How schools fail students on technology

The education crisis is bad and getting worse. The US spends more on education than any other nation, so the problem is not (as commonly portrayed) a funding crisis. The causes for this sorry state of affairs are many, but one major failure is that too many teachers, schools, and districts reject powerful, free technology solutions that are handed to them on a silver platter.

I'm talking about mobile technology, the mobile Web and the Web 2.0.

I've written about the use of mobile technology in classrooms, and have gotten more than an earful from teachers at all grade levels who tell me, in a nutshell, that iPods and cell phones are a horrible distraction in schools, and should be banned, not leveraged.

This is bad logic, or at best logic inconsistently applied.

The distractions they claim involve things like cheating, texting during class, passing around pictures, snapping objectionable camera phone pictures and other counterproductive activities.

OK, so if this logic were applied 20 years ago, teachers would have seen that students cheated by writing the answers on pieces of paper, passed notes in class on paper, made paper airplanes and some had porn magazines in their lockers. The solution? Ban all paper! No books, no tests on paper! Paper is the problem! Burn it all!

Instead, schools have always made the right decision about paper. Their message? Don't use paper for wasting time, use it for learning. Here are all the useful and productive things you can do with paper (taking notes, reading books, writing papers, painting pictures, making models, etc.)

This is the same attitude schools should — indeed must — take with mobile gadgets. These devices are with us now and forever. Students in classes today will never find themselves without powerful, connected computers in their pockets. So teach them how to use what should be the best thing that ever happened to education.

The mobile Web, and many Web 2.0 sites, should be seen by educators as a Godsend. Those iPhones teachers find so distracting can call up 1.5 million books for free on just one site alone (Google Book Search). And there are thousands of other sites with incredibly valuable educational resources. Nearly every student is carrying dozens of Libraries of Congress in their pockets.

But here's an even bigger problem. Education culture fails to understand what's so great about the social Web. What's great about it is that the best stuff rises to the top. And "best" is defined as that which is most compatible with the human mind.  

The social web is a massive contest, where the decisions of users determine the winners and the losers. More than 99% of social sites built end up failing, and fewer than 1% become widely used household brand names.

This is more or less like the real world.

Take literature, for example. Humans have an informal system for separating the Shakespeares from lousy authors nobody cares about. Bad playwrights fade away — in fact are driven away by empty theaters. Shakespeare, on the other hand, can pack theaters for centuries. This is how great playwrights are determined — from the individual choices of large numbers of people. Just like the social Web.

When schools want to teach plays, they're more likely to choose Shakespeare than some play that has been written by a company that writes plays for the education market. If they did, the play would suck, and students would have no interest in it. Budding enthusiasm for the theater and for literature would be strangled in its grave.

This is essentially what we do with teaching tools, and with the same result. Rather than choosing the tools that our culture has surfaced as superior, schools instead use some no-name hack to re-create the wheel, and always in a way that's inferior to the popular services.

Here are just a few of the best tools for learning from the social Web that schools either ignore or ban:

Twitter. One reason some kids fail is that they don't pay attention in class, and end up not knowing what's going on. Every instructor should at minimum maintain a Twitter feed where every trivial detail of classwork (assignments, quiz dates — everything) is posted. Questions asked by students should be reflected back by the teacher to the students. This Twitter feed would be a standing record of everything every student needs to know in order to succeed.

Best of all, it's available by phone or Web, and it also could serve as an alert system for late-breaking information (such as correcting an error on the syllabus — that sort of thing).

Here's more on why Twitter is such a wonderful teaching tool.

Wikipedia. Teachers assign group writing assignments all the time. Typically, either one or two students end up doing all the work, or the work is shared equally and the lazy students damage the grades of the hard-working ones. Either way, the teacher never knows who did what, and students walk away from the experience hating collaboration.

The best way mankind has ever devised for collaborative writing is the Wiki, as demonstrated by the Wikipedia.

Every teacher who assigns collaborative writing assignments should either use Wiki services online, or assign students to write or update an actual public Wikipedia entry.

Not only does the Wiki approach engage the human mind better, it also leaves a complete record of who contributed what to the project. It persists beyond the assignment, remaining available for all to see (rather than vanishing forever after being turned in). The excellent students can be excellent, the slackers can slack, and the teachers can grade each individual according to his or her actual contributions. Best of all, students learn how collaboration will really work once they get into the real world.

Facebook. Learning is, or should be, social and collaborative. Students are already on Facebook. Why not let them experience the power of Facebook for working toward a goal or cause, or learning in a collaborative environment in class-specific Facebook Groups or Causes?

These are just three examples of powerful, free, widely available tools that many students are already using (and will continue using using regardless) that can be leveraged for learning.

Rather than fearing and banning gadgets and the social Web — then duplicating part of their functionality with unusable proprietary solutions — educators need to get busy leveraging what's already out there. These are the tools our culture has selected as the very best, most engaging, most relevant, most powerful available to us. The students are already immersed in these technologies and services.

If schools are ignoring, rejecting or banning the world students live in now, and will live in for the rest of their lives, and trying to force-feed them educational technologies from another world, an inferior world, a world that is gone forever, they will fail -- and so will their students.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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