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.