Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Please Turn on Your Cell Phone

(This essay was published by

It might surprise you to learn that students from New York City's most impoverished neighborhoods arrive at school each day with personal computers. The problem is that they deposit these powerful learning tools at the nearby bodega—where they're held like a coat check service for a dollar a day—because their personal computers are cell phones, and they are banned by New York City's school chancellor, Joel Klein. Many students will circumvent the ban by blind-texting from their backpacks or from the bathroom. But it's not that simple for those who have to pass through metal detectors and scanners to gain entry into the school building each day.

The rationale for the cell phone ban will not surprise you: critics claim they're distracting, can be used to cheat, and add no educational value. In a speech to the National Urban League, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "You come to school to learn, not to play games or send text messages." Apparently, his words were aimed at students and administrators alike; last month text-messaging service on all Department of Education issued devices was disabled. Only weeks earlier, US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, came out in support of cell phone use saying, "Finding ways to use cell phones to deliver lesson plans to students would improve education and meet federal guidelines."

Duncan's position is wise if only in that it acknowledges several undeniable facts: there are 4 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide today, compared to 1.6 billion internet users. In the US, 76% of students ages 12-18 have their own cell phone. Forward thinking educators recognize in these statistics a low-tech, low-cost solution to the ongoing technology problem in underserved schools where hardware is dysfunctional, wireless infrastructure is weak, and inadequate staffing fails to meet the demands of upkeep. Even a school like The Global Learning Collaborative, part of New York City's technology innovation initiative, NYC21C, will open its doors in September equipped with fewer than ten computers for an incoming class of 104 ninth-graders. The bottom line is cell phones are the most affordable, accessible way to provide access to technology and narrow the digital divide. And while smart phones and their education applications will undoubtedly transform learning as we know it, these are not the phones I am advocating for at present, because they are not the phones my students (or teachers) typically own. Like Liz Kolb, an expert in cell phones in learning, I believe we need to utilize the technology we have available to us.

But advocating for cell phone use in education is about more than cost, sustainability, or parity; it's about accessing points of entry. When it comes to technology integration, you need to meet students (and teachers) where they are. When you begin with a tool they already know and love, you're less likely to be met with the kind of resistance you might otherwise get to institutional hardware or software. For teachers, eliminate the fear factor and you've empowered a previously disenfranchised group of self-professed Luddites. For students, who treat the cell phone like an appendage, you're capitalizing on an existing passion for the technology.

Instructional goals are always our first and foremost concern; the technology, whatever its form, is a tool to assist us in meeting these goals. In the model of the Asia Society International Studies School Network, we prepare college-ready, globally competent students by requiring them to participate in learning engagements both within and beyond the classroom. Internships, service learning, foreign and domestic travel, and learning expeditions of all kinds develop students' methods of inquiry. What's especially exciting about integrating cell phone use into the curriculum is the opportunity to extend and better support the rich learning that's already happening outside of our classrooms (while also allowing us to work around the ban).

We design inquiry-based curricula that send students out into the world to investigate, collect, report, reflect, and engage. In doing so, students gain a sense of themselves as producers of knowledge. They become part of a continuous learning loop of inputs and outputs mediated by teacher and student alike. With basic mobile functions like voice, text, and camera coupled with web 2.0 technologies, students' knowledge can be shared locally and globally, all the while developing critical communication and collaboration skills. Audiocasting, photoblogging, polling, surveying, and language acquisition are just a few of the activities that utilize mobile devices for learning outcomes. These are context-specific opportunities for students to share with authentic and limitless audiences. And for teenagers, to share is to be—which lies at the heart of their love for the cell phone to begin with. As educators, we need to leverage this love to help students transform their communication networks into learning networks. There's a wealth of untapped learning potential in those seemingly inane text messages; Twitter is one powerful example. If we're successful in facilitating this transformation, then we have truly created a culture of life-long learners who make no distinction between formal and informal learning environments, who learn whenever and wherever they are curious.

Yes, there are challenges: lack of plan uniformity, small screens, and truncated communication styles are often pointed to. But we mustn't surrender to shortsighted interpretations of mobile devices in schools. We do need to establish norms of behavior, but let's move swiftly through discussions of acceptable use to the wider implications for learning and digital literacy. Mobile devices are, and will continue to be, an integral part of our students' lives. Let's aid their understanding of them as portals to learning.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Creating Future TEDsters

I returned to New York City, to my life post-TED, with the modest goal of creating future TEDsters. Inspired by the all-pervasive love for learning that brings together this exceptional group of thinkers and doers from across the disciplines, I left the conference committed to spreading the love. I'm a teacher, and at the end of the day my job is about inspiring the kind of curiosity that creates life-long learners.

TEDsters: a curious lot indeed. They'll rush the auditorium for optimal seating but (we presume) refrain from eating a single marshmallow if promised a second after a fifteen- minute wait. Their identification badges offer conversation starters because their job titles resist definition, residing instead at the borders between fields of play. They are genre-benders, inventors, innovators, and agents of change who come together to imagine possibilities – the operative word being together. It seems to me that in an effort to catch inspiration by the tail, they reach out to each other as colleagues and collaborators no matter how disparate their fields. And this is what contributes to the tremendous synergy described by conference attendees.

