The video below is a screencast showing how to make a character read a blog post just like I’m doing now.
Today’s world is a rapidly changing, increasingly complex and increasingly specialised place in which the shelf-life of knowledge is shorter than it has ever been before. It is no longer enough for students to master the 3Rs. They must also master the 4Cs – creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. They must build core competencies in digital literacies and problem solving. They must learn to master content while producing, synthesizing and evaluating large amounts of information across a variety of subjects and sources. They must demonstrate civic responsibility and an understanding and respect for diverse cultures. Above all, they must learn how to learn. Education is lifelong and is becoming increasingly learner-driven and self-managed.
The Internet helps students learn in a global classroom, not just within four walls. It undermines the old top-down factory model of learning. It facilitates our desires to create, to participate and to be heard. Loosely governed and highly self-directed teaching and learning activity will occur both within and beyond the control of formal institutions resulting in knowledge becoming accessible on a scale never seen before. Wikipedia provides a foretaste of this coming transformation.
Today’s students are likely to have several careers in their lifetime. Strong critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills will be essential for their success in a rapidly changing, interconnected, and complex world.
As the amount of information increases exponentially, our education system can no longer focus primarily on memorizing a core body of knowledge. The ever expanding content of human knowledge is too vast for any curriculum to contain. Instead we must develop skills in core concepts, facilitate communication and collaboration, and encourage adaptability, non-routine problem solving, self management and systems-thinking. Students must learn to understand both the forest (the system) and the trees (the constituent bits). This can be facilitated through modern approaches to learning including project and inquiry based techniques that foster the capacity to see both the big picture and the small detail.
Powerful learning of this nature needs teachers who draw on advances in cognitive science and collaborate in organized teams both offline and online.
The Internet enables instant global communication, easily created and shared digital content, unrivalled access to information, and constant social interaction. It plays a key role in the new education system which, mirroring the 21st century workplace, encourages students to use diverse information sources and to work in teams to accomplish more than what any one individual working alone can hope to achieve. Educators must leverage technology to create engaging and personalised learning environments that meet the educational needs of today’s generation.
Schools face a difficult challenge keeping pace with our rapidly changing world. To stay relevant, they must rise to that challenge. Modern learning requires modern methods and modern tools.
Modern tools for modern schools, circa 1850. (Image by catspyjamasnz via Flickr)
What will ‘Education’ become within the lifetimes of the students we teach today?
Given the exponential speed of technological progress, there’s little doubt that learning will be radically different from what it is today.
I expect, before the end of their lives, today’s students will see machines with human-level intelligence. They will have the world’s information easily accessible 24/7/365. Technology will augment their bodies, cure their illnesses and enhance their perceptions. They will use machines that pass the ‘Turing test’, and their human-machine interactions will use speech, natural language and other forms of input we’ve not yet imagined. They will be able to communicate with anyone, regardless of their birth language because translation will be seamless and immediate. They will have vast personal networks with which they can communicate and collaborate in ways we’ve not dreamed of. Schools, if they exist, will be unrecognisable to us. There will be no teachers, only lead learners and learning facilitators. Some of these will be human. Education will be part of life, not something you do between the ages of 5 and 18.
Societal values will evolve rapidly. Things we barely even notice ourselves doing today will horrify the sensibilities of late 21st century society. Students leaving primary school will have a knowledge of the world that exceeds today’s university graduates. Citizens of the late 21st century will laugh at our ignorance!
Living to 100 will be commonplace. The world’s environment will finally, and only just in time, be receiving the care and remedial attention it so desperately needs. The world will be a better and more educated place.
Then again, I could be wrong.
Does technology hinder or help learners? It all depends. Handled poorly, it’s a disaster! Handled well, it’s magic!
Here’s how technology can help weave the magic required to foster five qualities possessed by highly effective learners.
Great learners are prepared to acknowledge their mistakes and to acknowledge what they don’t know. They acknowledge their inconsistencies when they discover them or have them pointed out to them. They don’t put borders around ‘no go zones’ immune from critical self-examination – even when this involves questioning beliefs that are precious to them. Great learners also share what they know and what they believe. They respond to others with honesty. They challenge, hopefully with tact, the mistakes of others and, in doing so, will sometimes learn that those ‘mistakes’ are not mistakes at all. The web provides a rich environment for enquiry and communication. It’s also a place where we go ‘on the record’ – mistakes included. That makes honesty the prudent policy.
