John Elfrank-Dana is a social studies teacher, Carnegie Scholar and United Federation of Teachers chapter leader at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan.
About 10 years ago I was approached by Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education to help devise a course that would fill the technology void in teacher education. At the time, I had a reputation in education circles as being ahead of the curve when it came to tech in the classroom.
I had used the Internet as an instructional tool long before there was a World Wide Web, in the late '80s using Gopher and list servers. To me the logic was compelling and inevitable: the power of the Internet would change the way we teach and learn.
However, with the so-called accountability movement, we have seen a premium placed on test scores, as the careers of administrators rise and fall based on the spreadsheet. Likewise, with the new Common Core standards, I don’t see the fundamental shift in education that I had hoped for and expected from the impact of new media.
Indeed, there’s nothing inherent in the Common Core that requires teaching to shift away from traditional teacher-dominated lessons. Different lesson-plan formats exist merely for reconfiguring the classroom.
Further delaying the adoption of social media are the bans in New York City schools on the instruments for their use, like smartphones and access to YouTube, perhaps the greatest single purveyor of video content available (pornography-free only, of course).
And with the advent of teacher evaluation schemes based in large part on standardized testing, the best use of technology will most likely be relegated to the occasional elective, as no educator will dare to waste time on methods that won’t address the tests directly.
It is a shame because no changes in education have as much power and potential to drive student participation in new ways as do social media.
There are fundamentally three modes of using new media in instruction. There’s content delivery, as in a PowerPoint to deliver a lecture and content. This is big for the accountability crowd, as new media is used for drilling for exams.
There’s student discovery mode, as in Web quests, where students engage with new media to research and produce content of their own. This has more student engagement, but the teacher still usually defines the task at hand and the online resources students may use.
Finally, there is what I call immersion -- made possible by social media, where the new media opens up new ways of interacting with content, instructors and fellow classmates.
It’s this third mode that seems still to get little traction in education, even several years after the introduction of Web 2.0.
Proponents of Common Core may argue that it’s not intended to be a regime of technology standards, but rather for literacy and mathematics. Proponents of Regents exams will argue that there’s a core set of knowledge and skills that all students must know.
While this may be true, settling for these standards alone leaves us lagging in providing an education that will best serve students in the future.
What should that education look like? The new skill set — one that transcends the new learning standards -- was described as Participatory Culture by the M.I.T. Media Lab in 2005.
I was teaching the Media Literacy and Technology seminar at Fordham University when the white paper listing the skills was released. For me it was a eureka moment. At last someone was articulating the skill set of the immersion model.
The characteristics include:
Focusing on a few of these can illustrate the potency of what is possible in a classroom that takes full advantage of social media's power.
Collective Intelligence, for instance, by using social collaboration tools like Google discussion, Twitter and blogging, allows one to share information with classmates, but also others anywhere in the world who have a shared interest and expertise in the subject.
Networking, using social media tools, allows us to find not only those interested in the same subject of study in classrooms across the world, but also those with expertise beyond what any one teacher could provide.
Judgment would then come into play, drawing on students’ critical thinking capacities to evaluate the myriad information they encounter.
While employers need the skill set presented in the Common Core standards, democracy needs the Participatory Culture skill set. A citizenry that can organize their world in a new and powerful way is a citizenry less apt to fall for the illusion of propaganda and manufactured consent.
Upping the ante with newly articulated standards like Common Core (old wine, new bottles?) that don’t fundamentally alter the learning experience and truly engage the learner will fail to bring about needed change.
This is why schools need to wrap their heads around the real potential of new media in the classroom; unleash the shackles of test-based accountability on educators, and allow students to embrace a new love of learning that puts them at the center of their education and connects them in new ways to the world around them.