Tuesday, June 30, 2009

NECC 2009: The Oxford Debate

It is too early for Michael Jackson.

Unfortunately that’s been the music-of-choice throughout the conference. Bearable two nights ago. Grating this morning.

But I digress.

It’s 8:26AM and the convention center ballroom is just about full. This morning’s event is an ‘Oxford Style Debate’ on the topic: Are brick and mortar schools detrimental to the future of education.

The event begins with news about today’s ‘international competitiveness in education’ event over at the Press Club. And an ISTE volunteer just reminded the guy sitting next to me about the ISTE-led march down to Capitol Hill later in the morning. About 500 members are scheduled to meet with reps on the hill to advocate for ed tech. Looks like the big goal is for increased funding for classroom technology. Lot’s of policy stuff. Will keep you posted (in the most obviously least wonky of ways).

Lot’s of talk about ‘Digital Citizenship’ this morning. This has to do with the new NETS-A standards. According to ISTE, it’s about students learning how to use technological communication in safe, responsible, and appropriate ways.

Fair enough, though ‘appropriate’ wouldn’t make my list. If we teachers had been using tech ‘appropriately’ -- that is, according to the rules of the technology and the tech traditions in our schools -- we’d never be at the point we are now. ‘Appropriate’ is not one of the ingredients in Innovation.


The leadership of ISTE is now glowing hagiographic re: integration of ISTE goals and etc around the world. Celebrating the admins, mentors, and teachers who have been working hard in ed tech. Also celebrating the ‘corporate relationships’ that make this possible.

That’s exactly the thing that gives me pause. I completely understand that the folks down there on the convention floor are paying the rent for the rest of us to meet here at the Washington Convention Center. But, in what they’ve actually presented downstairs, I see a lot of maneuvering room for a non-profit to step in and actually handle a lot of what they are doing.

Consider Netbooks. You could pay $400 for a new book. Or have a non-profit that strips and retrofits old Mac iBooks for $200. I’ll tell you this: my souped up iBook G4 totally rocks the Acer netbooks I bought for my sons.

The non-profit sector has to be part of the equation.


Now, we’re on to the 2009 Awards Presentation.

Strange, strange atmosphere in the ballroom. The lights have gone down and we’re watching what was described as a ‘multimedia presentation’. Actually, it’s a flashy PowerPoint. At least they didn’t use ‘Thriller’ as their background music.

I say it’s strange because no one is actually receiving an award (physically). Rather, we are all sitting in rows watching this fancy automated PowerPoint on three big screens. I’m sitting in the front row, so I can look back into the crowd and what I see is not unlike rows upon rows of ninth graders watching a video describing photosynthesis.

Minutes pass.

Suddenly all the award winners magically appear on the side stage. Wow. Nice to see them. Though I would have preferred the award winners to have flown in on wires in a blaze of pyrotechnics and fog. Maybe it’s just all the Michael Jackson getting to me.

One way or the other, congratulations to the award winners for your hard work, and I was certainly relieved to see you in human form rather than just on the screen. (Hey ISTE, next year let’s get some video going on in that ‘multimedia’; it’d be a nice touch).


Oxford Debate

Finally. This is the main event. Horn and Stager vs. Jupp and Lemke. The sledgehammer wielding demo dream team vs. the touchy-feely old-fashioned ‘human’ types.

First up is Michael Horn, co-author of ‘Disrupting Class’. First thing I notice is that he is using notecards. I think notecards are detrimental to the future of education. His argument is that bricks-and-mortar schools don’t meet the variety of needs of students. He’s in favor of online-learning. Whatever that means. Because he doesn’t explain.

This is my beef: we still haven’t defined what ‘online learning’ is. I’ve looked at two major companies running online courses recently and what I’ve seen is that their version of ‘online learning’ is a rebuild of ‘textbook learning’. How is that any different than what we’ve got? Horn talks a lot about how bricks-and-mortar schools ‘confine’ students -- well, so do textbooks. And online courses can just as easily fall into the ‘textbook mentality’.

Next up is Brad Jupp from Colorado. He’s talking about bringing technology into the schools as opposed to closing down schools and sending kids into technology. “Schools are the vessles of the wishes of our democracy”. He’s got me. Talking about schools as the community centers where we can meet face-to-face and learn. They are anchors of democracy and they are the places where peers form important bonds.

Jupp describes the school building in sacred terms as the ‘house of learning’. It’s a powerful icon, not easily replaced by a computer screen.