This quality is close to honesty, but involves a conscious recognition that the world is a place where surprising and counterintuitive things are discovered all the time. Great learners expect surprises. Exploring the web with an open mind encourages discovery and reduces the risk of confirmation bias. Those who study US Politics with an open mind visit both Huffington Post AND Fox News. Great learners want to hear both sides, and there’s no better place to find different views than the web.
Great learners are curious. Sometimes they find themselves on the web at 1am in the morning examining the finer details of a topic they’ve never explored before. Breeding chickens? Nuclear physics? Who knows? The web has a way of leading them down strange and unplanned paths towards discovery. It’s wonderful, it’s tempting and sometimes it’s almost irresistible.
Focus is the antidote needed to keep curiosity in check and on track. It’s possessed by all great learners, but it’s not something the open web encourages. Distraction is the bane of many connected learners. But great learners use mindfulness, self-discipline and technology itself to tame the distractions. They use things like the Ten Minute Hack to get started and the Pomodoro Technique to keep going. They use focused virtual desktops on Windows or spaces on OSX to remove distracting temptations. They work full screen in browsers and use tools like Stay Focused in Chrome. But most of all they work without allowing distractions to divert them from what’s important. Then they treat themselves to some free-roaming exploration when the important tasks are done.
Great learners are creative. They use their imagination to come up with original ideas and produce things that others find appealing or informative. The explosion of web-apps makes creativity online easier than ever before. The list of creative projects is endless – writing, music, art, video, presentations etc. A scan of the Chrome Webstore demonstrates the extraordinary range of creative possibilities made possible by online technology.
Great learners benefit greatly from technology.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), writing on power and punishment, described how we moved from a world in which our freedoms were limited through the exercise of external power to one where our freedoms are limited through the exercise of our own self-control. This is even more true today of our behaviour online. Tech savvy users are careful not to put anything into an email or an online post that could reflect badly on them in the future. The fear of oversight and the fear of the documentation of any misdeed controls our behaviour. We are not as free as we think we are.
On social networks there are many invitations to support political causes – ‘refugees’ vs ‘border protection’, ‘social welfare’ vs ‘economic self-responsibility’ etc. Some people are afraid to express their views on topical issues like these. Others express their views freely, sometimes to their cost. Most of us self-regulate because we fear the exercise of power against us. Civil authorities and future employers may respond unfavourably to some free expression online. The possibility that our views may be observed by others controls us.
In important respects our behaviour is more effectively controlled today than ever before. That has both positive and negative consequences. One of the positives is that it encourages us to behave responsibly – to be accountable and to be ‘good citizens’. Those who are caught out in the act of bullying or expressing racial hatred online run the risk of serious consequences to their careers and to their reputations.
Many people who are building or maintaing their careers choose to keep separate professional and private profiles. There’s a lot to be said for that. It’s not what I do, but I understand why separation makes sense for many people. If you want followers on Twitter who are interested in education, then perhaps it’s best not to tweet about your weekend sailing the Whitsundays or who you’ll be voting for at the next election. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. How public and how focused do you want to be?
I mostly post in public across a range of topics that interest me. I’ve already completed two careers – one in teaching and one in business – so I’ve less need to be careful than someone in their twenties with a lifetime of work and future employers ahead of them. Nonetheless, I still moderate my posts. I act part-time as teacher, professional developer and consultant, so I try to portray a professional image online. If I’m ‘googled’ I want people to gain a positive impression of me.
That doesn’t stop me from broaching more controversial subjects – religion, sex, politics etc. – but when it comes to discussing topics about which people are especially sensitive, I’m more likely to use a pseudonym or to communicate with a restricted audience. My arguments are sometimes more forthright and aggressive in these contexts, but I always treat people with respect, even when they say outrageous things. I do this because I’m ‘a good citizen’, but also because I know that, since my anonymity can evaporate at any time, being ‘a good citizen’ is in my own best interests. If I’m aggressive in putting a logical argument, but remain respectful of the person on the other side, I can live with the consequences. If I call them ‘a fool’ or ‘an idiot’, it neither makes me feel better nor creates a positive impression for those who might come across my rudeness.
Following Foucault’s advice, we need to be aware of the structures of power that exist around us. We have to be careful what we say and who we say it to. Exercising self-discipline is even more important in the twenty first century than it was in the twentieth. Students, teachers and anyone who is active online need to understand the importance of promoting an image of themselves that creates a positive impression for as many potential viewers as possible. It’s worth deleting those Facebook profile pictures featuring a beer in the hand or cigarette in the mouth. Image matters.
