Learning from the Met: Teachers as Digital Learners

Every year, MetLife churns out an impressive report titled Survey of the American Teacher.  Based on one-to-one interviews with 1,000 classroom teachers, 1,000 students and 500 principals, this year's survey—released yesterday and available online here—"documents current attitudes, examines trends and considers future implications" influencing teaching and learning in the American classroom.

For the first time, this year's survey looks closely at how teachers are using digital media to build relationships and communicate with professionals beyond their own buildings.  Noting that teachers and principals have long believed that technology can enhance teaching, the Met wanted to know exactly how educators were using technology to support their own learning

The results of the survey, however, were not terribly surprising:  Teachers just plain haven't embraced digital forums for personal growth. 

To be specific, less than one out of every three teachers (28%) report having read or written a blog about teaching even as blogs become an increasingly common forum for conversation and resource sharing between experts in every field.  Making matters worse, less than two in ten (15%) teachers have participated in online communities or social networking sites like Tapped In, Ning or Facebook. 

While principal responses to the same questions were—surprisingly—higher, less than half of our leaders (42%) are reading and learning from blogs and less than one quarter (22%) are participants in online communities.

While I can understand the conflict that American teachers feel about these tools—-we talk about how important it is to find ways to learn with technology while districts ban any kind of communication between teachers and students in social networking forums and suspend teachers for poor judgment in their personal communication—-these kinds of trends should concern everyone who cares about education.

Here's why:

Because our students have embraced digital forums:  I've always been taught that responsible educators try to tailor learning experiences that align with the interests and motivations of their audiences simply because increased levels of motivation most often result in increased levels of learning.  If that's true, then digital forums for communication and growth simply must begin to find a home in the American classroom. 

Consider these numbers, culled from the 2007 report Teens and Social Media:  59% of students between the age of 12 and 17 are sharing artistic creations online, creating videos, making webpages, maintaining blogs and remixing content that they find online.  What's more, 55% of students between the age of 12 and 17 have created profile pages on social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, and 47% have posted images on photo-sharing sites where others can see them. 

And that data is almost 16 months old!  I suspect that the percentages of students using digital tools for networking, learning and communication has only increased since the Pew Internet and American Life project published these findings in December of 2007.

So essentially, American teachers know little to nothing about the tools that their students have embraced—-which means that the American classroom is a disconnected place for our kids.

What kind of impact do you think this has on achievement? 

Because networked learning is always more efficient and powerfulIn a recent postwhere he struggled with the definition of the word "teacher," Dean Shareski shared this graphic:

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As always, Dean's on to something, here. 

While his image originally defined his view of accomplished teachers, I'd argue that it equally describes any accomplished learner in today's world.  There is simply too much content for any one person to be "talented" enough to understand it all—-or to find the kind of meaningful challenge in their local community to promote exponential growth.  Instead, efficient learning depends on building a network of co-learners who can provide guidance, support and just-in-time resources for continued study. 

What does this look like in action? 

For me, it's the ability to instantly follow the thinking of like-minded peers in Twitter and to have ongoing conversations on topics of importance using Voicethread.  It's using Pageflakes to organize a collection of bloggers that spark my thinking on a daily basis and to organize information that my students are studying in class.  It's jumping into conversations in the comment sections of blog entries that push my buttons and joining social networks with colleagues tackling similar concepts with their kids.

Each of these opportunities has made me a more efficient learner because I know that I can turn to my network at any time for instant access to the kinds of information that will improve who I am as a thinker and a doer in the classroom.  I never struggle to find a conversation or to get support because I've got connections—-and those connections are supported by digital tools.

Isn't this the kind of efficient learning that everyone will need in order to be successful in a world where content multiplies exponentially each year?  And if so, who is going to show our students how to build connections if less than a third of teachers see the value in using digital tools for their own learning?

Every time that I read statistics like those shared in this year's MetLife survey, I keep coming back to the central question that Karl Fisch asked a few years back

Is it alright to be a technologically illiterate teacher?

