Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Free Thinking (as free as walking down a sidewalk)

Today starts the first of a series of Wednesday guest posts written by TeachPaperless readers.

And I'm happy to introduce Dan McGuire as the first guest blogger.

Before becoming a Minneapolis elementary school teacher, Dan tried his hand at poetry; he also spent about twenty years peddling lobster boats, packaging, computers, and telecom gear in regional, national, and international markets.

You can read more of Dan's thoughts about education on his blog; and you should follow him on Twitter: @sabier.

Free Thinking (as free as walking down a sidewalk)

A few years ago, when the city of Minneapolis was entertaining proposals for a new public wifi system, one of the vendors that submitted a proposal offered to give free wifi access to the Minneapolis Public Schools in return for letting the vendor mount their nodes on the school buildings that 80 years ago were scattered strategically all around town (too many of which are currently being sold off way too cheaply).

That possibility wasn't acted on; it was a dream that didn't come true.

But, it was and still is a very real possibility.

Broadband/wifi doesn't need to cost public schools a dime. It could and should be free.

Free text messaging is already a possibility that could become a reality if only we insisted that that's the way we wanted it to be. Providing text messaging costs the telecom carriers nothing, zero, nada. We're simply allowing them to charge us to use something that should be as free as walking down a sidewalk. I wrote a blog about this last summer.

Ira Socol , Will Richardson, and lots of other folks are talking about the day when schools decide to quit wrestling with the horse and instead decide to jump in the saddle start riding this bronco.

I mean: let kids use phones, or whatever, to communicate.

We already know how to manufacture enough of the devices, and the means of connecting doesn't need to cost anything. The biggest hurdle is deciding that we want to participate in the future instead of the past. It's about as hard as flipping a light switch and turning on the lights.

Once we make the decision, we'll need to do some more dreaming and questioning.

That's when it gets fun.

The future of networked and mobile environments is in the questions that teachers ask, and in our persistence in asking them and taking stabs at answering them and refining the answers and asking more questions.

Call it the Hypertext Socratic Method, or get seriously academic and go with Punya Mishra's TPACK. I personally like the 21st Century version of John Keats' Negative Capability theory: the ability of "Being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

John Dewey would be with me on that.

Because the future of education is not about things or even the way things are connected. As my friend from down under, Tomaz Lasic says, "This is not about computers, this is about people."

People and the questions they ask, I'll add.

I first ran into Tomaz when I had a question about how to do something with my Elementary Math, Science, and Writing Moodle site. I went to what has become for me a trusted source of knowledge: the Moodle Community Forums. Tomaz is a champion on the Moodle forums. He's been offering guidance and advice to students and teachers for years.

Tomaz's video on how to set up a Moodle database for students (Tomaz calls it the Moodle Swiss Army knife) was one of those "OMG, this is really cool" teacher moments. (Though I still don't get why someone would be that interested in water polo, but I guess living your life upside down on the bottom of the planet does things to you. And even though there's a fourteen hour difference in our clocks, his students were making similar comments about us when they got a glimpse of my students playing American football in the snow at recess this week.)

The future is not some new app, or even a new uber-theory cooked up by a guru followed by thousands of people on Twitter. The future is all of the new PLNs being created, FOR FREE, by teachers and learners all over the planet, on their own time. The future will look something like the kind of professional development being created by Nellie Deutsch and her friends at Integrating Technology.

They're doing it with class, passion, and grace: FOR FREE.

I passed up an invitation to spend an hour or so with some clicker vendors and a famous writer of books about education on Monday because, well, I don't like fighting for parking downtown at rush hour -- especially with 2" of fresh snow and temperatures hovering around 3 F.; that and I really wanted to go to my kid's basketball practice which I hadn't watched or helped out with for a couple of weeks.

As it turned out I didn't get to see much practice because I got drafted to make a delivery from the team to the food shelf and I had to shovel that two inches off my corner lot sidewalk. One way or the other, I learned more after basketball practice by spending time clicking on Twitter links from my PLN than I would have with the vendors and the writer.

(Now, if the someone had offered to chip in for a nice dinner and cover the parking and maybe toss in a little PD stipend, the decision would've been a little tougher; but basketball would still have won.)

Ultimately, I'd like to see education not be a market. When I moved to Minneapolis they gave me a library card FOR FREE. Well, my students and I need information access to wifi and texting, too; they're today's libraries.

Access is the sidewalk to the future. And it should be as free as walking down a sidewalk.


  1. Excellent Post!!! I'm a resident of Mpls and can't understand why schools and other public agencies getting in on the wifi deal. It seemd like a no brainer to include schools as access points and give them what they need for free. Perhaps, then, I could have access to a few of the streaming sites that would make learning more focused and relevant.

    And from one MPS teacher to another, I'm glad that Teach Paperless is giving this platform to his readers.

  2. Schools need an exist strategy for getting out of the computer business. Barbara Bareda wrote about this in a recent leadertalk post. Let kids bring in their own stuff and provide stipends for students/families who can't afford a device. I'll take it a few steps further. In the next 5 years, the relevance of the LAN and school owned networks will shrink as wide area broadband continues to proliferate, improve and become a commodity. Are schools prepared for this? Do they have an exit plan to get out of the computer and ISP business?


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