The Most Dangerous Phrase In The World

If you’ve been in education for a while there is a phrase you’ll hear regularly if you listen for it. It’s just seven little words but the impact of those words can be enormous. The people who utter this phrase often mean well, but it rarely leads to much that is positive. This phrase can kill a potentially good idea, ruin a worthwhile initiative or demoralise others who want to make a difference.

It may just be the most dangerous phrase in the world.

The phrase is “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

You may have been on the receiving end of these words. Perhaps you came up with what you believed was a brilliant, clever, innovative or time-saving idea. You honestly feel your idea can improve an existing outcome and make a huge difference. So you approach your colleagues with your idea, knowing that by making just a few simple changes the world will be a better place. And while they might listen and thank you for your interesting suggestion, they inform you of all the reasons why your idea cannot possibly work, because the way things are currently done is just the way they’ve always been done.

It might not be said with these exact words, and it sometimes comes in many variations. There’s “We tried that years ago and it didn’t work”, or “We’d never be able to do it because the others won’t go along with it”, or “That might be ok for other schools but it would never work here”, or even the time tested “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However it’s phrased, the message is essentially the same; we like the way things are and we don’t want to change them.

The irony is that while all these phrases are used to resist change, the world around us constantly changes. Change is just a natural thing.

We want our students to learn, which is just another way of saying we want them to change. Of course we want them to be better tomorrow than they were today. We want them to know more at the end of each term than they knew at the beginning. We want them to be more mature, have more wisdom, and make better decisions. All of that is based on the idea that they need to change. We call it growth.

And yet, far too often in schools we see systems and processes that stubbornly resist change. We see outdated curriculum, often locked in time by static syllabii and aging textbooks. We see processes being repeated each year, often without ever stopping to consider whether there may be a better way. We sometimes stick with “proven” tools and technologies without looking around to see if there may be better alternatives. And we also see the occasional teacher who does not realise that their 30 years of teaching experience has in fact been one year of teaching experience, repeated 30 times.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it”, or TTWWADI for short, is the reason we see the same old worksheets, the same old assessment tasks, the same old resources, used year and year. It’s also often the reason that we structure our schools in ways that contradict everything we know about how students learn most effectively. We want to make decisions in the best interests of our students, but we don’t because those decisions often contradict the way we’ve always done things.

Despite the fact that the outside world changes constantly it is still far too easy to find classrooms that don’t. TTWWADI-thinking does a grave disservice to the students that pass through those classrooms.

I recently overheard two sisters talking. The younger of the pair had the same teacher that her elder sister had five years before. Despite the five years that had passed, the older student was listening to her younger sibling talk about the work she was doing in class and remarking “Oh yes, I remember doing that assignment when I had that same teacher”. Unless that assignment was perfect and timeless, repeating it year after year without considering alternatives makes is seem like that teacher is simply on autopilot.

As this new school year begins, stop and think about what you’re doing. Are you reaching into your files and digging out the same teaching program you used last year? The same activities and worksheets you gave your students last year? The same letters to parents that were sent home last year?

If you’ve been in a school for more than a few years, think about how much has changed in the world around you. Even just five short years ago, most of us were not storing work in “the cloud”, or working collaboratively with others on shared documents, or learning by being digitally connected through various social streams. Technology provides great examples of these rapid changes but it’s hardly the only area of change. (Although you could probably argue that technology is the main driver that is forcing change in so many other areas). However you look at it and whatever the driver may be, it seems that change really is the only constant.

So why do some teachers embrace change and get excited about the possibilities of doing things in new and different ways, while others cling doggedly to doing things in ways that they have always done them? Why do some people immediately dismiss new or innovative ideas because they are not “the way we’ve always done it”?

Before exploring that question, it’s important to also recognise that just because something is different does not necessarily mean it’s better. Some of the things we repeat year after year may be done that way because they actually are the best way to do them. It can be exhausting to constantly be reinventing wheels that have already been invented. We don’t need to throw out everything we do and start again but we certainly should look at everything we do with fresh eyes and continually ask ourselves the critical question “Is there a better way to do this?”  