Ken Robinson was right when he said, "If you ask people about their education, they'll pin you to the wall." I was pinned numerous times by TEDsters eager to tell me about the schools they attended and the type of education they received – models of public and private, progressive and traditional. I listened intently sure that the secret formula for creating a TEDster would be revealed to me. And I listened with a sense of urgency because my future TEDsters are, at this very moment, sleeping in back row of Life Science class, skipping third period Algebra, and lighting fires in the second floor bathroom. They are students for whom school is devoid of relevance, assignments lack purpose, and grades fail to motivate. Students who slide by or fail out develop a preservational mode called I don't care – an especially effective meme prevalent in under-served urban schools.

Passive compliance is rewarded in the kind of drills and skills instruction driven by high stakes tests. My future TEDsters need instead to be active participants co-creating their learning experiences around global issues that lend real-world relevance to their schooling. Technology is a critical facet of this interconnectedness and should be recognized and embraced as the paradigm shifter that it is. Just as the TEDsters who twitter and live-blog during TED Talks use their devices to share and synthesize information, my kids' devices need to be first permitted in the classroom, and then leveraged for all they're worth. Until educators learn to use tech tools to adapt their methods and provide greater individualized instruction, future TEDsters will continue to languish in schools inadequate in meeting their needs.

Inspiring a love of learning in a kid who's learned to quell curiosity is the challenge and mission of my work building public schools in New York City. Three new additions to the Asia Society's International Study School Network will open their doors in September of 2009 with the goal of instituting an action-oriented curriculum like that described by TED speaker and Bennington College President, Liz Coleman. Student-led inquiry will drive instruction, service-learning and foreign travel will be key components of a student's education plan, and narrative assessments will provide ongoing feedback in developing graduate portfolios. We are re-adjusting our education model to address the needs of the 21rst century and the possibilities for transformation within it.

Creating future TEDsters should be our collective mission because the world needs the contribution of these diverse voices and viewpoints. Support them by answering Dave Eggers call to get involved in public education in any way you can. And believe, as I do, that the kid lighting fires in the bathroom will someday take the TED stage to ignite our imaginations.

Posted via email from jlamontagne's posterous

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I'll Be Your Bookends

I recently tweeted this update: “feeling a vast chasm between what my twitter community makes me feel is possible in education and…everyone else.” My twitter contacts reflect my participation in several professional learning communities (PLC) or personal learning networks (PLN): Classroom 2.0, Google Teacher Academy, Diigo, and ISSN for starters. If I may generalize, these are educators who actively engage in the online space and embrace the radical shift in teaching and learning that is upon us. Call it digital literacy, information technology, networked learning, new media literacy, or connectivism, they recognize it as an opportunity to transform the traditional student model from passive recipient of knowledge to active participant constructing knowledge. They experiment with technology tools in their classrooms, reinvent curricula, and re-envision the what and how of schooling. Their approach is decidedly student-centered and collaborative. Most notably, they dedicate large amounts of their personal time to their own professional development through participation in online networks. On any given day, logging into my twitter account connects me to a vast array of sites, blogs, articles and other resources, reviews of products and applications, specific advice, and general support.

In this community, I easily forget that fear is the order of the day – served up by the majority of administrators, teachers, and parents. A well-documented divide exists between the type of innovation policy-makers claim to support in the name of ‘21st century skills’ and the actual systems and practices of schools. Teachers who ‘get it’ move beyond the fear of trusting kids with laptops, but are still shackled by problems with access, bandwidth, and filters – which is especially discouraging considering that these are the eager few that understand the computer as something other than a word processor. The only stakeholders who aren’t afraid are the kids, because they’re poised to lead. How much longer can we ignore and invalidate the vast knowledge students possess and ask them to check it at the classroom door because our methods are too antiquated to make use of it?

As educators, we must re-adjust our models and methods to address the possibilities that the online space enables. You know the story: we teach the way we were taught. And since little of this technology has been in existence long enough to have raised teachers in its tenure, it challenges us with many unknowns. Change is scary stuff. And make no mistake, I’m a newbie myself. I have to take three deep breaths every time I open my Google Reader. Most of the tools I employ I’m probably using at half their capacity. It’s overwhelming. There are no edges online, and I’m a woman who likes her bookcase (arranged alphabetically by author’s last name, thank you very much) Recently, while reading Krauss & Boss on Reinventing Project-Based Learning, I felt a quiet calm pass over me when a reference was made to the NETS•S to be found in The Appendix. The Appendix. No hyperlink doorknobs opening passageways to lands unknown – disorienting me with altered layouts, changing fonts, and new color schemes. Instead, I settled back into the narrative confident in the knowledge that the standards would be delivered to me in exactly 141 pages. Ahhhhhhh. And 35 pages beyond that, I would experience the sublime sense of closure that comes with turning the last page of a book. Finitude.

So I understand the fear. I understand overwhelmed. But I also see the urgent need to respond to and capitalize on innovation or risk becoming obsolete. This is our opportunity to reinvent teaching and learning. My goal as a curriculum consultant and teacher educator is to meet teachers where they are. I’ve come to believe that encouraging participation in an online professional learning community like Twitter is one way to introduce a low-risk environment that exposes teachers and administrators to some of the key concepts and tools changing the learning landscape. It’s a point of departure from which I can begin facilitating conversations about innovation. In large part, my colleagues are open but tentative and in need of guidance, and I say, let me be your bookends. Social bookmarking can wait.