Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday Thoughts

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Sitting around in my in-law's living room after a nice Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, my wife and I were talking to her brother and his wife. They have two small boys and were telling us about how much the kids loved one of the slapstick skits in the original "Singing in the Rain". They originally came upon it on YouTube after watching the movie and being completely amazed by the skit; they pull it up on the iPhone and laugh and roll and tumble. Toddlers being into slapstick is nothing new. Toddlers (or any of us) being able to tap into the collective memory of film culture at any moment via a handheld device... that's something else (and yet we so take it for granted now).

My brother-in-law commented that one of the most amazing things about technology these days is the ability to find and share whatever is on your mind. And it is not just thanks to the technology, but thanks to folks who have engaged with the technology in all of the weird ways that people engage with things. For instance, we had been playing a game involving a wooden maze and a metal ball. You control the ball by using levers to tilt the base of the maze. It is infuriatingly difficult. My father-in-law, humorously exasperated, said that it was impossible. A quick scan of YouTube via iPhone showed a dozen clips of folks finishing the maze -- one of whom completed the whole thing in about 20 seconds. My brother-in-law's response: "Of course it's on YouTube."

In a sense, YouTube provides evidence for human capacity.

On Thanksgiving morning, my daughter was helping my wife bake bread and my sons were rapt in a Minecraft-induced trance. From out of the dining room, one of the boys called: "How do you make a chair?" My wife didn't follow: "What do you mean?" He replied: "How do you make a chair in Minecraft?" She: "Don't know; maybe try YouTube?" Sure enough, within 30 seconds he found a (very dry, but useful) tutorial on how to build a chair in Minecraft.

My daughter, meanwhile, wanted to know the proper pronunciation of "lingonberry" and she trusted neither my wife nor myself when it came to Scandinavian berries. Where did she turn? Guess.

The point it that we've all got questions. Sometimes they are the big questions. Sometimes they are the "how do you pronounce the name of this berry we picked up at Ikea?" type of question. More than anything else, the net offers us a shared space where we can choose to turn with our inquiry when mom and dad don't do the trick. I myself have found myself over the past week looking up info on everything from questions about finance to questions about gall bladders to questions about Kevin McHale's best season for the Celtics. Answers came in a range of qualities, and many pointed to more questions; but that's the nature of all of this stuff -- and as the web represents people, it represents the way people have always dealt with questions; it's just that now you have access to the questions of everybody all at once -- and everybody else does too. Hello, everybody.

I often hear educators say things like: "Change will not happen overnight, but it will happen." And I know they have the best intentions in expressing such sentiments. But the fact is that change already happened. And most schools missed it. It's not that they are going to eventually change. It's that they missed the boat. It left the port. And they are still standing on the dock.

Why didn't they get on the boat?

Well, one reason has to do with the fact that lots of ed tech in the 80s and 90s sucked. I hate to be so blunt, but as a child of the 80s, I can testify from a kid's point of view as to the suckiness. As a nine year old, I was making my own games that were leagues beyond the games they forced us to play in school. And so, between the exorbitant cost of quickly-obsolete hardware and the pedestrian nature of most of the software of the time marketed to "change education", I totally understand why so many educators are gun-shy of anything tech.

I'd be wary of any veteran teacher who wasn't. We talk about "buy in" and to any savvy veteran, that may be exactly the problem.

Ed tech started out like the Titanic. A big hype was made about it, it cost a bundle, it marketed itself as the future, and it failed big time.

But the commercial cruise industry didn't end because the Titanic went down. The commercial cruise industry learned from the mistakes of the Titanic. Technology progressed and the commercial cruise industry kept up with the progress and the ways ships were built, the ways they were navigated, the safety measures involved -- all that changed as well. And as time went by, cruise ships became mainstreamed and for the most part the worst we had to suffer through when it came to cruise ships was syndication of The Love Boat.

Likewise, the best in ed tech has progressed with the times and now engages the social and the mobile; it's lean and handles both personalization and collaboration. Interestingly, some of the most important tools in education were never intended for primarily an education mindset -- Twitter perhaps being the boldest example. And sure, we still have plenty of ed tech that is on par with The Love Boat, but that's to be expected; there is always going to be a lot of crap out there (nothing against Captain Stubing). It's up to astute and educated educators to be able to distinguish between the quality of one and two.

And so, my family and I know how to say "lingonberry" and we get to share funny clips from old movies and we get to learn how to make stuff with the help (very dry) strangers have offered online for no reason other than that someone might come inquiring about such a thing sometime.

And taken separately, these seem like minor things. But taken together, and understood in the context of the great big connected picture, these are connected instances of inquiry. And if nothing else, our connected technological context has laid down the framework for a golden age of inquiry.

The ship left the dock. Some time ago this might have meant you'd either need someone with a speed-dingy or you were just going to have to get into fishing. Nowadays there is another option -- the network itself. It is extending ropes out to you. If you really need it, it'll send a Coast Guard helicopter to pick you up. Just say you want to take part. Say you've got questions. And rather than dwell on the marketed promises and predicted failures of the past, think about how the context of the present matters to you now... and think about how it matters to your students.

This Black Friday, don't "buy in" -- just engage.


  1. Great post Shelly. The key here for me is that distinction between engagement and buyin. Too often we as change leaders seek for that buyin, rather than utilizing the power at our fingertips and aiming towards the engagement which will lead to ownership.

  2. Brilliant post, Shelly.

    One of the things I'm conscious of is something that Charlie Stross wrote about in the book, Halting State. While the characters are on the run, one of them notes that externally, all the buildings around them are hundreds of years old, while being wired all the same with plumbing and electricity and modern conveniences. Inside the buildings, there are computers and telephones, and various office devices. On the surface, everything visible is mid-to-late 20th century technology... but inside, the technology that underlies and supports the surface appearances is in fact radically different.

    I think it was S.M. Sterling who also noted this phenomena, in a slightly different context (though I don't remember which one, exactly). He noted that a new technology starts out as terrible. Gradually, it gets better and better, and grows more and more useful, and then reaches a pinnacle of development. The institution that provides and services that technology shifts from research and development to maintenance, because the tech has reached the point where marginal improvements are not cost-effective.

    Then, along comes another competing technology. It's new, so it's terrible. Nobody really adopts it... except for a few enthusiasts whose support and interest develops the technology further. The new tech gradually improves to the point where it does what the old tech does, well enough. Suddenly people start adopting it in large numbers. The old tech doesn't know how to handle its leapfrog. It tries to compete with the old tech, but it can't — there's some core feature that is different, and un-replicatable with the old technology.

    This is the concept that you appear to be trying to get across — that on the surface, we're all living in the old tech, as the new tech is gradually replacing the old tech, and driving out the maintenance model of the old tech in favor of the innovation model.

    But what if the old tech, is schools themselves?


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