Posted by: schooleducator | July 30, 2009

The Great Race for the Problems of iTunes and Google

“The grown-ups just don’t get it,” my nephew explained, as he lay in a hospital bed in Estes Park, Colorado, after he fell victim to a crippling viral infection that left him stuck in a hospital bed for 3 days and nights with a bout of fever, chills, and aches. “None of my teachers know how to use computers and we’re stuck with these old PCs at school. We should be using Macs – they’re much cooler and easier to use.” He continues: “My dad just got the new iPhone and he doesn’t know how to do anything with it, other than to check sports scores on ESPN. He should be downloading all of the apps and checking out new things. I try to get him to do that, but he won’t listen to me.”

Such is the plight of many young people stuck in schools where the “grown-ups don’t get it.” As I sat with my nephew in the hospital room, I could not help but be frustrated to hear of his disillusionment and honesty about the lack of opportunity with technology in his school and in his home. He’s a good kid, lives in a comfortable upper middle class neighborhood in Connecticut, has access to an affluent public school district, and has loving, caring parents who value his education. He’s also incredibly sharp and perceptive and has aspirations to become an engineer. He shared his excitement about the engineering course offerings at his high school and talked about which courses he plans to take, on his way to becoming an aerospace engineer.

As I listened to him, I realized that schools and education leaders and policy-makers need to start interviewing students across the country about the future direction of education in this country. My 14 year-old nephew has crystal clear ideas about the type of education he wants and needs to succeed and to get where he wants to go. Educators are writing books about 21st century skills, and schools are putting together committees to cobble together new programs for 21st century learning, but I wonder how many schools include students on these committees.

There is hope and it could be just around the corner. In a recent article in the New York Times, we learn of a summer program where individualization and customization are the order of the day. Setting up flight boards on screens in the classroom, students find out what their daily departure and itinerary looks like. Instead of herding the giant elephant of the whole class, the teacher moves each student along at their own pace, with different online activities and assessments. Some students work in small groups and collaborate.

However, after I shared my excitement about this more personalized approach to learning with one long-time math educator, he worried that the students were essentially just doing glorified worksheets on the computers. And, my wife, a first grade teacher, commented, “You see what’s wrong with this, don’t you – where’s the face to face, human contact?” Both have valid points. One to one laptop learning still needs interpersonal connections to forge strong relationships among students, and between students and teachers. The recent passing of Frank McCourt, and the flood of notes from his students, who shared tales of their deep, lasting relationship with the legendary Stuyvesant educator only underscore the impact a great teacher can have on students. And, it has nothing to do with technology; instead, it’s about being what psychologist Robert Brooks terms the “charismatic adult” for students. No matter how many bells and whistles schools come up with to engage students, so that they will not be “bored” anymore, at the end of the day, learning will happen when there are dynamic adults, open to listening to students and their ideas about their own learning.

Beyond sitting behind a computer screen, working at one’s own pace, and the importance of the presence of charisma, a great opportunity exists to foster collaborative learning around real-world real-time problems. Students are not bound to a “classroom” anymore, with the ease and speed of connection to experts, mentors, and other students around the world. The recent story of the Netflix competition to improve the online movie rental service’s movie recommendation system highlights the power of engagement with a real problem that needs fixing (not in the ending global hunger kind of way, but in the make life easier for me kind of way). The contest began in October 2006 and has now ended in a dead heat between two teams. The reason the competition yielded so much success was because it brought “people with complementary skills” together to “combine different methods of problem-solving.” Also, the most successful teams were made up of individuals across the globe, illustrating how quickly, efficiently, and collaboratively problems can be attacked and solved.

What if companies like Netflix, Google, Amazon, iTunes, Twitter, etc., pooled their problems, not the top-secret, ready to bend the market secrets, but the daily puzzles that their software engineers, marketing and communication departments wrestle with every day and made them available to schools and students to solve? Schools across the globe could engage in the great race to solve real problems that real companies are pouring their resources into figuring out. The Netflix contest fast became “a race to agglomerate as many teams as possible,” said David Weiss, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, quoted in the New York Times. Students could reach out through Twitter and Facebook to collaborate across skill sets and interest level to attack with lightning speed and full engagement the problems of the 21st century. How exciting would this be! The question is, would these giant companies open themselves up and allow students access to their problems? We hear all the time the power of “free” with the Internet, and open source software; now, let’s see these companies live up to their word. All of Google’s tools are free; shouldn’t their problems also be free?

Now, let’s return to the School of One model with the flight departures and itineraries and we can begin to see where personalized, paced, and peer to peer learning can lead. Schools should replicate the online marketplace and prepare students for their futures. There is a golden opportunity right now and Google/Twitter/iTunes can break open the 21st century for students. My nephew can’t wait to start solving some real problems.

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