How the One to One Device Debates Become Distractions and Disappointments

Are you a PC or a Mac person? Are you a champion for Chromebooks, iPads, Mac laptops, or maybe Surface Book Pros for each student? Do you think we should go for a standard device for all students, or go the BYOD approach, leaving the final device choice to students and families? These debates and conversations continue and, at some level, they are necessary. At the same time, I see some evidence that we are missing the point. Yes, connected learning benefits from each student having access to a device for creating, connecting, collaborating, organizing, and more. Yet, these frequent emphases upon which device persist because we too often start by focusing upon the technology and not what is most important.

I feel like I am stepping back in time by writing this because I warned about this same problem back in the late 1990s and then again in the early 2000s. I pointed out the long history of people focusing upon the hardware at the expense of what actually makes a difference in education. Curriculum makes a difference. The type of learning community and context that we nurture makes a difference. The ways in which we empower or dis-empower students makes a difference. Our philosophy of education makes a difference. Our vision for teaching and learning makes a difference. Learning goals make a difference. If anyone is making a decision about devices without first building a clear vision and deep understanding of these matters, it risks becoming both a distraction and a disappointment.

When educators and school leaders start dismissing such advice as too theoretical or philosophical, and not practical enough, we have a problem. This is a warning that something far more important than devices is not right. These other matters are what make learning communities rich, rewarding, and valued places.

I see this too often. After a presentation people ask me about my opinion on one device type over another, and I explain that it does not matter what I think. What matters is their mission, vision, values and goals. Do not buy anything until they are clear on those matters. I mean really clear, not just writing it on a dust-covered document for accreditation visits or out of a sense of obligation. Know who you are. Know why you are. Know the shared valued of the community. Know what the community aspires to learn. Figure those things out.

Then you can ask the device question, but with an important change. Given who we are, why we are, what we want to learn, and who we want to become, what tools and resources will help us get there? That is the starting point of exploring devices.

Even after the good, hard, and important teaching and learning work, some are going to be tempted to ignore the whole conversation and revert back to price and preferences. What is the best price or bargain? What do I like or prefer? Resist that temptation and drive the conversation and planning back to what matters. Be relentless about this and involve the entire community in the decision. Do not be do quick to act. Once you come to a consensus, then you can pick your device, and everyone will be better off.

Democratizing Dreams: #OpenBadges That Help Construct Buildings and Tell Stories

As part of my ongoing advocacy (yes, a University professor just used that word) for the democratizing of education and credentialing, I often return to the power of narrative and equipping people to tell their stories in the digital world. This storytelling is an important part of building connections, obtaining recognition, and often gaining or creating new opportunities. I was reminded of this in a recent interview with Sheryl Grant (you can listen to the full interview on this episode of the MoonshotEdu Show). When I asked Sheryl to talk about a moonshot that she has in the world of badges and credentials, she also talked about this idea. She envisions a world where people have some agency and control over the story that other hear about then in the digital world.

What do badges have to do with this?

I will use two different metaphors to answer this question. One is the building block metaphor. We combine blocks to create different structures. You can use the same set of blocks to build a tower, a castle, a barn, a high-rise building, or maybe even a spaceship. It it just a matter of how you put them together. Of course, certain blocks are more useful for some purposes than others, but you get the idea that the structure is more than a simple quantitative sum of its parts. When you build a structure with building blocks, you are drawing from the traits of different blocks to build something distinct, something that can serve many purposes.

If I build a castle with my blocks and you build a barn, would you say that one of us must be wrong? Or is it possible to accept that both are valid constructs that blend our unique vision with what might be a very similar or identical set of blocks. The same thing can be true about credentials. Individual credentials are building blocks that we can combine with our distinct and sometimes unique vision for how to represent ourselves to the world.

Not everyone is thinking about badges in this way, and that is okay. Some are thinking about badges as a way to standardize competence, or perhaps as a means of connecting people and employers on the basis of more granular skills, competencies, and accomplishments. This is incredibly promising. We can take advantage of such granular connections to help people be seen and to make meaningful connections with other people and organizations. At the same time, an individual credential is often just a building block. In general, badges have not matured to the point where people are learning how to construct their personal structures with badges.

Now let’s go to the second metaphor, namely badges as sentences, paragraphs or sometimes even chapters in the story or stories that you want to tell. If you are trying to build connections, forge new partnerships, and seek new opportunities, what story will you tell about yourself to do so? I hope that it is an honest and candid story, as the other kind might offer short-term benefits, but they are almost always unpleasant in the long-term. Apart from that, most of us have many stories to tell about ourselves, and badges can become sentences that help us craft and tell those stories, just as we use older credentials to tell our stories. Each credential (be it a traditional diploma, a certificate, a badge, or something else) brings with it meaning. As with any story, different people will extract meaning in a different way, but good storytellers learn how to make use of words, sentences, and paragraphs to help a target audience experience or learn something new.