Carol Dweck’s work on the ideas of Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset is a good place to start. Without restating all of her research, essentially Dweck found that people see their world differently depending on whether they embrace a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. That is, whether they believe they are capable of growing and changing, or not. Those with fixed mindsets tend to believe the abilities they were born with, or that they have right now, are the abilities they will always have. Those with growth mindsets believe that they are capable of growing, so they see change as an opportunity for learning and trying new things. Ironically, having a fixed mindset is not fixed; once you realise that you are limiting yourself with this kind of thinking you can catch yourself doing it and consciously decide to respond differently.

Responding differently is hard. It’s not always easy to see past “the way we’ve always done it” and reimagine how things might be done differently because many of us have not been conditioned to think this way. But you can start by consciously and deliberately asking yourself one very simple question. Begin by asking yourself “Why?”

  • “Why are the desks in my classroom arranged like that?”
  • “Why do my students do that same geography assignment every year?”
  • “Why do we always study that same novel?”

Thinking bigger, consider some of the many aspects of school we take for granted, such as…

  • “Why is our school day structured the way it is?”
  • “Why are our lessons 50 minutes long?”
  • “Why does the school day start at 8:30 and finish at 3:00?”
  • “Why do we group students according to the age they were born?”

As you begin to ask “why?”, take note of your answers. If you find yourself answering the question with “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” then dig a little deeper. Why have you always done it like that? Is it because it is the best way? Maybe it was the best way at one time, but is it still the best way now? Could there be a better way? So many of the things we do, we don’t even think about anymore. We get so used to the way things work that we forget to question them.

One easy (and fun) thing you can do is simply to visit other schools. Just walking into a different environment and looking around can be enlightening. When you walk into someone else’s classroom you cannot help but notice how things are done differently. You find yourself noticing little things and saying “That’s interesting. I wonder why they do it like that?” You’ll see ideas that you hadn’t thought of. Ways of doing things you hadn’t considered. And when you return to your own classroom you’ll see it just a little bit differently. Looking outside the world you experience every day helps you have fresh eyes.

Consider this. Kodak, the once great film and camera company, is these days little more than a footnote in the history of photography. The reason? Their entire worldview was rooted in the idea of film cameras and film processing. When digital photography came along they dismissed it as a fad because it was “not the way we’ve always done it”. They failed to respond to the changes around them and that failure hit them hard. History is full of similar examples where entire industries – often large, seemingly entrenched empires – have been decimated because of their failure to respond to change. The Swiss watch industry refused to adopt the quartz movement because it was not the way they always made watches. It took them years to recover. The record industry initially rejected digital downloads because they were not they way they always distributed music. They eventually relented, but it put them years behind where they could have been had they chosen to lead that change. The list goes on.

There is no denying that we live in a world of enormous change, where a single technology can make “the way we’ve always done it” obsolete very quickly. As educators, we need to be leaders in the ability to change and adapt and learn. The students we teach today will be the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and world-changers, and will be the ones who must address the big, wicked problems that need be solved in our future. If we want the education we offer to our students to be the key to making the world a better place, then we need to develop mindful, creative, critical thinkers, who constantly ask “why?”

We will never get the future we want if we keep saying “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

An edited version of this post was also published as an article in the March 2016 edition of Education Technology Solutions Magazine

 

Lipstick on a Pig

I was looking at school websites tonight trying to find some information I needed and I stumbled across a school that I won’t name, but on the front page of their website they had these two rather ironic images on display in a slider…

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I’m fairly sure that neither of these images qualifies for the claim they make of “Best Practices in Education” or “Advanced Learning Environment”.

Is it that schools simply don’t get what those terms mean? Or are they just marketing to parents who don’t understand what those terms mean? I’m not sure, but I do know that images like these completely devalue any real sense of best practise or advanced learning environments because the school clearly doesn’t know what those terms actually mean.

A school is not innovative or modern or advanced or “best practice” because it says so in their marketing brochures. It needs to actually BE those things it claims to be.

Adding phrases like that to images like this is simply just putting lipstick on a pig.

A Bicycle for the Mind

I’ve been doing some work recently with a school that’s using iPads with their kids, and was asked to give a talk on the topic “The place of iPads in teaching and learning”. This post is just a bit of thinking out loud about that question.