Big Brother Poster
There are few skills more important to students in today’s world than the ability to search for, to find and to critically evaluate information. These skills are a key focus of my role in assisting teachers and students at Castlemaine Primary School.
In 1851 the discovery of the world’s richest shallow alluvial goldfield in Castlemaine sparked a gold rush that transformed Australia. It’s something all Australian students learn about, but there are none for whom the story is more relevant than the students of Castlemaine Primary School. That’s why I chose ‘Castlemaine gold rush’ as the search term to illustrate the 21st century superpowers made possible by new search technology.
Google vs Bing vs DuckDuckGo
Our quest to search for, find and evaluate information about the ‘Castlemaine gold rush’ depends on Internet search engines. Three of the best are Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo. How do their results compare for the search query ‘Castlemaine gold rush’?
The number of highly relevant links in the first ten results returned by the three search engines was ten for Google, nine for Bing and eight for DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo provided two links to less credentialed websites than Bing or Google, though the information was still relevant. Bing also linked to a less relevant page of the Friends of Mount Alexander Diggings site than Google. Based on the first ten results Google performed best, though its edge over Bing was less substantial than its edge over DuckDuckGo.
All three engines allow advanced syntax making complex searching possible, nonetheless, Google provides more depth and variety of searches via menu selection on its results page. For the search query ‘Castlemaine gold rush’, Google demonstrated a clear edge.
How do we know search results are trustworthy?
The site that appeared as the fourth result for the query ‘Castlemaine gold rush’ with both Google and Bing was the Friends of Mount Alexander Diggings website at fomad.org.au. To check the trustworthiness of this site I used Kathy Schrock’s 5ws of website evaluation – who, what, when, where, why – since these criteria are specifically intended for student use.
By asking these questions of fomad.org.au students can judge with greater confidence whether they have found a reliable source of information.
WHO? One of the site’s main contributors, David Bannear, is a credentialed archeologist. A search for his name brings up three pages of Google Scholar results and three pages of Google Books results. A search for ‘fomad.org.au’ brings up ten pages of Google search results.
WHAT? The site states FOMAD’s purpose is “to protect, preserve, and promote the cultural heritage sites and artefacts which make up the Mount Alexander Diggings.”
WHEN? FOMAD was formed in 1999 and the site contains news updates from late 2012.
WHERE? The organisation’s address is a Castlemaine PO box. Castlemaine is the administrative centre of Mount Alexander Shire, the site of the site of Australia’s first large scale gold rush.
WHY? The website provides detailed information about the impact of the discovery of gold on the region during the 1850s. It also provides a list of FOMAD publications and links to relevant third party websites and publications containing information about the history of Castlemaine and the gold rush.
Whilst there are no guarantees that the site is free of bias or errors, based on Kathy Schrock’s 5ws, students should have a high degree of confidence that they have found a reliable source of information for their studies on the Castlemaine gold rush.
When I began teaching I could not have found this much relevant information without visiting a large library in Victoria. Today, students on the other side of the world can find detailed information on the topic in a fraction of a second. Evaluating that content takes longer, but search technology makes the task vastly simpler and quicker than ever before.
Many of my students take this for granted. I’m old enough to find it totally amazing!
— Click the play button to hear me speak.—
The text to speech capabilities of Voki characters make them great motivators for student writing. Students enjoy having Voki characters read out their written assignments, stories and other pieces of writing on places like the Ultranet, websites and blogs. Here’s a video from 2011 of one of my year 4 students at Winters Flat Primary School in Castlemaine. He talks about his writing process and use of Google Docs, Voki Characters and Global2 for blogging.
The free version of Voki.com lets you create colorful characters who can replay your voice recordings or convert text to speech in a variety accents. These characters are easy to place on blogs and websites, and they each have their own unique URL. It’s possible to save the characters you create as HTML code in a text editor like Notepad or Word, but it’s easier and more convenient to save them directly on Voki.com using a free account. A 13+ age restriction makes this unsuitable for primary schools, though younger students can still use the free site legally provided they don’t create accounts and login. Voki Classroom ($29.95 per year) lets teachers add primary age classes and students who can then save their characters for future use. Classroom Voki also provides a significantly larger range of characters and lets teachers access additional resources and create lesson plans which can be shared with others. Regardless of which version you use you can still access sample lesson plans such as that shown on the screen below which came from a search for writing lessons for year 2.