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Crafting a Vision for Empowered Learning and Teaching: Beyond the $1,000 Pencil

Alan November

High-speed networks, digital devices, and creative applications are revolutionizing education. Students can be empowered to take their learning to deeper and deeper levels while developing essential skills that will prepare them for success in the 21st century.

For example, our once-isolated classrooms now can connect students to authentic audiences around the world, leading to a deeper understanding of global issues. Powerful yet easy-to-use software tools can empower educators and students alike to create top-quality digital tutorials to contribute and build much more support for all learners. Our students now have access to primary source materials that would have been beyond the imagination (and limited education budgets) without high-speed networks. We can now support our special education students and have them collaborate where they were once isolated. Virtual reality tools allow us to explore objects where a human being could never physically visit, such as the sun or the center of a nucleus. We have technologies that can make abstract concepts accessible and exciting.

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Without question, there is a “wow factor” across all disciplines and grade levels. Every day brings the potential for new opportunity to expand and deepen the boundaries of learning. However, adding technology to our campuses does not automatically contribute to improved learning. There is the problem of what we could label, “the $1,000 pencil applying new tools to do old work.” Research shows that unless we redefine the work we will not be tapping the full power of our emerging technologies. While we must support our educators to learn new tools, the truly creative challenge is to redesign the work and the roles of the learner and educator to tap the potential of our new technologies.

We need leaders who understand how to manage the opportunities of this historic transition. While it is not uncommon to find amazing pioneering educators on any one campus, it is more difficult to find whole campuses that have scaled the innovative practice across their entire faculty. Leadership will make the difference to the rate and distribution of these powerful innovations.

As exciting as these changes are, it is only normal that transformative change will bring some level of resistance from both faculty and students who are used to a traditional design of teaching and learning. One of the most important leadership skills moving forward is to help colleagues manage this shift.

Transforming our education system is not so much an intellectual/intelligence problem as it is an emotional one. For example, many of these emerging technologies represent a shift of control from the educator to the learner. It is not unusual for very gifted educators to feel a sense of professional loss when a new tool, such as the knowledge engine WolframAlpha, allows students to correct their own homework in math, physics, and chemistry and even explore the design of more difficult problems than assigned.

From a management perspective, it is much easier simply to add technology to do exactly what has been done before—the same curriculum, same assessments, same schedule, same assignments—than to fundamentally redesign the work and the culture of learning. While there are benefits to automating certain aspects of teaching and learning, we will need leaders who can create professional cultures of innovation where faculty members feel supported in fundamentally redesigning the work to make it more rigorous, creative, and motivating.

We are in a period of constant innovation that will take decades to absorb. What we need to do is correctly define the opportunity, craft a powerful vision, and develop implementation strategies that scale the improvement in increased quality.

Defining the Opportunity

In defining the problem that technology brings to learning, there are two broad decision trees for leaders:

What are we currently doing within our curriculum that we could be doing better by using technology?

What have we never done before that technology uniquely enables to enhance teaching and learning?

The first decision tree does not require changes to what is learned, but it might change how you approach learning. An example would be the difference between how my two children learned in college. My son, Dan, was able to receive much more support because he could watch lecture videos over and over again, and because he had a social network of fellow students to lean on—and these supports allowed him to learn the same material much more effectively. My daughter didn’t receive the same support, only graduating a few years earlier.

The second decision tree involves redesigning learning to take advantage of design concepts our world of paper could not provide. For example, in Bergen, Norway middle schools, students have a much deeper sense of global empathy. The Norwegian teacher is a pioneer in connecting students to journalists, police, prisoners, and native people around the world. Teacher and students fully appreciate that there is no way that a textbook or teacher designed videos could ever come close to providing the level of depth of critical thinking enabled by global communication. As is too often the norm, this classroom also happens to be the only one in the school where students can gain a sense of developing the critical skill of developing a line of reasoning based on authentic conversations. Scaling this successful innovation is the job of the leader.

Both decision trees can lead to improved learning. Since adding technology to existing work is fairly straightforward, this article will focus on the definition of transformation. The questions that leaders should ask themselves include:

Are we adding unique value to what we are doing as a school or district when using technology?

How can we ensure these changes are scaled throughout the organization?

Crafting A New Vision: ‘Transformational Six’

To support leaders to craft a new vision of teaching and learning, I have put together a framework of six key questions that education leaders can use to assess whether technology has brought transformative value to instruction. If you can answer “yes” to any of these six questions, then you’re on the right track:

Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?

Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?

Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?

Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?

Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?

Do students own their learning?

Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?

Before the Internet, our students accessed sources for learning that had been preselected by a teacher or a librarian. Clearly, the Internet has removed any pretense of control of information. Now that students are choosing sources that have often never been professionally reviewed, it is absolutely vital that we prepare students to make thoughtful decisions about how to select high-quality sources.

We must recognize that with fundamental change there can be unintended consequences. Perhaps our weakest response to the web replacing our libraries as the “go to” source of information for our students, is their lack of preparation to understand how to verify the value of their search results. For example, if you have ever watched a student do research online, you probably noticed that they entered the exact title of their homework assignment as their search query—and then they only looked at the first page of results. Critical thinking and careful evaluation of the reliability of sources can be sorely lacking. Too many of our students believe they know how to use Google effectively. When was the last time any student asked a teacher for help in designing a search? Perhaps more importantly, when was the last time a teacher offered to help? If our students fail at step one—selecting the right information—then they will automatically fail at critical analysis.

We cannot abrogate our responsibility to prepare our students to be critical thinkers in the Internet Age. We need to teach our students how search engines work and how to design a powerful (and effective) query.

Here’s an example: Suppose the assignment is to write an analysis of the Iranian Hostage

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