An Invitation to Explore Digital Age Education with me in 2013

I stand for educational choice and possibility.  I am not referring to some programmatic use of the word choice (e.g. “school choice”).  I simply mean the ability for students (of all ages) and families (of all forms) to have educational choices available to them.  As I reflect upon my posts and research over the past year, this is a theme that returns. I have written about letter grades, the role of assessment, alternate schools, digital literacy, project-based learning, game-based learning, open learning, educational entrepreneurship, the challenges and opportunities in P-12 and higher education, online learning, changing roles of teachers, as well as a variety of reflections about life in the digital world. I often took a stand on each of these issues in 2012.  Most of the time, however, my position was not an absolute one.  It was an invitation (for me and others) to expand our concept of education in a way that welcomes and embraces many perspectives and approaches; to leave room for digital age learning environments and organizations that are diverse and distinctive.  I do not support cookie-cutter one-size-fits all perspectives or policies, educational initiatives that are about power and preservation more than service and students, and efforts that demand dominance of the scalable and efficient at the expense of more intimate and messy learning.  I want both, and then a third and fourth option as well.

This perspective drives much of my work and thinking.  It is for this reason that a review of my work (in this blog and elsewhere) may sometimes seem contradictory.  For example, you may witness me:

  1. embracing the power and potential of the MOOC while also championing the cause of the contemporary equivalent of the one-room schoolhouse;
  2. devoting research and effort into leveraging social media and then presenting on the need for digital detoxification and addressing information overload;
  3. championing for the importance of face-to-face learning while advocating for the potential, access and opportunity of emerging forms of online learning;
  4. teaching a course on blended learning and then giving a keynote on dis-integrating technology;
  5. advocating for the positive (and negative) contributions of for-profit educational efforts, private education, religious education, and public education (in various forms, including charter schools);
  6. teach about the significance of social learning while positing the importance of learning entirely alone;
  7. speaking openly about the affordances and limitations of self-directed as well as expert-directed learning;
  8. experimenting and expressing excitement about new and emerging educational technologies, while drawing attention to important concerns and critiques from our neo-luddite colleagues;
  9. promoting the potential of gamification and game-based learning while cautioning about the dangers and limitations of learning environments that are too focused upon extrinsic motivations and principles of behaviorism;
  10. advocating for the power of project-based learning as a tool for deep learning, while acknowledging the value of teaching that effectively builds a broad and cursory knowledge of a subject;
  11. lobbying for student choice and self-direction and then preaching about the necessity of accountability and the persistent importance of learning the “grammar” of a subject area;
  12. lamenting and seeking to discuss problems of grade inflation and low expectations while challenging the value of the current grading system, arguing for alternatives and a focus upon formative assessments;
  13. calling for educators to reconsider what is essential versus important or merely present, while pointing out the value of tradition;
  14. defending the value of the traditional liberal arts and then devoting hours to teaching and presenting on 21st century skills, interdisciplinary (even post-disciplinary) studies, digital literacies, and new literacies;
  15. speaking in favor of teaching disciplinary thinking, and then pointing out the limitations, transience  and short history of disciplines;
  16. highlighting the importance of the teacher and then un-bundling the role of the teacher or pointing out the fact that “leaner” is the only non-negotiable when it comes to learning;
  17. engaging in a variety of open learning initiatives while working inside an international higher education system (referring broadly to higher education and not specific Universities) that is, by current design, largely closed.

Education is important, but learning is essential. Knowing the difference between the two allows me to explore a wider array of possibilities.  It also biases me toward choice, possibility, innovation, exploration and experimentation as I consider education in the digital age.  If this resonates with you, then I invite you to join me as I continue to blog about it into 2013.

If you want to follow (or better yet join in) this work in 2013, please consider following my blog. You can do it on Twitter (@bdean1000), LinkedIn, by subscribing for email notifications about blog updates (top right), or by subscribing to the RSS feed (top right).

Five Technologies / Movements that Will Turn Textbooks into Antiques

Open Source Textbook Initiatives – Historically, textbooks have been the single largest line item on many school budgets when it comes to curriculum. We now see initiatives like Curriki and the California Open Source Textbook Initiative that might challenge this. Imagine a day when that line item is cut or reallocated toward people (curriculum specialists, instructional designers, etc.) and support technologies. With Open Source Textbook Initiatives as well as WikiTexts, we get a text that is continually being updated (not having to pay for a new version / edition every few years?); that can be easily customized to meet the needs of a given course, school, district; that can be used as a whole or in part; and that can be easily distributed in a variety of formats. Oh, and it many cases this option might be free or, if one needs a paper version, the cost of printing.