Let me start by saying that I think the iPad is an amazing piece of technology. I dispute the common claim about iPads just being “consumption devices”. That’s a load of nonsense. Used wisely, iPads open up incredible opportunities for creativity. This point was driven home during my recent 365 project, The Daily Create, where I made a creative “thing” every day during 2014. Although this project wasn’t specifically based on using an iPad, the truth is that at least 80% of what I came up with over the course of the year was made on an iPad. Whether it was photo editing, making graphics, editing movies, composing music, building animations and 3D objects, or even just writing, the iPad was a perfectly credible tool for creation. And of course the actual management of the Daily Create project via a blog was mostly also all done on the iPad. So I know that the iPad can help people do amazing things.

Of course, that’s not to say it’s not also a great consumption device. For reading eBooks, watching videos, listening to podcasts or music, browsing the web, playing games and so on, the iPad is a convenient, intuitive easy-to-use device that, for the most part, “just works”.

So yes, I like the iPad. But just because you can do certain things on a device does not necessarily mean it’s the best device to be doing them on. So the iPad, as a tool, needs to be kept in that perspective. While it’s capable of most things, it’s great at some and not so good at others.

For example, I’m typing this post on a Chromebook. Why not an iPad? Well, as much as I like iPads, I prefer the writing and editing experience on a device with a real keyboard. I like the extra screen area, the ergonomics of sitting it comfortably on my lap, and having a physical non-modal keyboard.  Could I type a piece of writing like this on an iPad? Sure I could (and have), but if given a choice I prefer to pick the tool that works best for me for that given task.

This is one of the reasons my school has gone down the path of having a combination of both iPads and Chromebooks. There are times when one is simply a better option than the other. They both have such unique strengths, and to exclusively choose one over the other tends to just highlights the weaknesses of each. That said, if you only have a choice of one or the other, either will be perfectly fine.

So back to the original question… “what is the place of iPads in teaching and learning?” It’s a loaded question really, because it begs the bigger question, “what is the place of technology in general in teaching and learning”. And to take it a step further, I think you should probably be asking the much bigger question “what is the point of teaching and learning anyway?” Thinking about the place that a particular technology might have in the teaching and learning process first requires you to think about what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.

Figuring out the place of iPads in teaching and learning should be pretty obvious once you know what you want teaching and learning to look like to start with. If you’re clear on the big idea of why, then seeing how is easy. You simply ask yourself whether this technology is helping you get closer to your goal or not. If it is, it has a place. It it doesn’t, then maybe not.

The school that asked me this question seems to have a pretty clear educational direction for what they are trying to achieve, and how they believe the teaching and learning process should look.

For a start, they want their learning to be transdisciplinary. The transdisciplinary model for teaching and learning is highly inquiry based and values collaboration, teamwork, curiosity and interconnectedness. It’s more than just thinking about a topic from different perspectives (that’s multidisciplinary) or by thinking about a topic by combining different subjects together like maths and science (that’s interdisciplinary). The idea of making the learning transdisciplinary involves bringing together multiple subject areas in such a way that the learning transcends the curriculum and becomes more than just the sum of its parts. If you’re a PYP school this should all sound quite familiar as it forms the foundation of that program. By taking a transdisciplinary approach the aim is to bring a more authentic, open-ended, personalised, contextual learning experience to each student.

Threaded through this core model for learning is a highly inquiry-based approach, a strong belief in differentiation according to student needs, flexible learning paths, and a fundamental goal for students to build their own learning through a Constructivist approach.

Would an iPad help support that kind of learning? Yeah, I think it would.

Steve Jobs once described computers as a “bicycle for the mind”, a metaphor borrowed from a study on locomotive efficiency in animals. Apparently for humans, walking is incredibly inefficient. Other animals can travel much further with far less energy. Steve observed how humbling it was for humans to be placed so far down the efficiency scale compared to other animals. However, he observed, if you allow a human to use a bicycle they become the animal with the most efficient form of locomotion of all. The larger point is that the right tool can make a big difference to what we are capable of.

Being given an opportunity to learn on your own terms, in ways that make sense to you, about things that interest you the most, forms the foundation of great learning. But without an effective tool to help, you’ll be like a human without a bicycle. You’ll probably get there, but it will take so much more work than it should.