My answer would be a resounding no. 

The digitally illiterate are nothing more than jailers, limiting access to powerful forums for learning and separating students from the kinds of tools and experiences that they've learned to love. Our schools will continue to fail students until we see teachers embrace digital opportunities for their own learning and growth—-and then begin to pass that knowledge on to their pupils.

Pushback?

16 comments

  1. excel classes

    My union (in New Zealand) has a retirement saving scheme that we can pay into straight from our paycheck. The government matches contributions up to 3%.
    Check with your district and your union to see if there is anything like that.
    I don’t know of any programs such as you list for help with home buying etc. Wouldn’t that be nice!

  2. Tyler B.

    I couldn’t agree more with the points raised here–particularly the fact that students have absolutely embraced web 2.0, digital and handheld technology. The longer we ignore this the farther we fall behind. There are some stop-gap solutions, such as creating a facebook profile specifically for education purposes. But even this is frought with potential conflicts. There are also websites like FatClass.com that allow students and teachers and teachers and teachers to communicate in web 2.0 –specifically around their actual class. Teachers add students to their network, share files, post forums, update assignments, etc.. This is probably the most promising example I have seen thusfar. But no matter what I think we have to at least begin the discussion and look for ways of harnessing this amazing technology for the future.

  3. K. Borden

    Jacky Fields said:
    “The interesting thing is, though, I would like to find more specific examples of how elementary teacher use all the web 2.0 applications”
    Parent observation incoming:
    Ms Fields:
    My daughter attended elementary public school for 5 ½ years. Over those years she experienced more than 15 classroom teachers for core subjects at two schools. (If the number seems higher, she was at a magnet that changed classes similar to middle school) The year span would be August 2003-February 2009. Every teacher used email to communicate with parents. Not a single teacher had a class website. Every classroom had at least one computer for student use. I noticed the age of the teacher had no connection to whether they were friendly to the use of technology. In fact the older and more experienced teachers seemed more open.
    To the extent interfacing with computers was “taught” it fell to either the media center time, “specials”, “electives” or home. A shout out goes to her K teacher who did have students type and use word processing functions.
    How do we move from basic computing and Web 1.0 scarcely in the classrooms to Web 2.0 usage?
    We recently began homeschool. Long before we did, I dug in to research teaching, education generally, specific subject materials, curriculum expectations, child development…… I hope teachers are using blogs, social networking, and the immense collaboration tools and platform options far more than appears evident.
    For what we are doing I find at my finger tips the ability to tap the creativity, experience and collective body of knowledge of educators worldwide. If I encounter a question during the day, a few clicks and I have a wealth of information. I have no excuse for failing to apply good theory, practice and information to my daughter’s education because it is there to be had at my fingertips.
    MMORPGs offer the opportunity for younger students to begin to learn online communication and collaboration. Chat filters and adult supervision/guidance help enforce web etiquette and safe web practices in a goal oriented environment encouraging teamwork. Want to make 1st, 2nd and 3rd person concepts tangible? Games paint the picture.
    Want to demonstrate effective versus ineffective debate, discussion, persuasion, word choice, voice, style …? Hop on a blog with numerous comments and allow children to see for themselves what works and what doesn’t in communication.
    Voice programs open the world to exchange, communication, collaboration. An explanation of cultural comparisons becomes far more real when a child can talk with another child in real time anywhere in the world.
    MP3, podcasts, video streams daily save the work of presenting far more concepts than I could list.
    Want an author visit, book club or book talk? The web is filled with those opportunities.
    Want to assess performance or knowledge acquisition? There are more games, quizzes….and so forth than I can list to offer a twist on the pop quiz.
    Learning to craft and effective and efficient search requires all sorts of critical thinking skills.
    I could go on and on. Web 2.0 offers purposeful communication, if only students are turned on and into it.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Sam,
    Thanks for the link to the Ted Talk on wisdom. It really resonated with me today. Lines like “You need the permission and the time to improvise” in order to be wise is a message that I think we miss too often in today’s approaches to education.
    I also like the example of the dad and the son at the baseball game—-“rules and procedures may be dumb, but they keep you from thinking” is a great quote.
    “When things go wrong, we reach for rules,” sure seems to make sense, but like Schwartz says, rules chip away at our ability to innovate and to learn from our innovations.
    Fascinating and with tons of applications to schools.
    I needed that,
    Bill

