ed seem historically inconsistent with its primary purpose and record of expanding and sharing knowledge
    My thoughts regarding the isolation of higher ed come directly from the comments of the two university professors that were interviewing me—each of whom made it quite clear that sharing work in higher education is anathema to professors who compete for career status through publishing and research.
    But thanks for the mental challenge. I knew I could count on you to prove my central point: That sharing knowledge publicly forces one to revise, refine and reconsider their thinking.
    Five Stars right back to you, Bob!
    Bill

  7. Bob Heiny

    Thanks for sharing your insights and procedures. Congratulations for recognition you receive for those steps. They enrich the learning of many.
    I’m sure you also know that your assumptions about higher ed seem historically inconsistent with its primary purpose and record of expanding and sharing knowledge. At the same time, your call for changes in teacher prep appear consistent with your premise of 21st century expectations, a premise that many in and out of schools see as an incomplete and perhaps short sighted construction of reality.
    Five Stars to you, Bill!

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