So all of that pondering just leads me to my main idea, that giving a student an iPad (or any other piece of technology that helps them think more efficiently) can be a powerful thing. I think we intuitively know that, but it sometimes helps to step back and think about why we know it. And I think the “bicycle for the mind” idea is a pretty decent metaphor for why technology in the classroom can help support the kind of learning that we want. It can helps reduce the friction in curiosity, wonder, creativity and inquiry, and makes that process more efficient.

On the most basic level, having a device in the hands of a student that places them one click away of the sum of all human knowledge is in itself a pretty amazing advantage. (and one that no generation before them has ever had, by the way). We talk a lot about these devices helping students “connect, collaborate and communicate” so the simple idea of just being able to “look stuff up on the Internet” may not sound very impressive. But even though this might not be the wow factor that makes these devices “revolutionary and magical”, it’s still a pretty useful thing! To be able to look up a word, find a definition, peruse a map, verify a fact, ask a question or see a picture of something – instantly – is amazing. Don’t underestimate the power of that!

If you’re running a classroom based on an inquiry model, the iPad truly can act as that “bicycle for the mind” machine that helps a curious kid instantly connect to any fact or statistic they need to keep inquiring. iPads are transdisciplinary in the sense that they don’t silo information into arbitrary subjects. A query is a query. Curiosity does not have to limit itself to whether something is “science” or “maths” or “art”. Picking up an iPad and asking “OK Google, what type of lettuce is used in a Caesar salad?” and finding out that it is Romaine lettuce, and then wondering why it was named Caesar salad, or where it was invented, or whether it’s less fattening than a regular salad, or how you make a crouton, or the million and one other questions that might spring to mind as your questions cascade from one to the next… that’s just one small reason why technology makes sense in an inquiry based classroom.

Of course it’s much more than that though. You can wonder something, learn about it, and respond to it by making something with that information. It can be the tool by which a student can respond to their own curiosity. An iPad is amazing because it is a not one thing. It’s a notebook, a camera, a recording studio, a stopwatch, an atlas, a sketchbook, an editing suite, a music synthesizer, an artroom. It lets you compose, create and explore ideas. It’s screen instantly changes to become whatever tool you need it to be. There is really nothing else like it in that respect.

Using an iPad you can publish a short story, compose a soundtrack or produce a film clip. You can build a 3D model of a house, record a timelapse of a science experiment, or add augmented reality to a poster. There are literally millions of apps in the App Store so whatever you might want to do, you can almost guarantee “there’s an app for that”.

Finally the iPad is an incredible tool for communicating and collaborating, from having access to email, to messaging, to videoconferencing, to cloud computing. The world truly can be your oyster. You can collaborate with amazing cloud-based tools that let students form crosscultural, transdisciplinary teams to work on projects that are authentic, meaningful and real.

Of course, in reality none of this is terribly new. In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published a paper titled “20 Things to do with a Computer” in which their key assertion was that computers are capable of doing so much more if we allow them to be used creatively, and that the real reason to introduce computers into schools is to empower students. If a computer (or an iPad) is not being used to give agency to student learning then we have missed the whole point of having them.

Introducing computers (or iPads) into classrooms is not about better forms of testing students or NAPLAN preparation or math drills. It’s not about data management, not about saving money, not about impressing parents and not about keeping up with the school down the road. It’s about giving students agency and independence to take control of their own learning. And with that simple goal usually comes a whole lot of change. Sometimes quite painful change, but change that has to happen.

Adding technology to a classroom without reimagining how that classroom works, and rethinking what your students can do because of that technology, is a waste of time and money. Providing technology to students gives them an opportunity to do not just the same old things they’ve always done, except now with a shiny new tool… No. we now have an incredible opportunity to do entirely new things that were never possible before, using an amazing array of digital tools designed to create, and reinventing the way the way we think about teaching and learning.

Giving students iPads and not making fundamental shifts in how we teach and learn would be like giving them that bicycle for their minds, but then expecting them to push it and walk along beside it.If they are to get the true potential from that bicycle you need to let them get on it, get the wind in their face and ride the damn thing.

Featured image “Speedy Bike” by Till Krech via Flickr. CC BY.

Where’s the Coding?

The following press release  was written by Dr Jason Zagami, president of the ACCE, in response to the recent review of the Australian Curriculum. This review, undertaken by Ken Wiltshire and Kevin Donnelly on behalf of the Liberal government makes a number of recommendations that are hard to understand in their inconsistency and lack of vision.