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    Since my question has gone unanswered, I’ll take a few minutes and reply as though you intended the obvious implications of these comments in your original post:
    Mike—Excuse me for not responding to your question promptly. I spent the week traveling, so I haven’t been able to reply to you. For that, I beg your forgiveness.
    Mike’s question was:
    Your original post seems to indicate that you oppose school policies that prevent teachers from direct digital communication with students, and/or schools that punish teachers for exercising bad judgment in such situations. Am I misreading your intentions?
    I don’t think you read my post carefully, Mike, as it had little to do with promoting direct digital communication between teachers and students on a frequent basis.
    Instead, my central argument is that if teachers are not using social networking tools to improve their own learning, they are unlikely to have the skills to show students how to use digital tools responsibly to make learning efficient—and it would be ignorant and irresponsible to argue that digital tools add no value to improving the efficiency of learning.
    Mike also wrote:
    To that end, teachers should never, ever contact students outside the boundaries of their legitimate and narrow duties. Teachers do not contact students outside the classroom. To do otherwise is to open them to charges of inappropriate interest or influence
    Isn’t this a sad commentary on the state of our society?
    While I understand that there have been horrible incidents where teachers have crossed the line with students and that they are unacceptable at best and morally reprehensible at worst, these incidents have resulted in an environment of fear where we’re constantly second-guessed and second-guessing ourselves.
    It’s shocking that we’ve gotten to the point in our country where parents, community leaders, and education professionals doubt teachers so vehemently that they’d use the phrase, “teachers should never, ever contact students.”
    You’re the one, Mike, who constantly talks about the fact that you are a professional capable of making professional decisions, yet you seem to have no faith in the ability of teachers to set responsible boundaries for—or to define just what—interactions with students in digital learning forums could look like.
    What’s that about?
    I guess I believe in the ability of—and the need for—-professional educators to craft responsible models of teacher-student participation in learning-centered digital forums.
    Whether we like it or not, education has to respond to the reality that digital forums for communication and networking are going to be the norm rather than the exception for the next 20 years.
    Which means we’ve got two choices: Your route, which argues that teachers and students should “never, ever” use digital tools to communicate with students for any reason—or my route, which argues that responsible communication patterns centered on promoting learning can—and should—be crafted by educators sooner rather than later.
    Finally, Mike wrote:
    If it’s not, you might very well be one of those teachers we’ll soon be hearing about on the news.
    Wow. I’m offended.
    Let me try to react to this statement calmly instead of pulling out my digital bazooka:
    First, your suggestion that I’d be okay with no consequences for teachers who cross professional boundaries is ridiculous.
    My comments in this entire entry were designed to highlight why teachers are reticent from day one to even explore what’s possible in digital forums for learning, not to excuse behavior that is illegal and/or irresponsible.
    But to have you suggest that I’m “one of those teachers that we’ll hear about on the news” based on nothing more than one sentence in one blog post—remember, you’ve never met me—-is an example of the irresponsible and emotionally loaded discourse that has (sadly) become all too common in America.
    What I’ve always hoped that the Radical would be was a place for collaborative dialogue where readers built shared knowledge around issues together.
    What you’ve done is make the Radical a place for slinging darts—which is far from healthy and does little to promote reasoned reflection.
    That bugs me, to put it mildly.
    Bill

