Saturday, October 24, 2009

liveblogging the Home Inc Conference: keynote speaker Alan November

From Alan November's website:

Alan November is an international leader in education technology. He began his career as an oceanography teacher and dorm counselor at an island reform school for boys in Boston Harbor. He has been director of an alternative high school, computer coordinator, technology consultant, and university lecturer. He has helped schools, governments and industry leaders improve the quality of education through technology.

His opener:
"I used to think I knew the truth. I don't know it anymore. So whatever I say is only good enough to criticize."

Here's why, according to Alan November, we've been able to spend over $10 billion on putting technology into schools over the last decade without making any gains on learning. He pulls much of his arguments from Shoshana Zuboff's 1989 book, The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power.

1. The real solution isn't bolting technology on top of what we used to do.
November pointed to Zuboff's notion of "automating," which is the process of using technology to automatically transfer information. "When you automate," November said, "at best, you only get incremental improvement. Not surprisingly to me, you often get a decline in quality.

According to November, connecting our classrooms to the Internet has lowered the quality of education int he U.S. Plagiarism has skyrocketed. "Everywhere I go," he said, "teachers complain about how students are taking the easiest route to learning" through copying and pasting and other plagiaristic approaches.

2. The real issue isn't technology; the real issue is control. We have teachers and administrators controlling learning and we need to ask how well (or poorly) that serves the needs of the learners.

Here are the solutions November offers:

Zuboff's notion of informating:
Giving people access to information they've never had before. "I've been to schools that are technology-rich and information-poor. Teachers don't have the right information at the right time to do the right job. Students don't have the right information at the right time to do the right job. Parents do not have the right information--ever, hardly."

Identify new opportunities for collaboration. This is, according to November, a mark that you're beginning to use technology well.
"The one-room schoolhouse was a great idea. We need to go back to that. The very structure of the school system is what's in the way. That structure is a control model."

If you do those two things well, November argued, then more and more people become self directed. They don't need an organization to tell them what to do. That's the ultimate skill, according to November.

"One of the most important questions we need to ask is: Who should own the learning?" Since technology is typically used to reinforce teacher control, we need to think of new strategies for using technology to shift control over learning toward learners and, November argues, parents. He argued that the best thing schools can do is to "build capacity in every family as centers of learning.

"But I can say this until I'm blue. i don't think anybody's going to do this--because it falls outside of the boundaries of the current collaboration people have."

Time? Money? Energy? "It's all red herrings," said November. "It's all about control!"

November says the biggest technology from his perspective that can help lead to a shift in control is Skype.

my thoughts on November's keynote:

It's refreshing to see his energy and enthusiasm about rethinking the use of technology in the classroom. I worry, though, that his stance on transferring agency to the family could just shift the control issues from the schools to the family structure. In brief, it's not just control that makes schools worrisome institutions; it's the colonizing effect of middle class values on members of non-dominant classes and ethnicities. Collaborate with families and you get the same old divide we've been seeing for much more than the last decade. Middle class kids will get inculcated with middle class values, which we know lead to success; lower class kids will learn a different set of values, thereby reifying the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Add to this the increasing influence of new media technologies--and the participation gap that Henry Jenkins has pointed to--and this concern becomes even more vital.

Control, after all, is much less simple (and simplistic) than we try to make it appear. Add to that the fact that institutional control has nuances that aren't easy to talk about in the keynote structure.

"If you don't have the right mission," November said, "it doesn't matter what technology you have." Yes, and we need to consider the broader (if tacit and unexplored) mission of the American education system.

1 comment:

Wonder Woman said...

Thanks for the blog post Jenna. The work of Alan also sounds like something Larry Cuban talks about in "Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom". There has to be much more than technology or new media to get students going. Achievement hasn't skyrocketed since the inception of teaching machines, so should we give credit to teachers and lack there of because, as the saying goes, "it is not the fault of the machine it is the user". This is a tough debate.
I think there must be a mission as November suggests. A mission that is consistent from top to bottom or bottom up. I hate to say it, but I think I am losing faith in education, just because it is so fragmented and there are discrepancies between access and knowledge of tools available.


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