To say that I-Law was transformative for me would be an understatement. Put aside the opportunity to sit in some of the most revered classrooms in the land at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Put aside the star power of the faculty. Focus only on the ideas and the debates and the discussions that while not specifically focused on education certainly articulated revolutionary ideas for teaching and learning in the digital age and you’ll understand how this weekend was one of the most profound learning experiences of my life.
It’s hard to know where to start, but since it’s so central to my concerns, let’s start with Weblogs. There was a lot, and I mean a lot, of conversations about the potentials of blogs and wikis and other such tools that “democratize” the learning experience. (At one point it was noted that Jefferson would have loved blogs, but Madison would have discouraged them.) In fact, if there was one almost mantra that came out of the weekend it was “Just be a blogger.”
Larry Lessig, when speaking about the importance of blogging, said:
“Reading is important; but writing is also very important. It forces people to express an argument; it pushes you, because you are speaking “in public” means you have to have a better argument – discourse is dialog, not shoutdowns…It’s not about quality; it’s about the act of writing – thinking about what you have to say is a worthwhile exercise – and saying it publicly reinforces not only the effort to make a good argument, but you also have planted a stake in the ground – you are more committed.” (Thanks to Frank Field for the transcription.)
And just to supplement that with a passage from his latest book Free Culture:
As more and more citizens express what they think, and defend it in writing, that will change the way people understand public issues. It is easy to be wrong and misguided in your head. It is harder when the product of your mind can be criticized by others. Of course, it is a rare human who admits that he has been persuaded that he is wrong. But it is even rarer for a human to ignore when he has been proven wrong. The writing of ideas, arguments, and criticism improves democracy. Today there are probably a couple of million blogs where such writing happens. When there are ten million, there will be something extraordinary to report.
Clearly, there is a huge opportunity for constructivist teaching and learning that can transform how students interact with their schools and the world. That sounds overstated, but I don’t think it is. Not that it’s going to be easy to bring about this change. As Lessig noted over and over, this is a very disruptive undertaking in terms of the potential effects not just on education but on our democracy. And blogs are a big part of that because, as I noted in an earlier post, they are a tool with which students can learn to create the truth. I love the idea that these tools allow for “the acculturation of what the truth is.” That’s so important, that concept that these truths can then become a part of the larger culture through publishing.
The idea that students can become active participants in their own learning is nothing new. But now, that participation has reach, and with it, legitimate and uncontrived purpose. As Terry so eloquently says, “The tools exist now for a revolution in education, one where we don’t just push out the metaphorical classroom walls into the real world, but one where we tear down the walls we have built ourselves and invite the world in.” Students as creators and collaborators not just passive consumers of curriculum. And teachers, now with the real opportunity to bring the world to the classroom, becoming true facilitators of experiences and conversations that create meaningful learning. I mean think of what it means in terms of the relevance of the current curricula when suddenly a whole range of new resources and tools are available to teachers. What does it mean for traditional texts when the body of knowledge on any particular subject can be updated and accessed AND contributed to on a daily basis? Amazing.
But there are barriers. The most acute to me right now parallels what Dan Gillmor has said about how webpublishing has changed his approach. “My readers know more than I do.” Well, our students know more than we do about the machinations of the Internet and technology in its various forms. As Lessig points out, this is becoming a mix and burn society, and the facility with which kids move from one application to the next is something that the vast majority of teachers cannot replicate. (Ironically, Dennis Jerz has a really interesting
post about just this point.) And that is an issue, especially when we are teaching students. Kids are constructing meaning by using preferred literacies that teachers don’t have, and are instead being taught in ways that “prepare them for our past instead of preparing them for their future,” a quote I heard a from local superintendent at a workshop last week. That’s not to say we should abandon text, but text is no longer the primary literacy that many students bring to the classroom. As evidence, just look at the many ways Lessig’s latest book has been “remixed” into different forms.
And right now, while kids by and large have the technology skills to create, they have very few models for appropriate uses for that creation. And that’s a huge problem. Agree with the laws or not, right now there are 60 million criminals walking around, teachers and students among them. While the legitimacy of the P2P copyright issue was a large chunk of the conversation this weekend, the point was not lost that this kind of loose disregard for law is not a great thing. (And while I won’t go too much into it here, the whole Free Culture concept was incredibly compelling and worth advocating in my opinion.) Right now, as Lessig said, people will say that most of what kids do in blogs and other things is illegal, and that’s a problem. Just as it’s a problem that the vast majority of teachers can’t speak convincingly on those issues, and the schools are doing little to help students frame their actions in any meaningful context.
Finally, there still exists a huge digital divide, not just in the states but around the world. I was struck by the number of people from other countries who attended, and their contribution to all of it was really enlightening. Much of this is still irrelevant and will continue to be until we really make a commitment to providing access and space and support for the kids who are not as lucky as others. It’s a huge issue.
Obviously, there is a huge media literacy component inherent in all of this that creates a excellent argument for a required course for every student in America. And the first people that should take it are teachers. I’ve been using that literacy word more and more lately because I do think much of this comes down to how quickly we can get away from the idea that it means simply reading and writing. There really is a technological literacy this should be required of both students and teachers. The problem is that these technologies are changing at such a rapid pace that it’s difficult to keep up with them.
There will be more that washes out from this weekend as this all settles in. And I know none of this may be particularly newsworthy for many. But things just seemed to crystallize for me in a number of ways that has made all of this work even more stimulating, more important, and more overwhelming. I met a ton of really good and interesting people who I hope will carry on these conversations. I sincerely wish that Harvard would put on a similar gathering called “I-Education” where we could talk more specifically about the implications of all of this for education. And I’m interested in what others think the best approaches might be.