  6. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Since my question has gone unanswered, I’ll take a few minutes and reply as though you intended the obvious implications of these comments in your original post:
    “While I can understand the conflict that American teachers feel about these tools—-we talk about how important it is to find ways to learn with technology while districts ban any kind of communication between teachers and students in social networking forums and suspend teachers for poor judgment in their personal communication—-these kinds of trends should concern everyone who cares about education.
    Here’s why:
    Because our students have embraced digital forums: I’ve always been taught that responsible educators try to tailor learning experiences that align with the interests and motivations of their audiences simply because increased levels of motivation most often result in increased levels of learning. If that’s true, then digital forums for communication and growth simply must begin to find a home in the American classroom.”
    Our profession has taken a number of significant hits–hits we can’t allow or afford–of late due to teachers who misused their positions of trust and authority to engage in improper relationships with kids. We can’t afford, ever, to violate this sacred trust, and the holy grail of spreading the use of “technology” through “social networking” is no excuse for abandoning the proper, adult relationship that must exist between teachers and kids.
    Teachers must never, never, engage in juvenile behavior and practices. Teachers must be the responsible adult in the room. For example, when teachers learn that students are doing something illegal, they must take appropriate action, which includes involving the police. My students are, I hope, my friends, but as I tell them the first day of class, they must expect me to act like a responsible adult, not their middle-aged homie.
    To that end, teachers should never, ever contact students outside the boundaries of their legitimate and narrow duties. Teachers do not contact students outside the classroom. To do otherwise is to open them to charges of inappropriate interest or influence. That such contact is through texting, the internet or any other trendy method changes the reality of such contact not at all. Yes, there are exceptions such as a teacher notifying students of a last minute change in a scheduled activity bus departure or something like that, but I trust the distinction is clear. If it’s not, you might very well be one of those teachers we’ll soon be hearing about on the news.
    So, Bill. Did I misconstrue your intentions?

  7. Dave

    The Talent/Connections card is interesting, but the connections part has two aspects: being able to get a question answered, and having better sources to learn from.
    If I go to every local PD opportunity, I’ll learn some pretty good stuff. If I’m connected with the best teachers across the nation, I’ll learn the best stuff. Anyone who’s paranoid about crossing the line when they post still doesn’t have a good excuse not to be reading a variety of high-quality RSS feeds. For all the talk about getting teachers setup with blogs and wikis and places for them to publish, I think we missed what should have been the first step: learning from the resources that are already being published by some of the best teachers across the country.

  8. Jacky Fields

    I think every teacher would think a personal learning network would be a great thing. However, my experience here is that few elementary teachers have created PLN for themselves. Cautious administrators don’t seem to support social networking, so it doesn’t happen at school. And it seems that teachers are unwilling or unable to accomplish these goals at home.
    I have to admit, that as the Instructional Technology Specialist at our school I have tons of RSS feeds which I regularly read. It gets to be an endless clicking of links – but I learn so much. It is the only way to keep up with technology. The interesting thing is, though, I would like to find more specific examples of how elementary teacher use all the web 2.0 applications

  9. Linda Mayger

    Although no blanket statements apply to all situations, in my experience technologically illiterate teachers are seldom amazing in every other way. Their unwillingness or inability to master even basic computer skills is symptomatic of other issues that impact their teaching in a negative way. Although not all teachers need to be technological marvels, I believe that they need to have enough computer literacy to effectively use computers for the basic communication and research functions that are integral to how educated people now function. How can they teach students critical thinking skills when they themselves are not using them to adapt?

  10. Mike

    Bill:
    Your original post seems to indicate that you oppose school policies that prevent teachers from direct digital communication with students, and/or schools that punish teachers for exercising bad judgment in such situations. Am I misreading your intentions?

  11. dan greenberg

    the index card should be credited to Jessica Hagy, her blog is brilliant.
    those are sad statistics indeed. it seems like blogs and the like are nearly past us and the world is on the something new. if we can’t get teachers on to step 1 then how are they going to react when the tech world is on step 4?