Electronic Reading Devices – The Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone, Netbooks, and a variety of emerging devices make it possible to deliver content, even entire textbooks and course readers electronically. These technologies are bridging the paper and electronic world of text and other media. While the book is an amazing technology, it has limitations that can be overcome by these new devices. With an iPhone or similar reader, I can be on a hike in the local forest and have immediate access to all of my texts; not to mention the ability to make use of the GPS capabilities, communication tools, and the ability to record or discuss my experiences (record notes, take and share pictures, watch video tutorials on how to identify poison ivy, email someone, talk to someone live or asynchronously, mark my current location on a map). Rather than walking through the woods with a backpack full of books (not that anyone would do this), I have my textbooks in my pocket (backpack optional, bug spray required…at least here in Wisconsin).

Online Social Networks and Mashup Technologies – I already mentioned wikis, but this deserves a separate category. In the first item, I was thinking more in terms of systematic organized projects. However, online communities and social networks make is easier for educators and course designers to learn about a variety of individual sources, organize them into themes/topics/units/chapters, link to them or embed them in a central course resource location, and bypass the use of a textbook altogether. If I am teaching Geography, I can use Google Earth and Google Maps, embed links to relevant sources right into my course blog/wiki/iGoogle page, create or borrow YouTube videos for mini-lectures, have students contribute their own resources… You get the idea. Before long, I have a customized, powerful, content-rich, multimedia textbook for my class. It really isn’t even a textbook is it? It is a multimediabook. Why would I even consider using a traditional textbook if I have the time and resources to do something like this? Maybe I just answered my own question. How many educators are willing to set aside the time and resources to do this? This does require creativity, the ability to analyze and synthesize information, and good instructional design sense. Take a look at the National Educational Technology Standards for Students and Teachers. These are the very skills that we are expecting of the current and upcoming generations of students, teachers, and administrators in the k-12 world. And they certainly seem to be abilities that we should expect from University professors who carry titles before and after their names that are supposedly connected to mastery or expertise in one or more disciplines.

Custom Texts / Readers – These have been around for years, especially in higher education. A professor creates a collection of articles, book chapters, and essays; and it is sold as an inexpensive text at the University or nearby bookstore. Now let’s add the digital element. Imagine a bookstore that will take a box of articles, books, essays, disks, files on flash drives, images, audio files, and video clips. They will take care of getting all of the necessary copyright permissions, then, based upon the instructions of the teacher or design team, they build an indexed electronic text that could be purchased online and made immediately available to students. If something changes mid-year, even mid-semester, the text can be updated with the new resources with minimal effort or cost. If a student has a learning disability, the content can be easily converted to a form that works best for that student. The instructor could even gain permission from students and include examples of exceptional student work in the next version of the reader. I may be stretching the boundaries of reality a bit, but imagine this. Imagine that people put their readers on the web for others to purchase…a ready-made option for the lazy (or busy) instructor. And those student examples that were included? What if the students received a small source of revenue out of the deal? Now that would be a brand new motivation for students to perform well on an assignment.

Hybrid Organic Textbooks (HOT) – We already have a decade of textbook companies building electronic versions of their books, rich with web-based resources, multimedia resources, pools of quiz questions, even full learning activities. In fact, some of these web-enhanced textbooks have become so full-featured that the textbook and web-based resources become the entire course (something that I lament…the last thing that we need is to further confuse the words “textbook” and “curriculum”. I’ll save that for another post). However, there is potential here. Imagine if textbook companies embraced the best of grass roots social media while also providing a core paper / electronic hybrid resource. This might include a paper-based text that could also be used on a mobile reader or device. At the same time, the publisher would have a web presence, adding new and quality resources to the text. Add to that a dynamic community and repository of client-produced lessons, resources, images, videos, discussions, keypal programs, scheduled guest presentations, and collaborative activities. Now we get true convergence of paper-based textbooks, web-based supplements, open source texts and wikis, electronic readers, and grassroots social networking. If publishers or a small group of motivated educators can catch this full vision, then everyone will get a chance to experience a powerful and positive disruption in k-12 education. Do I have any venture capitalists readings this post?