I Predict That…

Humans have been projecting into the future forever. Prophecy, fortune-telling, divination, and the like have been staples of every society in human history. Whether it has been divine intervention or simple prognostication, we seem to be enamored with people who claim to have a prediction of future events. Contemporarily, much of what has been expected of our futures have been related to the role technology plays in society.

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Consider the innovations throughout recent history that have purported to ???revolutionize??? aspects of daily life. The automotive industry is ripe with examples of innovations that were way ahead of their time. Electric cars were made and sold as early as 1899 (PBS Nova, http://goo.gl/5Hh6), but never revolutionized automobiles, or travel. These technologies were ???contextually constrained???, as coined by Larry Cuban. If we look into why these innovative designs for automobiles failed to make a lasting impact on the industry and our travel, we see factors of preference (speed, reliability, price, weight, function, technology, etc.) dynamically altering the innovation???s ability to establish a foothold in the market. Today, these innovations are making a comeback due to the contextual changes in society that allows for them to exist and be somewhat popular.??

Similar statements of the purported impact of an innovation on a society have been made regarding learning and education. For instance, when motion pictures became mainstream through the 1920???s, documentaries were a fixture of the purposes for this new media. Moving images had a way of powerfully relating content to large audiences. Some claimed that these films would revolutionize education by removing the need for experts in the classrooms and thereby reducing the cost of education, allowing students to learn from a single, standard source. While making sense in theory, it never panned out (no pun intended) in practice. Again, a number of contextual factors disabled this innovation from revolutionizing a system of learning. The dynamic interaction of these forces continue to mar educational progress today.

This is not meant to state that educational film was indeed the best solution for streamlining education. Without it the system has been achieving some of the high marks that America has enjoyed intermittently since the 1920???s. Rather, it is meant to serve as an example that when experts insist a technology will transform education and learning, they have often been wrong. Extending this into the 21st century, we see this same pattern emerging as a significant abundance of technology in classrooms failing to result in a transformation of teaching and learning.

Over ten years ago, Larry Cuban and a team of ???investigators??? looked into this issue to identify the impact that computers have had, locally and nationally, on teaching and learning. The thought driving the study was that with the rapid and expensive increase in available technology, education would be transformed through it and would result in deeper learning and higher achievement. The unanticipated finding was that this was not the case. With too few exceptions, technology, even where it was most pervasive (intentional use of the adjective), sustained traditionally held teaching and learning practices.

The outcomes and predictions that Cuban identified (Oversold and Underused, 2000) were in bitter contrast with popular movements then and are even more contrasting today. However, the idea that entrenched historical and contextual factors work to inhibit that which has potential to severely alter education in America is a complex matter. Cuban dismisses technophobia and teacher resistance as reasons why technological innovations don???t result in what is expected. Are we just not convinced that it works? Is it a lack of perception? A shallow near-sightedness? Regardless, technology continues to pour into schools at rates presumably unimaginable to Cuban ten years ago. It is anticipated that spending on educational technologies exceed $65 billion this year (THE Journal, http://goo.gl/33KI). If no marked change in teaching and learning exists through increased resources, what is all this for?

Really, that???s the question that should drive all educational spending. Perhaps it does. When money is spent, don???t you always have a purpose? However, external pressures have led to increases in technology spending, which in turn have reduced the focus of purpose. Public officials, corporate executives, marketing agencies, parents, and media all share in influencing schools to increase spending on technology. Pressures stemming from competitive marketing across districts lead to increased budget items for technology (and better resources in general). These amount to technology being acquired and provided without purpose. Cuban asserted that when considering whether or not to provide technologies, policy makers should ask ???to what ends??????

There is a power in the purpose of a technology. I???ve often stated that it is not the tool that matters, but rather in the leveraging. What this means is that a tool???s effectiveness relies upon the human use of it. Despite our advancements in science technology depends upon the human. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke captivated audiences with 2001: A Space Odyssey. The theme that was challenged through the story was that of man???s battle with the technology he created. Similar themes have existed in contemporary film, such as iRobot, where assistive artificial intelligence determines that humans are endangering themselves, and must therefore be controlled, or the Terminator series, a war of man against machine after a defense system called SkyNet becomes self-aware.

Back on track, we can see that these fabrications exist only in imagination. Without the human the tool exists only as an artifact. Bringing this concept back into teaching and learning, technologies have powerful potential. But these can only be executed through the gatekeepers of the classroom: teachers. Reform movements of all kinds fail in large part due to lack of support or ???buy-in??? by these gatekeepers. This suggests that teachers have to be coerced, manipulated, bribed, or otherwise convinced that something is good for them. In a recent email conversation with Sean Nash, he said ???making change by telling folks what to do is rather old and busted.??? So true.

When people ask why is education policy at the forefront of national issues today, my response is typically the assertion that schools need to be told what to do, because for too long they have failed to do so on their own. Within a school, faculty often complain about increasing demands on their practice that is imposed by an administrator. Again, my response is that if they had been serving as a professional on their own, such top-down measures would not be needed. Regarding education and technology, a recent assertion from Will Richardson says it best: ???We should all be innovating, testing new models, failing, reflecting, trying anew, sharing the learning with others who are working on the edges in their own classrooms and projects.??? (http://goo.gl/7Si6) If we do not, we fail to progress.

This extends beyond the classroom, beyond the schools, and into communities. Clayton Christensen, in Disrupting Class (2008)??identified his predictions for the future role of technology in learning. The feature element of his work was to prove that ???head-on attacks almost never work.??? Rather the true power for educational change lies within those whose individual stake is at risk through disruptive innovations that challenge the status quo and provide reasonable alternatives to non-consumption:

???…when disruptive innovators begin forming user networks through which professionals and amateurs — students, parents, and teachers — circumvent the existing value chain and instead market their product directly to each other as described above, the balance of power in education will shift.??? (p. 142)

When schools fail to provide the learning that students demand, Christensen predicts, it will be a disruptive innovation, a user driven network, afforded by technology that will reform education. Is this already happening? Such networks already exist, such as the Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge (connect.downes.ca/index.html), which organizes Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). These inherently participatory networks are possibly at the forefront of what is yet to come.

Combining these somewhat disparate ideas offers a bit of a complexity. The true link between technology being ineffective in transforming education and technology being a driving force behind education is the idea of purpose. How can purpose be wrestled away from simply social, communicative, entertainment, and gaming devices back into a meaningful path of collective advancement? Can our youth learn to re-purpose innovations that they???ve already purposed for the aforementioned uses toward the ends of collaborative, collective advancement and problem-solving tools? Within these questions lay the foundation for prediction.

Crystal Castles, by Frogman

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