How Do We Capitalise On This?

I don't why I haven't subscribed to Mark Pesce earlier, considering Will Richardson has linked to many of his posts before in the past.  I've heard him speak too, at the event that featured Jimmy Wales. But this latest post (no short read by any stretch) is one of the best I've read this year. Mark has a great scope on the Australian educational scene plus a clear picture of the potential of social media.

For all of human history, until about three years ago, we were fundamentally constrained by our biology.  Now, with the rise of ‘social networks’ – which, I want to remind you, are not new in any way – we’ve accelerated our innate capabilities with the speed and power of computers, and amplified them with the reach of a global network which, in both Internet and mobile versions, touches nearly five billion people.  We can maintain some form of connection with several hundred – even thousands – of others.  This isn’t easy; it requires care and attention that could be directed to other, often more important things – such as driving a car, or listening to your partner at dinner, or doing your homework.  Nothing comes for free, and just because we can establish connections with thousands of others doesn’t mean we can manage those connections meaningfully.

This is the knife-edge of the present, because many of us – and certainly many of your students – are establishing far-flung networks of connections, but don’t wholly understand the cost/benefit relationship that comes with these networks.  We can give ourselves a pass on this – after all, this sort of thing simply wasn’t possible just a few years ago – but it’s a dilemma that will become a permanent fixture of 21st century life.  We want to be able to ‘multitask’, to do everything at once, with everyone, everywhere, but studies show that the divided mind is incapable of depth.  We want to be connected, but we don’t want to be interrupted.  We want to be the life of the party, but we also want time to think.

This is the world of 2010.  This is how children present themselves as they enter secondary school.  And it’s only going to become more connected.

So many teachers that I know are part of that connection as well. I had a carpark chat the other afternoon with one of my colleagues who reflected on how much having a Facebook account had improved her technology skills - from her typing skills to her photo sharing to her improved connections to her family and friends. But some many educators are still puzzled as to how all of this relates to learning. I'm not convinced that our students, the ones who are connected via phones, touches, MSN, are all that focussed on the learning potential either. They are just into the connection for their own purposes. As Pesce points out, we are still trying to figure out where all of this is leading and the impact it could have on one of society's most traditional institutions.

That’s what networks do – they find a way around any neat systems or hierarchies or rules that they have no use for.  If that network happens to belong to a fourteen year-old with poor study habits and an attitude problem, then the fact that the homework assignment wasn’t completed is suddenly no longer his problem.  It has been elevated.  It has burst out of the cozy confines of the teacher-student relationship, and overflowed into all of the other connections that student chooses to invoke: parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and so on.  It is as if every student walks into the classroom equipped with a panic button which can instantly bring the educational process to a screaming halt.  If that panic button is connected to a parent already neurotically hypersensitive to anything which could disrupt the careful cocooning of the child, the educational process will break down from stresses it was not designed to accept.

That is the world we have walked into.

Many of you have specific policies in your schools regarding the use of mobiles, protocols over where and how and when and why they can empower students.  Some of you even ban mobiles outright.  Let me be clear: all of your policies are for naught.  All of your protocols mean nothing.  Any child who tastes the empowerment that comes with the network will not ever willingly surrender that empowerment.  If you try to suppress it, you will simply ensure that it will show up somewhere else, in a form that you can not control.

Your only solution is to make peace with the network, to embrace it and the new power relationships which it engenders.  In order to do that we must have a good think about how the network can be used to tame the network, about how you can empower yourselves.

I think that you need to read the post in full to appreciate all of the ground Mark covers here - but he leads into the most enticing concept from my perspective, the potential for educators to connect around the National Curriculum via the internet. Enticing, but is it possible?

Giving kids laptops is interesting and important but entirely insufficient.  We must give kids a reason to connect, something beyond pure sociality (which is also important but outside of the task at hand).  We must give them a reason to connect with knowledge.

We’re very lucky, because just at this moment in time, the Commonwealth has gifted us with the best reason we’re ever likely to receive – the National Curriculum.  Now that every student, everywhere across Australia, is meant to be covering the same materials, we have every reason to connect together – student to student, teacher to teacher, school to school, state to state.  The National Curriculum is thought of as a mandate, but it’s really the architecture of a network.  It describes how we all should connect together around a body of knowledge.  If we know that we should be teaching calculus or Mandarin or the Eureka Stockade rebellion, we have an opportunity to connect together, pool our knowledge and our ignorance, and work together.  We can use our hyperconnectivity to hyperempower our ability to work toward understanding.

Again, this is not the way we’re used to working.

Most of the educators I know in my f2f world will balk and say, "That's out of my range of expertise." Most of the educators in my online network do this as a matter of course - but very few of them are in the K-12 Australian education system. They are connected. Pesce's enticing scenario dictates that teachers start to use each other as resources and collaborators, and build something of greater value than the outcomes listed in the new curriculum, a networked curriculum that continually evolves to suit the needs of our students.

That's potentially more valuable than any MySchool website.

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