Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Learning through a Rear-View Mirror

"You mean I can get free wireless at school?"

These were the words that came shortly from the mouth of a student before a big smile crossed her face when I hooked up her Blackberry to our wi-fi network the other day. She had a Smartphone but she didn't have a data plan with it, so she was unable to use all of its' capabilities.  Until now.

It is an exciting time in education, particularly when it comes to technology.  Right now, there is an abundance of discussion and debate about the use of cellphones in schools.  Detractors have many arguments that range from a fear of inappropriate use, to students being distracted, to a decrease in writing skills, to impersonal communication, and even to excessive radiation.  Numerous schools and districts have chosen to ban these devices, with consequences that vary from confiscation of the phone to be picked up later at the office all the way to suspension and removal from school.  Even my own district, there is very little consistency from school to school:  there are some that permit their use and encourage students to learn with them, and there are others that do not allow cellphones to be visible at any time.

This scatter gun approach is reflected in this recent clip from CNN:

Patrick Larkin (great guy to follow on Twitter @bhsprincipal ), Principal of Burlington High School in Massachusetts has also chosen to meet this issue head on in a recent article in the Boston Globe. Patrick has been a trailblazer with the BHS 1:1 Laptop project for students, and is inspiring all of us to move into the 21st Century with our attitudes towards embracing technology and learning with students to become critical consumers of the staggering amount of information that is only a few key strokes away.  I think Patrick said it all in his final quote in the Globe article about when students graduate from his school: “if they only know people in Burlington, we didn’t do our job.’.  What a tremendous quote.

Whether it is laptops or smartphones or iPads or whatever device comes through the door in the future, schools need to be at the leading edge about how these technologies can help learning. There will always be the potential for them to be used 'for evil', but too often this 'evil' that we use to demonize these devices or the students that use them is created from a place of fear or ignorance.  We have a duty to learn about technology.  We talk about the need to prepare students for "the real world" (I loathe this term), and yet the technology and rich, interesting information that is availed to students in that "real world" is lost when they walk into many of the classrooms of today.  And while we may blame budgets and access issues for this inability to keep up with students, I believe that these can often be used as convenient scapegoats for the real reason that we have fallen behind.  Simply put, we have not made learning about technology a priority.

I am not going to point fingers; it really doesn't help anything and we can't really control what other people do.  But we can do a few simple things to help role model learning about technology in our schools, regardless of our position in the school.

  1. Make time.  I can't tell you how, but you can.  I have two children under the age of three, a wife who actually enjoys spending time with me, and a busy job like the rest of us, and I manage.  You just do.
  2. Get connected.  Get a Twitter account, get on Facebook, do something so that you (to steal from Patrick again) don't "only know people in Burlington".  The people that are out there to help and support you are endless and really cool.
  3. Try one new technology per week.  Just try it.  Spend 10 minutes trying Diigo.  LiveBinders.  Google Docs. Screenr.  Yoono.  Whatever.  You might use it, you might not, but at least if someone mentions it, you will have some idea what they are talking about.
  4. Don't make excuses why you aren't connected.  Sorry to say, no one really cares what the excuse is.  All they know is that you aren't, and that they now have to tolerate it.
  5. Share.  With your colleagues.  With your students.  With your PLN. They will think you are cool, and trying your best to stay current.
  6. Learn. From your colleagues.  From your students.  From your PLN.  They will think you are cool, and trying your best to stay current.
I will be the first to admit that our school does not have the financial capability to do what Patrick has done at Burlington High.  We simply do not have the cash.  However, what we do have is a student population (over 90%) who have cellphones, and a growing majority of them are Smartphones (particularly Blackberry--the little scamps love that BBM capability).  But some of them can't afford data plans, and the best thing that we could do is provide free wi-fi at our school, create policies in our district that embrace technology, and to begin to find ways to leverage the technology that kids have in their hands to help us in the classroom.

We need to stop playing catch up.  And while keeping up to the technology that our students use on a daily basis outside of school would be a welcome substitute to catching up, where we really need to be is on the leading edge so that students look forward to learning from us and with us rather than learning through a rear-view mirror.


  1. Cale - Thanks for the mention. It is the most exciting time to be an educator and if we are really going to fulfill our obligation to develop responsible citizens then we have to be showing our students how to use all of the tools at their disposal responsibly.

    If we do not, we are failing one of our primary responsibilities.

    Best of luck in your efforts in South Kamploops! I am sure that you have read some of the great stuff that Lisa Nielsen has written on cellphones in education

    Also the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (Sesame Street Workshop) put out a great report in 2009 entitled "Pockets of Potential" -

    Again, best wishes moving forward!

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