Notice how my point with both metaphors is about empowering people, and not just turning them into a collection of discrete data points. As I already noted, data points are powerful and useful as well, but I do not want to lose site of this other important aspect. Badges can become something that allows us to tell our stories, but to do it in a way where people might resonate. At the very same time as we are blending badges and other artifacts to tell stories, we can combine it with increasingly robust data analysis tools that connect us with others on the basis of part or all of a story.

The alternative is that others claim the right to own and tell our stories to the world. This is something that struck me in that recent interview with Sheryl Grant, something that adds an even greater sense of urgency to spark this important conversation. Right now, much of our monetary value in online spaces comes from companies selling pieces of our experience and interest to others. While I expect that to continue and expand, I do not want to see that become the primary value of badges. I also want to see them as new and wonderful ways for each of us to have ownership and agency when it comes to building connections, representing ourselves, and cultivating positive reputations.

5 Steps to Closing Skills Gaps in the Modern Workforce

Do we have a skills gap today? Many sources suggest that we do. Small and large businesses are not finding the right people to achieve their current business goals, or to expand. At the same point, plenty of people are not finding good fits for themselves in the workplace. We have this because our system encourages it, but there are alternatives. As a creative exercise to demonstrate one possible way forward, here is a five-step approach to closing the skills gap, increasing access and opportunity, and celebrating the love of learning at the same time.

Stop using college degrees as a prerequisite and measure of competence. Focus on competence and experience over credentials.

For now, we can leave out the healthcare workers, engineers, and others in areas that genuinely demand highly specialized skills and precision that one develops over years of careful study and practice (although I’m not convinced that we should leave many of them out of this). Let us focus upon the many other positions that do not demand such a learning pathway. For the rest, stop requiring a college degree to apply. Instead, articulate clearly what knowledge, skills, and abilities are required and what evidence a company is willing to consider from applicants. Again, do not jump to framed pieces of paper. Focus instead upon evidence of competence. Or, if employers are willing to provide on-the-job training, articulate aptitude and traits necessary for people to benefit from that training and reach an adequate level of competence. If you do not know how to do this, there are plenty of people who can help. I might even assist if you have a compelling enough mission and vision for your business.

Of course, the problem is that I can make a suggestion like this, but the system will not change overnight. In the beginning, we will still find that many of our qualified candidates will be college graduates. Yet, if we stop focusing on the degree in our hiring and instead open ourselves up to anyone who can truly demonstrate that they have what it takes, then we are ready for the next steps.

The data analysis revolution is going to be as significant as the Internet revolution for how we think about life and work. If we do not address the gateway system in this first step, our use of data may well drive us to greater gaps and inequities. If we get informed about the benefits of a pathway over gateway approach, then our use of data at least has the potential for more humane and positive outcomes.

Start collaborating upon a college of massive “dating service” -like databases that document accomplishments, completed projects, documented experience, knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits.

Imagine the algorithmic power of modern dating services applied to online platforms that allow people to document their abilities and experiences, as well as to build connections with people and organizations who value those traits. Some say that we already have that in platforms like LinkedIn, but LinkedIn is not thought of in that way now. It is lite on helping people provide evidence and documentation of abilities, and it contains even less when it comes to offering a leading algorithmic engine that can do what I am suggesting here. Either LinkedIn needs to adjust or the employers who are leaning on LinkedIn need to be ready for that startup that begins to quickly take away market share from LinkedIn in the next 2-5 years (I might even want to help someone start that).

In fact, even when LinkedIn develops further into this area, it is good for us to have more than one major player. It is probably going to be most effective if we have ten to twenty primary providers, along with many other niche providers for specific fields. Yet, the niche providers can connect with these larger providers if we are willing to agree upon some standards and some sort of open infrastructure like what we see with open badges (especially the next generation of them).

Create incentives for diverse and world-class education and training of all kinds, and connect them to these databases mentioned in step two.

We already have a growing and massive array of training and educational opportunities today. We want to feed and nurture the growth of these. This include formal higher education institution, what I call outsider higher education programming, continuing education, informal and self-organized learning pathways, peer-led learning cooperatives, apprenticeship programs, internships programs, boot camps, communities of practice, competitions, coaching programs, and the many other current and emerging learning experiences that document what participants learn or achieve.