  12. dmcallister

    Responding to the grenade: “For many teachers who are late adapters of technology and whom it is a struggle to get them to use digital tools to foster these ideas, we shouldn’t bother.”
    I’ll pick up on this and give my experience as a instructional technologist (albeit one new to the field). I’m full-time in two schools and lead professional development courses for my district. What I’ve found, in many of the veteran teachers with whom I’ve worked, is that many who struggle with the tech but trust that the reward will be valuable push through and become my most vocal advocates for technology in the classroom. And what I appreciate most about their contributions is that their message is never about the tech — it’s always about the changes they observed in their own teaching and their students’ interactions with curriculum and with each other.
    Now, the model I’m part of is atypical, and the result of a considerable investment on the part of my district, but what I see is that we are making progress. I’ll toss this one back into your court.

  13. Barry

    Bill, Great food for thought.
    Here’s my semi-push back.
    I’m just as guilty as the rest of us. I throw the phrase “21st century learning skills” around with abandon. What exactly happened in the year 2000 that suddenly changed the skills that were needed? Besides an advancing of technology and amount and speed of information: nothing.
    Analysis: Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s it seemed as if the purpose of school was to get students ready for the world of work (mostly in a factory or service industry setting) and/or the armed forces. College preparation was for a much smaller percentage and back then, having a high school diploma was enough to get you a decent working class job to support yourself and a family. In the 80’s and 90’s, it seemed as if schools changed. Junior high’s were changed to middle schools. Art and music programs ebbed and flowed. Schools were turning out more students destined for college and it seemed as if the overall goal was to turn out a well rounded student who had good self esteem and played well with others. Suddenly, it seemed as if our goal is to turn out students who are technology and thinking proficient to compete with the Chinese and Indians and others who will knock the US into second world nation state status if schools don’t catch up. Baloney.
    Conclusion: The focus of schools needs to be what it has been the goal for over 30 years. To produce students who can independently think, think critically, work cooperatively, and problem solve. These ideas didn’t suddenly appear. Sure, the medium has changed in that they will be working with digital tools more than kids did in 1985 or 1995. But the goal hasn’t changed one bit. We still refer to theorists from decades ago…Vygotsky, Dewey, Deutch…
    Here’s a grenade to throw: For many teachers who are late adapters of technology and whom it is a struggle to get them to use digital tools to foster these ideas, we shouldn’t bother. I would argue it might be more important from them to effectively develop critical thinking, cooperative learning, and analysis skills for their students with paper and chalk rather than do it marginally with a SMART Board and a laptop.
    Critical thinking is useful only in those situations where human beings need to solve problems, make decisions, or decide in a reasonable and reflective way what to believe or what to do. In other words, just about everywhere and all the time. Critical thinking is important wherever the quality of human thinking significantly impacts the quality of life (of any sentient creature). For example, success in human life is tied to success in learning. At the same time, every phase in the learning process is tied to critical thinking. Thus, reading, writing, speaking, and listening can all be done critically or uncritically. Critical thinking is crucial to becoming a close reader and a substantive writer. Expressed most generally, critical thinking is “a way of taking up the problems of life.” (William Graham Sumner, Folkways, 1906)
    That was from 100 years ago. I think it is still pertinent today.
    Barry

  14. Paul C

    I hate to fall back on a whiney old complaint, but I think that the force resisting this change (more teachers using more digital communication tools) is paranoia. Teachers are presented with powerful tools that they must: a. Learn to use, b. Find time to implement, and c. Avoid “crossing lines” with. I have spoken with so many reluctant teachers who feel that if they try to use VoiceThread or engage students and colleagues in Facebook, they will need to be even more vigilant about catching inappropriate student behavior before it ends their career. It looks to them like extra work, extra risk, with minimal reward. I disagree, and I try to emphasize with these teachers the benefits, but I can sympathize with their fears. Digital vigilance (digilance?) can be time-consuming and frustrating. Any suggestions?