Here is Jason’s press release. Please spread it around.

For immediate release

Australian Council for Computers in Education has deep concerns with inconsistent support for school computing in the government’s response to the Review of the Australian Curriculum

ACCE has considered the Review of the Australian Curriculum Report and Supplementary Material, and is deeply concerned by some of the recommendations being considered by the government in the Initial Australian Government Response.

While ACCE acknowledges concern about a perceived overcrowding of the primary curriculum, there are many ways to address this other than a return to 19th and 20th Century curriculum priorities. It is an opportunity to refocus the curriculum on the 21st Century and to acknowledge ways in which subjects can be taught together in the primary years. This interdisciplinary collaboration in industry has stimulated many of the great innovations we now enjoy in modern society.

The USA and UK have identified the teaching of the computing discipline as a national priority. It would be a threat to Australia’s economic future if Australian students are excluded from being able to fully contribute to such innovations by a curriculum that limits their learning about digital technologies to a comparably superficial treatment in the senior years of schooling. Students in other countries will be advantaged by a developmental curriculum throughout their schooling. We do not expect students studying mathematics or science to start their studies in upper secondary for the same good reasons.

It is perplexing that the lack of support for computing as a discipline in the report is inconsistent with the Australian Government’s recognition of the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). ACCE was encouraged by the government’s investment of 12 million dollars in the Restoring the focus on STEM in schools initiative that includes “the introduction of computer coding across different year levels in Australian schools leading to greater exposure to computational thinking, and, ultimately, expanding the pool of ICT-skilled workers.” ACCE is subsequently dismayed that this is not reflected in the proposed curriculum models.

For Australia to have a world class, 21st Century curriculum, students should have the opportunity to engage in meaningful ways with how they can develop digital solutions that improve their lives and solve problems that increase in complexity over time. This is necessary to develop students’ capacity to creatively develop digital solutions, and in doing so, enable them with the ability to make considered study and career choices that involve the many facets of digital technologies, be they in information technology, science, the media, service, construction, medicine, arts, entertainment, law, teaching, politics, or other careers.

ACCE maintains that the teaching of computing as a discipline should be a core subject in any modern curriculum. Unfortunately, that view was not expressed in the report. Curiously, this view was expressed by the report subject matter specialist in the supplementary material. Of the two models presented in the report, the one proposed by Dr. Donnelly includes study of Digital Technologies only as an option for educational authorities in the states and territories. Such an approach loses much of the value of an Australian curriculum to further national goals. However, this is preferable to a mandated limiting of the study of the computing discipline to just the upper years of schooling as proposed by Professor Wiltshire. ACCE reiterates the need for Digital Technologies to be included as a core subject to some degree at all levels of schooling to enable a developmental approach to the discipline.

ACCE strongly recommends the government consults more widely with industry and professional groups such as the Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE), Australian Computer Society (ACS), Australian Information Industries Association (AIIA), and Digital Careers, and relevant government departments, to resolve how Digital Technologies can be included as a core subject in a 21st Century Australian Curriculum.

Dr Jason Zagami
President of the Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE)
j.zagami@griffith.edu.au 0755528454

The Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE) is the national professional education body for the teaching of computing in Australian schools. It comprises representatives from all state and territory associations and the Australian Computer Society (ACS).

So what is Technology Integration?

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I was asked by a colleague in another school the other day if I could give her a snapshot into what I actually do, and what the role of an ICT Integrator actually looks like (from my perspective anyway). Apparently she wants to talk to her school leaders about having an integrator on their staff and was trying to get an idea of what the role would entail from someone who does it.

Whenever people I meet ask me what I do, they have often never heard the term “ICT Integrator”. It’s another one of those jobs that didn’t exist when most of us were in school. We say all the time that we should be preparing our students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and this role is a good example of that.

I have a couple of  simple “elevator pitch” descriptions that I often use to tell people what my job involves…

  • “I look at the stuff kids are supposed to learn in school and help teachers figure out where technology can help make that learning richer and more meaningful.”
  • ” I look at technology and curriculum and try to mash them together so that learning becomes more relevant and interesting.”
  • “I help combine technology that changes all the time, with schools that don’t.”

