The Strength of Weak Ties

Everyone participates. Everyone contributes. Leveraging the power of digital networks to connect people, resources and ideas to drive creativity and innovation forward...and actually accomplish something!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The New Dinosaur

One of my favorite Sunday activities is to turn on Sunday Morning on CBS, grab a cup of coffee, sprawl out on my couch and read the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. Last Sunday’s front page headline definitely caught my interest: Aging Textbooks Fail Illinois Kids.

As you might expect from the headline, we’ve got some old textbooks in Illinois schools. I imagine everyone does. The article cites typical examples, including a history textbook that has Ronald Reagan as president, the Soviet Union as a U.S. rival, and a humorous mention of computers as an important advance. As expected, there was no mention of the Internet. The article gives a fair appraisal of issues surrounding textbooks, including escalating costs and lengthening replacement cycles, and also throws in a very nice visual of a textbook held together by duct tape.

But what caught my eye was this quote from a history teacher from Richards High School in Illinois:

"Can you imagine teaching a history class without textbooks?”

Absolutely, sure I can, and I would say it’s about time….

The teacher continues: "My students are hardworking, but I feel that their education needs are being neglected.” (This quote was presented in the article but taken from a philanthropic site where the teacher has submitted a request for textbooks).

Here’s more. “The kicker is the class is contemporary history—and we don’t even have the fall of the Soviet Union.”

So what….

I taught for 15 years and very rarely used my textbooks. That was just my style and I’m comfortable with a teacher expecting to have the best textbooks for his or her kids, as well as actually using them. But I’m troubled by the notion that we couldn't teach history or any other subject unless we had that five pound chunk of cellulose. The textbook can be a good book, but it’s not the only book, nor is it the only resource.

The article continues:

"Like blackboards and chalk, textbooks long have been an academic staple, and educators agree that they are here to stay even though laptop computers and electronic books are popular in some classrooms."

I don’t think that they are here to stay at all, in fact, I think textbooks are dinosaur-esqe. Big. Cumbersome. Inflexible. Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for 130 million years (well, not probably not in every state in the US). But you know what happened to the dinosaurs….

Here are some tough questions. Who is the textbook really for? The teacher or the student? And who would be more uncomfortable without having a textbook? The teacher, or the video game generation student who, as David Warlick says, wonders "how come my textbook won't play with me?" I think you know my answers.

But now back to history class. I think I could teach history with four Web sites:

History Matters
History and Social Studies from Edsitement
American Memory from the Library of Congress
The National Archives

Throw in my understanding of history and I’m good. That’s my textbook. I also reserve the right to have access to Google to find out about things that might not be in my digital textbook, just in case.

Just in case I need to find out about the fall of the Soviet Union.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Sights Seen

Here are a few interesting things I ran across last week that underscore the pervasive nature of new technologies:

1. The Pink Commuter Tie: from Thomas Pink, the tie has a place to insert an iPod behind the tie, which would be pretty sweet for administrative meetings.

2. The Chicago Cubs TV broadcasters even have a weekly vodcast and a podcast about the Cubs as if anyone really cared, but I suppose it would be useful for expatriate Cub fans like Will. I wonder if they will talk about the last time the Cubs won a World Series in 1908...?

3. Even the Los Angeles Fire Department has a Flickr site.

When will it end?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


I miss Will. My aggregator is now a more lonely place.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Telling the New Old Story

When I think of the effective application of technology to student learning, I think of two very basic things:

1) Does the use of the technology support a fundamental literacy that the educational institution believes in?

2) Does the use of that technology extend the learning to a new place, make the learning more effective, or support higher student achievement in the context of the fundamental literacy?

In my opinion, high achieving schools are grounded in fundamental core competencies. It’s that simple. In English, it’s about writing and literary analysis, in Science, it’s about inquiry through the scientific method, and in Math it’s about problem-solving. I could go on but you probably get the idea. It’s about fundamentals-not sexy, I know, but still critically important to effective schools and high-quality student learning. So, can the application of new technologies to these core understandings make learning more effective? Yes, but to do so, we have to believe that it is possible, even beneficial, to do old things in new ways.

I recently read Dean Shareski’s account of the technology integration projects in Saskatchewan and about how doing old things in new ways doesn’t move anyone forward. And I agree with Dean about the use of technology to create a poster. I’d personally like to outlaw posters, brochures, jello or sytrofoam cell cities, paper-mache exploding volcanoes and other types of ridiculous student products. However, I’m not willing to totally dismiss doing old things in new ways. Sometimes old is good, and sometimes old is entirely appropriate.

Consider all the new, hot learning technologies. Consider digital storytelling. That’s about writing and visual literacy. It’s about project management. We’ve been doing that kind of stuff in schools for years-but engaging students in the process of digital storytelling makes learning those fundamental core literacies more effective. By doing digital storytelling, we are asking students to do something old in a new way, and if you have teachers and kids that become good at it, it becomes an incredible learning experience. Why? Now the audience is global, the product is visual and can carry multiple levels of meaning, and the student develops a competitive voice in the process. Old literacies-you bet. A new way of achieving those, and in fact, a better way? Yes. And should we throw it out and not consider it because it falls into “doing old things in new ways?” Of course not!

What about Flickr? I’m 47 years old and I’ve got baby pictures. Taking pictures isn’t exactly new. But package those pictures in a new interface that promotes social interaction such sharing, discussion and the delivery of photostreams through RSS and now all of a sudden you have 118 million photos in slightly over two years in a single interface. Face it, Flickr is something old packaged in a new way.

Blogging? That’s about writing.
Podcasting? Recorded lectures, recorded discussions. Add some music.

Something new? Not really. Packaged and distributed in new ways? Yes. But these are effective because they apply something we’ve always done within a new context-and that’s about the ability of everyone to do it, everyone to have their say, and to engage in a conversation, potentially global in nature.

Douglas Rushkoff, in his book, Get Back in the Box, says this:

“The most innovative eras in our past, in fact, have come to be regarded as renaissances—literally, the “rebirth” of old ideas and values in a new context. Core values renewed from the inside out.”
I’m a big fan of doing old things in new ways. And that's my new, old story....