Note that the more creative and diverse the modes of learning, the better. We want intensive coaching, mentoring, hands on experiences, more traditional classroom training, seminars, intensives, slow learning extended over years, online, blended, and more. These all will have ways to document what is learned and achieved (without getting too sterile and stringent), but they will feed data into these step two systems (if and when people want to share their data).

We do not need to centralize too much, but our documentation of achievement and learning must have enough in common, and being in a format capable of connecting with those platforms mentioned in step two.

Make self-directed learning and agency a primary focus in elementary and secondary education.

I am not suggesting that we need to throw out the current system, but I am suggesting that there should be a substantive strand in all of elementary and secondary education that introduces people to the idea of building a personal learning network, setting learning goals and achieving them, benefiting from connected learning, and tapping into the ecosystem that is emerging as a result of steps one through three.

Reward and support the liberal arts, the examined life, and the value of rich and substantive learning for its own sake.

This does not sound like an actionable step, but I am talking about efforts equal the Carnegie investment in public libraries and many other past efforts that focused upon celebrating the love of learning, and an appreciation of truth, beauty and goodness. Think of Mortimer Adler’s investment in education that extended beyond college. He tried to rescue philosophy from the protected halls of University philosophy departments and invite the world into the discussion.Many others have done as much, but with what I am suggesting in steps one through four, this fifth step is an important part of preventing all the others from turning into a workforce factory of some sort. Learning is about more than getting jobs. It enriches lives, families, and communities. We are wise to invest in these less quantified learning spaces in formal institutions and in our communities. Not everyone will seek these out, but we can invest in growing and nurturing them.

These five steps will help close the skills gap. They will also set us up for the emerging challenges and opportunities of a connected world. Will we go this direction? It is unlikely to unfold this way without strategic leadership and investments from private and public entities. It will need the support of friendly policies, business and community leaders who buy into this and are willing to prioritize their business success over their assumptions and preconceived notations about education, entrepreneurs (and investors) who are willing to focus upon these needs, and educational leaders who are willing to champion the important formative education suggested in this plan. Do all of this and we will see a significant closing of the skills gap while preparing for some even larger workplace challenges in the near future.

On the Role of the Classics in a Digital Age Education

I recently spent the day in Concord, Massachusetts. We visited Walden Pond, Old North Bridge, The Old Manse, The Wayside, as well as Louisa May Alcott’s house. American intellectual history is one of my deep and persistent interests. I am inspired and challenged by reading great American works that fueled movements and moved people to action. As such, visiting physical spaces where Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Alcott wrote undeniable American classics triggered musing about their ideas as well.

In one location, I came across a quote by Thoreau about the role of the classics in one’s reading. I included an extended version of that quote below.

“Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.

Sometimes people mistake me as a champion of progressive education, but if you pay close attention to the “why” behind what I write, you are likely to see some significant differences. For example, even as I am a champion for nurturing agency, project-based learning, and learning by experience; much of what led me to value such practices did not come from progressive influences. It actually comes from a study of how people learned throughout history. I study and learn from education in Greek and Roman eras. I look at education in the rabbinic tradition. I learn from the modes of learning in the early Christian church, the simulation learning in Sparta, the apprenticeship models that span Western Europe, Native American education, African education in the context of community life as well as myriad of experiential learning also influence my thinking.

I look around the world and find that there are rich and fascinating lessons that we can learn from diverse education practices throughout history. At the same time, I am not neutral. Each practice in education has benefits and limitations, it amplifies certain beliefs and values over others. I proudly champion those approaches to education that best align with my core convictions, even as others champion very different approaches the basis of their beliefs and convictions.

For me, even amid my argument that we consider how to best prepare people to thrive and survive in this connected age, I value classic literature from around the world. Classics persist over time. They outlive eras, ages, and sometimes even civilizations. They represent ideas that influenced countless people and nations. Sometimes they brought about war, other times peace, still other times they brought about both. They help people imagine new possibilities, escape the demons and blind spots of a generation, influence people’s sense of right and wrong, and move people to action. They added depth and nuance to our thinking about the life, death, peace, war, love, humanity, culture, purpose, the sacred, and more.

In many circles, it is hard to speak about the value of the classics without a question of bias. Whose classics? This is a good and important question. I value classics from around the world, even as I am certainly more well read in western classics. Others point out that important voices of the past were suppressed, never reaching the category of classic. This too is a valid point, and worthy of our exploration and consideration. Yet, we do not throw out a great meal because other equally good foods were excluded from the table. We can still learn about those other foods and appreciate them in a future meal.

Still others argue that reading is passe. We are in a digital age and books are fading. There is some evidence to suggest as much. Media in many forms occupies people’s time more than at any time in history. There many be a time when books are a rarity, but we are not there yet.