Basically, the role of a tech integrator is all about finding ways that technology can assist learning, and helping teachers and students make the most of it. To do that we try to think about things like the SAMR Model, the TPACK Model, Blooms Taxonomy, Multiple Intelligences, Visible Thinking, Dweck’s Mindsets, etc, etc, and figure out how technology can assist to make them work even better. We need to be able to identify opportunities in the curriculum where technology can help make it richer, and I think we also need to be wise enough to recognise when technology is not the right answer too.

To be a tech integrator requires a lot of dealing with people, both big people and little people. We work with kids of all ages and adults who sometimes act like kids of all ages. We have to be able to push people out of their comfort zone enough that they will take risks and try new things, but not so hard that they get their back up and refuse to play. We have to deal with the natural human tendency to resist change, while helping schools redefine themselves as they adapt to new ways of learning and teaching. We have to be teachers, learners, psychologists, trainers, guides. We need to be techie enough to understand how technology works and what we might do with it, but we need to play it down so that we don’t appear to be too geeky and nerdy. (Even if we secretly wear our nerdiness like  badge of honour)

We need to understand that 95% of the teachers we work with will never even think about changing the default settings on their computers, while 95% of the students we work with will refuse to leave the default settings alone.

We need to understand new technologies and be able to see the potential they offer for learning. We need to understand not only what’s new and hot, but also what’s solid and fundamental. We know about iPad and Apps and Chromebooks and Tablets, and we don’t just know what terms like Web 2.0 and the “Internet of Things” mean, we also know about Flipped Learning and the Jigsaw Classroom. We need to be as comfortable with new operating systems as we are with the new curriculum, and we need to know how to deal with both of them.

If you’re only a technician, you probably won’t make a good ICT Integrator. If you love devices and gadgets more than you love kids and learning, this job is not for you.

As an ICT Integrator you create an important interface between the teaching staff and the technical staff in a school. Each of these groups seems to think the others are obstructionists who just don’t understand what truly matters, so you need to be able to straddle both worlds and act as the interface between them. Integrators need to be able to talk tech and mean it. Although the people who speak all the technical mumbo jumbo are critically important in a school,  for god’s sake don’t let them make curriculum decisions! Too often in schools the technology decisions are  based on what’s convenient for the technical team, not what’s best for the learning of the kids. That happens way too often, in too many place, so don’t fall in to that trap. Schools are about learning. Let’s keep it that way.

As an integrator, you need to be flexible, creative and know a little about a lot. Good general knowledge really helps. You need to stay current with technological trends as well as educational shifts. You often work across grades and faculties, so you get to see the big picture across the school. But because you’re so close to the action in the classroom you also see the real picture. Your school might spin good PR, but as an ICT Integrator you get to cut through the crap and see what actually happens in classrooms. Sometimes it’s awe inspiring, and sometimes it ain’t pretty.

You understand that technology changes things in a classroom.  As Seymour Papert observed long ago, something very special happens when you put kids and computers together. It changes student motivation and enhances student engagement. The learning changes. The nature of the teaching changes. Or at least it should. When you put technology in the hands of kids, suddenly having them sit in rows and work at the same rate on the same problems doesn’t seem to make as much sense. Some teachers are not prepared for that shift, and that’s what the integrator is there to help with. To reassure them that learning can come from chaos and that they really don’t all need to be doing the same exercise in the same way at the same time.

It’s a pretty unique role.

Photo by Chris Betcher CC BY-SA

Babies and Bathwater

I was recently in Hong Kong for the excellent 21st Century Learning conference, where I had the very great pleasure of running some hands-on workshops in Google stuff, and also giving the closing keynote. As I mention at  the start of this talk, it was quite intimidating to think that I could say anything worth hearing after an amazing couple of days of learning from so many other amazing educators. (Having people like Stephen Heppell and Gary Stager in the audience didn’t make it any less intimidating either)

I actually didn’t even realise these talks were being recorded so when I spotted this on Twitter today it came as a bit of a surprise. For what it’s worth, here is a video of my talk, called Babies and Bathwater.

I go to quite a few conferences, and I’m always a little surprised at how few of them bother to video the presentations. Given the amount of time and energy that conference organisers put into running these events, you’d think they would be better at capturing things for later reuse. Good on you Paul, Justin and Graeme for making sure that you do it right at 21clHK.