Next up is Gary Stager from the Constructivist Consortium. His opening salvo is about the silliness in using technology to meet NCLB goals. Stager rips on the state of most online learning, comparing it to mailorder correspondence classes. He’s getting applause and laughs. Stager talks about quality online learning “mirroring” quality classroom learning. Getting beyond the bells and whistles. And then a slam on whiteboards!

Gary, despite his rather bombastic styule, is presenting a much more nuanced view of online learning. I see his role on his side of the debate as to redefine what we’re talking about in terms of ‘online learning’. He’s arguing that brick-and-mortar schools as they exist are detrimental, but that to be meaningful, online learning has to get beyond the status quo.

On the other side is Cheryl Lemke. She immediately plays against the dualism presupposed in the debate question itself: “It’s not black and white. It’s not one or the other. It’s a combination.” She’s playing to the same themes as Jupp: We don’t need to get rid of schools. We need to redefine how schools relate to their communities. But she stresses the recent research demonstrating that hybrid-learning being the most successful. And, when it comes down to it, that’s what really makes sense. Our kids have physical AND virtual lives. And we need to educate them for BOTH.

Marshall Thompson, a high school student from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda takes the first rebuttal on behalf of the tear-‘em-down team. Argues about the ‘limits’ of classrooms. Talks about ‘international’ living. “Why am I limited to get together to learn with those around me?”

But then he undermines his point via an anecdote. He tells us that he has lived around the world and saw devastation left in Sri Lanka by the Tsunami. Well, isn’t the point that he was ‘there’ in a physical space? He didn’t just get the images on YouTube. His argument actually is more about getting beyond the school walls and getting out into the world; he’s bypassed online learning altogether.

Rebutting on behalf of school buildings is Erik Bakke from West Springfield High School in Springfield, VA. Rushes into the ‘how’ and ‘with whom’ argument. Argues that connection to the local community is a good thing. Stresses the importance of groups and teams to learning. Hmm. I’d argue that anyone with a PLN would argue that ‘groups’ and ‘teams’ aren’t limited to the folks you share a room with. One thing that really does come through in his rebuttal, however is a sense of pride in one’s school. Can you have the same sort of ‘pride’ in an online class?

We’re up to the summaries.

Stager’s up. Slams teachers for not being about to understand student culture. Slams clickers and whiteboards and traditional classroom mentality. Raises hoots, eyebrows, and the rhetoric of the dialogue saying: “The blame lies in the bankruptcy of our imaginations”.

Lemke gets the last word: “It’s time for us to remember that we don’t want our fathers’ schools; we want our children’s schools.” She presents a compelling argument for engagement with the local AND global communities.


The final result? Well, at the start of the debate, 37% of audience members said bricks-and-mortar schools WERE detrimental, 64% WERE NOT detrimental. By the end of the debate, 26% said bricks-and-mortar schools WERE detrimental, and 74% said they WERE NOT.

Go figure, looks like teachers actually like their classrooms.

Cue the Michael Jackson.


  1. First, where are you getting your $200 retrofitted iBooks? Sign me up for 10.

    Second, I'd love to hear the slams on whiteboards.

    Third, Marshall Thompson is right on, even if his argument wasn't the most thought out. Students need to get out and experience things. Sitting in a classroom with a text is not the answer. Bringing the web, videos, blogs and other social media is much better. Even better than that, is going out and physically being part of an event.

    History to me is so incredibly boring to read about, even though I understand the importance. However, being in Dallas, walking on the Grassy Knoll, sitting where a second shooter may have been, standing on the X in the road, listening to conspiracy theorists, and going up to the 6th floor and standing where Oswald stood...now that is exciting and makes history awesome. That's learning.

    You can't get that from sitting in a classroom. You can get close with social media. Hmmm...what is the future of education?

  2. Thanks for posting this perspective of the Oxford debate. I have to agree with Lemke that children have both physical and virtual lives and we need to educate both. Our world is becoming more and more technolgically integrated and to not acknowledge that would be a disservice to our students.

  3. @Knaus

    For cheap refurbished ready-to-go iBook G4s, check gainsaver.com ; they regularly have 'em in the $300 range.

    If you want to do the work yourself, I'd just follow CraigsList. I've gotten several G4 mirror door towers and never paid more than $150.

    As for the second part of your response, I heard this morning of an expedition several teachers went on. It was a mobile social media enhanced tour of the National Mall and the Monuments. Heard great things about it.

    That's the future. Social media enhancing our teaching out in the field.

    - Shelly

  4. Nice. Social Media Enhance Tours. Interesting.

    I'm envisioning my 30 students toting iPod Touches through the history of Minneapolis. Pretty cool.

    I'd love to hear more about this.


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