Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Autonomy, Responsibility, and Transparency in the Digital Age

Yesterday's lead post was about autonomy.

Teachers need autonomy to make decisions in teaching style and curriculum choices. Teachers need to choose what types of technology work best and fit most naturally into their classrooms. For example, SharePoint is the bane of my existence and I refuse to use it -- but I have tech-reasoning and not tech-philistinism behind that decision: namely, I make a more effective use of technology in the classroom when using Web 2.0 and open source apps. For others, SharePoint might be the way to go. And that's fine.

But autonomy doesn't mean you get a free-pass to be a tech naysayer. Rather, it hinges on the teacher actively experimenting with technology and then making informed decisions. And I would argue that autonomy produces good teaching. But that autonomy must be informed by the fact that our kids are growing up in a digitally connected world.

So don't you dare pan educational technology if you still don't know the difference between Twitter and a podcast. No dice.

Teachers in the Digital Age have a responsibility to their students to be tech literate and autonomy is only effective when it is tied to responsibility.

And responsibility is tied to consequences.

Now I'm not exactly what you'd call the Grand Inquisitor, so don't think that I'd have an axe ready for any teachers not willing to hop on the digital train. In fact, I think the reason many teachers are anti-tech is precisely because they've only dealt with tech in ways that invoke their fear and survival mechanisms.

They are freaked out.

Rather, if given the great grail of power, what I'd do is encourage teachers themselves to ACTIVATE responsibility by making their classrooms as transparent as possible.

And two mildly-visionary methods the Internet and Web 2.0 offers are webcam broadcasting and live blogging. The best sources I've used so far to engage in this way are Ustream and Cover it Live.

Ustream gives you the opportunity to really make transparent your classroom by actually opening it up to the entire world. It is a Web 2.0 broadcasting service that allows you and a webcam to become your newest local satellite TV station. But, as with most things Web 2.0, you can adjust the service to serve your specific needs as a teacher. So how about this: start by broadcasting all of your sections live to other teachers in your department. In fact, all of the teachers in the department can broadcast live to each other. I guarantee that within a week -- if that long -- you will discover things either about your own teaching or the teaching of others that will change and improve your practice. Ustream offers a live chat feed to each broadcast, so viewers -- such as your department members -- can comment and make sugestions/observations in real time.

Where this really gets radical is in taking it out of the security of the department and streaming directly into the computers of your administration and parents. What Ustream allows you to do is say: "This is what I do in class". And show it.

Are you up for it?

Here are notes taken at a recent talk by Ken Robinson. They were live-blogged by @vvrotny [Twitter tag] using Cover it Live. You can see that what the app offers is real-time instant blogging. A cool feature is that you can open it up as a real-time chat and save the entire thing. So, in terms of classroom transparency, you could allow your students to back-channel (that is, chat on the side) live to a lecture/discussion/lab/project/whatever that you were doing in class and then have a record of it to read later and see what kinds of things are going through their heads as you are working. You could then take the next step and open up your back-channel to colleagues in your department, other teachers, (gasp admins), and even parents to take part live in the discussion about what's happening in class. Live connections like Twitter have only demonstrated that this sort of immediate engagement from across the Web is actually extremely beneficial in terms of discussion and access to external sources of knowledge and experience.

Just this last Friday, I took part in a CiL/Twitter/Ustreamed conference up in Massachusetts and I was struck so much by the fact that despite the fact that I was sitting in my kitchen in Maryland on Spring Break, I felt like I was actually taking part in the conference a 9 hour car ride away.

Now how is all of this connected to autonomy? Well, it's via that responsibility thing. Transparent broadcasts make us all to aware of our shortcomings. And therein lies a tale: the best of us try to get better and the worst of us make excuses. Used effectively and honestly, live feeds open up your teaching and will help you grow.

As for the consequences? Well, the Grand Inquisitor is you. And this type of open and transparent teaching makes you EARN your autonomy. Be your own harshest critic. Live up to the challenge of what you might be.


  1. I too relish autonomy. But so often we forget about autonomy for the students. All learning is autonomous learning!

    ps Vergil was just standard fare, not AP, for fourth year Latin (required) in my high school. And, yes, we used the purple book.

  2. I think that is the real key: autonomous student learning. To do this, teachers must have the autonomy to know their students and what is effective to them.

    Of course, In exactly 50 minutes, I'll be proctoring (sitting on butt) the MN Comprehensive Exam in Reading (MCA-Reading). How does that fit into autonomous student learning?

    Students all learn in different ways and express that learning in different ways. Why should they be expected to express their knowledge on a bubble sheet on one day in April?

    I know my students and I know they can pick out main ideas, form opinions with evidence, and write a coherent essay or constructed response answer. I also know that some of my students won't be able to do it on one day in April because of many different issues (breakfast, neighborhood shooting, not sleeping because the shelter is too loud and on and on and on).

    Okay, there's my rant on student learning and standardized testing. It's going to be a fun day.

  3. So let me play devil's advocate here. Wasn't it autonomy that got us into this whole NCLB and economic mess. Schools weren't cutting it or couldn't agree on a good way to show that they were doing their job so now there are articulated standards and state mandated tests. Banks did what they wanted and now there are bailouts so they don't fail and talk of better oversight.

    When you're traveling out of state where do you stop to get something to eat, the autonomous independently-owned restaurant or a familiar name brand chain? In some cases the independent restaurant might have the better meal, but often we'll sacrifice the risk for the known - not that all chains guarantee the same quality but let's assume a minimum standard of quality as opposed to a range far above and below for the independents.

    I agree that teachers need to have the freedom to make their own calls in the classroom. That's the art of teaching. The science is in what students need to know and by what time they need to know it. If I need to get this classroom of students to write a good persuasive essay (the state mandated outcome) I should be able to pull in a variety of resources to get it done. I'd love to get collaborative peer editing done using Google Docs. That's the autonomy I'd like balanced with the common expectations to hold teachers accountable for making learning happen in their classroom.

    I've seen to many battles over content - the rouge 8th grade teacher that taught The Odyssey and brought the wrath of every 9th grade teacher onto the middle school because "that's ours, you can't teach that." and wondered "really that's what you want to fight over. The kids need to be able to read and comprehend and that's the hill you want to die on? As if there aren't hundreds of other great pieces of literature, classic and contemporary, that could do the job as well.

    How about limited autonomy. General consensus about where we need to go, let me decide the best path and tools to get students there.

  4. So does Ustream record the broadcast for later showings, and can comments be added every time it is viewed? I would love to use Ustream at school as a way to observe each other in the classroom, but obviously the rest of the staff isn't going to sit and watch the video at the same time.


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