Removing Friction

videostoreWith Google turning 15 last week, I’ve been pondering  about just how much friction has been removed from our lives because of technology (and web technology in particular).  Thanks to the web, many things that were once difficult, expensive, complicated or time-consuming have been made less of all of these things, and much of the inherent friction in these things has been dramatically reduced, and in some cases even eliminated completely. This removal of friction hasn’t always been painless, and many industries have been decimated by the massive disintermediation that  digital technology has brought to them.

Take the music industry as an obvious example.  In the space of about a decade, we’ve seen a huge shift from the idea of buying music on plastic disks to that of downloading music from “somewhere on the Internet”, hopefully by still paying for it with some sort of subscription model like Spotify or Google Play All Access, but all too often pirated for free from torrents and filesharing services. Aside from the  freedom of cost, it’s far more about the freedom of choice. I use the All Access subscription service and I love how it lets me think of pretty much any song I want to hear and immediately stream it directly from the web. I’m listening to more music than before, and paying what feels like a fair price for it. The record companies who used to control the music business are no longer in charge, and in a post-Napster world, the idea of buying music one CD at a time seems so outdated. Along with the power shift in the music business there have also been massive disruptions to the way the money flows. Artists are free to bypass the labels. Thanks to the web, to YouTube, to iTunes, etc, indie artists have the same opportunities that were only afforded to big names bands attached to major labels. More musicians can now play in this space, and it’s all thanks to the way the web has removed so many of the friction points that used to exist between musician and listener.

Example two. We saw the photographic film business almost vanish in a few short years because of digital cameras. Those 24 hour film processing places that either didn’t see the change coming, or didn’t react to it fast enough, were simply crushed by the revolution of digital photography.  It was a case of evolve or die, and many simply died. Kodak, once the titan of the photographic film industry, closed down their film production business and these days they are barely more than a footnote in the history of photography.  The inconveniences of shooting with film, like being able to take only 24 photos at a time, the fact that you couldn’t see what you shot until you got the photos back days or weeks later, and of course the expense and inconvenience, all conspired to make film photography an easy target for any technology that would make it simpler, faster and cheaper. While a few diehards still swear by film, it turns out that for the general photo-taking population, digital photography removed so much the friction from the cumbersome process of taking photos that the old ways of doing things became obsolete almost overnight.

Thanks to my Apple TV and Chromecast I haven’t set foot in a video rental store in many years.  The fact that  video rental stores still exist at all is just because of that percentage of the population who are still hanging on to their old ways. I’m sure that once Netflix arrives in Australia it will be the final nail in the video store coffin. These online digital download services remove almost all of the friction from the process of renting videos. No more getting in the car to go to the video store, no more futzing around with disks and having to remember to return them, no more sitting through endless ads before the movie starts, and no more late fees. Delivering video over the web has removed most of those pain points, and in the process has virtually killed the physical video rental business.

Then there is banking. I hear my 81 year old mother talk about how she still goes to the bank to get money out, or to the post office to pay her bills. Although I’m old enough to remember what that was like, I can’t imagine doing it that way any more. The web has removed so much of the friction from those things, there is no going back to the old way.

The list goes on… thanks to the web, we can more easily keep in touch with old friends, share our locations, publish our ideas, map our way through strange cities, and much more… faster, cheaper and more simply than ever before, and decimating the incumbent industries along the way.

Although I still know plenty of teachers who complain that technology is hard, that it’s all too overwhelming, the truth is that technology, and the web in particular, has made things easier than ever. It’s easier than ever to network with ideas, learn from others, and connect our students with the learning experiences we want them to have. Thanks to the rise of the web, we are living in a time which is, potentially, the fastest, cheapest and easiest it has ever been to be a learner.

So ask yourself, how has the web changed your classroom? Your school? Your profession? Your life? Are you doing the same things you’ve always done? Or have you seen these changes coming and reinvented your approach to the way you teach and learn? Has the web changed your job, and in the age of the Internet, have you reconsidered what exactly your job IS these days?

It should be obvious that the world has changed forever because of digital and network technologies, and that the genie is never going back into the bottle. Despite the apparent fact that a large number of schools still believe that they can keep doing what they have always done and everything will be ok, education is no more exempt from these changes than any other industry.

What are you doing to ensure that your classroom will not become the educational equivalent of a video store?