In marking its 20th year, the Consortium for School Networking asked CoSN members—mostly education technology leaders—to “reimagine learning” at its annual conference last week.
Behind that call may be the threat that learning will reimagine itself, with or without them.
From an opening discussion that criticized teachers’ colleges, to closing presentations that suggested students will use mobile devices to explore their world regardless of whether it’s in a formal education setting, the message here March 6-7 appeared consistent: Teachers and students are already driving change, and it’s up to technology leaders to harness it for good.
In the opening address, author and professor Douglas Thomas spoke about design flaws he sees in the conventional school system. He said the system fails to use technology tools and remake teaching methods to properly equip students for a world where knowledge and skills are constantly changing.
But in a question-and-answer session, he challenged the assumption that teachers are a major impediment to such a shift, instead placing blame on those who set expectations for teachers—particularly, colleges of education.
“I think they are stuck in old models, and they’re the ones that are going to be doing the training,” said Mr. Thomas, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, at the University of Southern California, and co-author of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.
“They want to push back and say, ‘Well, there’s nothing new here,’ or, ‘If that’s the case, why is this happening?’ ” Mr. Thomas said.
After Mr. Thomas argued that many teachers are thirsting for new models of education, there was evidence throughout the conference hall to support his view.
For example, two presenters at a rotating demonstration session March 6 each reported significant teacher buy-in for the practice of using video recordings of lessons for professional development, a practice some had thought teachers would view warily.
In the 42,000-student Escambia County school district in the Florida panhandle, Director of Staff Development K.K. Owen said, the district’s video-review program has been embraced by the local teachers’ union, and about half a dozen veteran teachers unexpectedly joined the effort.
“It’s sort of gotten away from us a little bit,” said Ms. Owen, who had established the video-review program with only first-year teachers in mind. “It’s way bigger than we thought.”
Thomas Q. Adams, the former technology director at the Taft School, a 600-student boarding high school in Watertown, Conn., said that a third of the school’s 90-person faculty eventually signed on to a voluntary video lesson-evaluation program he launched.
Elsewhere, some conference goers suggested, educators may innovate unapologetically in ways that don’t necessarily best fit corporate visions.
Responding to Needs
For example, Opeyemi Bukola, a partner-relations representative with the Palo Alto, Calif.-based CK-12 Foundation, suggested that, although companies have begun creating interactive and dynamic digital textbooks, they still may not be responding to the need for flexibility and affordability.
Some critics have argued, for example, that Apple Inc.'s new foray into digital textbook publishing will actually incur more expense per student than the print equivalent.
By contrast, the CK-12 Foundation has as its mission publishing free, open-source textbooks that teachers can reproduce, alter, and even combine. And while the results may be more text-heavy than a typical commercial e-text presentation, Ms. Bukola suggested they may more accurately represent teacher needs.
“It’s about more than giving teachers the ability to create and customize,” she said. “It’s also the idea of making educational resources open. We are really, really committed to making this stuff for free, always.”
As of last week, the foundation boasted 92 foundation-published, downloadable textbooks, and nearly 16,000 “flex books,” created by site users. Ms. Bukola said the foundation’s only income outside of donations comes from selling some of its content to mobile-app makers and learning-management systems.
Also at the conference, Michael J. Copps, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, won CoSN’s Award for Excellence in Public Service based largely on his support for the federal E-rate program, but insisted the future of education technology does not lie with the $2.25 billion program that helps pay for school and library technology purchases.
“I’ve been in this town for over 40 years now,” Mr. Copps said, referring to Washington. “And I’ve always been convinced ... the real systemic change, the good stuff, comes from the ground up.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Education Week as CoSN Technology Leaders Urged to ‘Reimagine Learning’