How Can We Rethink Education in Our Modern Age? Musings on #ISTE2015

Eight years ago this week, the first iPhone was introduced. While Steve Jobs touted its widescreen format and capability as a phone, mobile internet device, and digital music player, could anyone have predicted that eight years later this device and its android clones would blindside the hotel industry, disrupt the taxi business, and equalize the access to information world-wide?

Technology can be transformative. This message is pervasive at the ISTE conference which I have been attending this week. Everyone is touting how technology is transforming the classroom, providing equal access to information for all students, opening up new avenues for student creativity, the highest level of The Revised Bloom's Taxonomy, and a plethora of apps for teachers to do everything from conducting real-time formative assessment, to "flipping" their classrooms by providing videos for students to watch prior to the instruction, to curating and delivering learning content and the list goes on and on.

And yet, with all of this talk about technology's transformative effect on education, I wonder about the extent of this transformation. My colleague at The Frisch School, Dr. Rivka Schwartz put it well when she expressed her frustration that she came to ISTE as a first-time attendee expecting presenters to address the "big" question about how teaching and learning can fundamentally look different in a world where anyone can access so much information even from their mobile device. And instead she attended numerous sessions about _________ different ways to use apps to transform _______________ in the classroom. I love useful apps but these types of sessions are hardly transformative. They mostly assume classroom teaching and learning as usual, coupled with some new cool tricks for teachers to use to engage their students.

To put it differently, using the Understanding by Design framework of "backwards design" that many of us are familiar with from graduate school, instead of focusing on the enduring understandings and overarching questions concerning the adoption of technology in education, most presenters are focusing on the learning activities. These learning activities might be well-planned and perfectly executed, integrating technology in meaningful ways. Yet, if the basic educational model remains the same as thirty years ago, the pre-Internet era, are these activities really optimizing the potential learning that our students can gain?

Another colleague of mine, Dr. Eitan Zadoff, a newly-minted doctoral student expressed how technology is fundamentally transforming graduate education. There is an entire field of the digital humanities grappling with the question of how humanities instruction changes when every student has access to every manuscript in every major library in the world, from their laptop or smartphone, since they have all been digitized. Whereas even doctoral dissertations in the past were not expected to review ALL of the literature on a particular topic since there was so much information that required traveling to libraries at great geographical distances, doctoral students today are expected to have at their fingertips ALL of the literature. The dissertations published today contain a greater breadth of knowledge than those in the past not because students today are smarter but because they are blessed with almost universal access to information.

 And yet, how much have our K-12 classes changed?

The only speaker that I have heard so far who even began to address this issue was Alan November. In his session, he spoke about how the questions we ask should be different in an Internet age involving more critical thinking, teachers should seek to give students access to ALL information about a topic using the Harvard Computer Science course as a model, and teachers should spend more time teaching kids how to research effectively in an age of Google. And yet, his presentation left me with an empty feeling. He presented pieces of the puzzle of teaching in this new Internet age but still did not apply a framework to put it all together and a vision to express how classes and schools can look differently today.

Let me give an example. I have another colleague Sabrina Bernath, whose very precocious 13 year old son Eitan is an accomplished chef with a wide following on Instagram, a popular blog, and even an appearance on the Food Network show Chopped. A few weeks ago while researching MOOCs for my own summer learning, I spotted a course from Harvard Edx entitled Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. I knew about Eitan's passion so I quickly shot off an email to his mother about the course. Eitan was so excited that he decided with his parents to pay for the certificate track for the course and is now devoting hours each day over his summer vacation to college-level chemistry and mathematics to work through the complex course assignments. So far he is excelling in the course, completing not only the required assignments but the extra suggested resources as well, and finding ways to learn even the most difficult material. Eitan is obviously highly motivated in this course which relates to his cooking passion but even a few years ago such an avenue to pursue his passion on such a high level would not have existed for him.

Eitan might be a unique kid but this story is not really that unusual. Our students are developing their own personal learning networks, watching YouTube videos, reading online articles, and discussion forums devoted to achieving mastery in knowledge areas they wish to explore; many times even creating their own content to contribute to these same online spaces. But what happens when this young man goes back to school in the fall for the eighth grade after having completed such high level work over the summer? Will the Eitans of the world feel engaged and challenged in our current classroom setting? Our students have access to an information surplus and yet we continue to teach our lessons in the same basic format for every student, one unit at a time, in the traditional linear fashion with little recognition for these vast resources our students are already using in every learning environment EXCEPT school.

These are the types of questions that I wish ISTE would explore. The conference ends tomorrow. Hopefully, I will find at least one individual in the next day to address this issue. I don't need any more apps. I need a framework for how to begin to rethink education in our modern age.