Leadership Day 2009 ~ Learning Beyond School

Leadership Day 2009

Scott McLeod of Dangerously Irrelevant fame invited edubloggers (educational bloggers) worldwide to post (write in our blogs) about digital technologies. As a former superintendent of schools and educational leader in my state, I have a strong foundation in pre-digital age education. That foundation has prepared me well to know what I don’t know and need to know. Two years ago I realized the world was rapidly changing in ways that have major implications for how we teach and students learn. I’m on a journey to learn what I need to know. In this post I share some of what I’ve learned in hopes that all teacher and administrative learners will begin their own journey into the digital world.

The Times They are A-Changin

In the 1960’s change was in the air. The Beatles first trip to the United States was in 1964 and the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was held the summer of 1969 in Bethel, New York.  A whole generation was learning beyond school from the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Peter, Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger.

When I graduated from college in 1970, there were transistor radios, TVs and record players or turntables. To the best of my knowledge, there were no computers; no Internet; no computer companies like Apple or Microsoft; no web browsers; no e-mail; no software for word processing, slide presenting, spread sheet making or video gaming; no ISPs; no SPAM; no .jpg or MIDI files, no MS Office; no RealAudio, no search engines; no modems, no Silicon Valley; no Napster; no cell phones.

All of these phenomena entered our world during the last three decades of the 20th Century. I continued to learn beyond school using these tools, but the pace of change was relatively slow. If the story ended there, maybe schools could continue to assign technology to the technology lab, ably managed by computer teachers or computer lab teacher assistants. In an imagined world we could control the learning environment by creating learning standards, routines and structures to prevent students from “growing up digital.” Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, the story did not end there and shortly after the beginning of the 21st Century, digital change began to dramatically accelerate. Technological innovation began to blossom. In fact, over the last few years, technology has began to transform our world in ways few of us could have imagined, a fact most people now recognize because we have experienced some of it. However, you may not be aware of the magnitude of the change because it is happening at breakneck speed — and it seems to be accelerating!

For Consideration

Consider this. Until the end of the century there were no intelligent mobile devices or PDAs; no Bluetooth; no IM/texting; no blogging; no Twitter; no Tweetdeck; no Skype; no Facebook or MySpace; no FlipVideo; no RSS feeds; no wikis; no podcasts; no iPods; no iPhone or iPhone apps; no Photo Booth; no GarageBand; no iMovie; no iTunes; no iTunes University; no YouTube or Vimeo; no Buzzword; no Diigo or delicious; no Flickr; no Skitch; no Mind42 or Mindomo; no Jing; no SecondLife; no Google Mail, Maps, Groups, Alerts, Docs, Books, Scholar, Calendar, Knol, Picasa, Reader, Sketch Up, Translate, Notebook, iGoogle, Custom Search; no Google Earth, Sky, or Ocean layer.

Now, I could continue the list for the rest of the article with a hundred more tools, but my point is that we are in the middle of a new revolution, the “Web 2.0,” “Read-Write,” “Participatory-Culture,” “Social-Learning,” revolution. Where this will evolve is uncertain, but I know from personal experience that the changes in technology are not slowing down. If there is a next stage, call it Web 3.0 for lack of a better term, you can be assured that the students learning today will direct future changes through their participation digital learning communities; communicating, collaborating and creating in ways we can’t even imagine.


When it comes to learning beyond school, students have choices. In many cases, students are beginning to see school as less and less relevant to their learning. Many students are using or learning to use the technology tools I mentioned above to learn without us. If this trend continues, combined with classroom activities that for too many students are unengaging, unmotivating, and unchallenging, some predict that as students develop personal learning environments less connected to what schools currently offer them, schooling as we know it will become less and less relevant.

As educators we have choices. Some of us are choosing to ignore the technological changes and are continuing to teach the next generation of students, who are growing up in this digital revolution as its citizens, the way we have always taught students. Then again, some of us are attacking the changes, pointing out the dangers, working to persuade the world that they know best. “Students have not changed,” is a comment some educators use to reinforce their argument against changing teaching practice.

Understandably, the fear of change and the lack of support systems can make both these choices seem reasonable. The standards do not assess these technological changes. The curriculum does not acknowledge the changes. Our professional learning does not account for the changes. Our administrator and teacher evaluations do not include standards for evaluating the changes. Most educational leaders are unaware of many of the changes so they do not use the tools or even think of including mention of them in strategic planning documents.


Now, don’t misunderstand me. I know “technology” is mentioned in these contexts, but not in significant, fundamental, all pervasive ways. The times we live in, the times that are shaping our children’s future, are not just different from the world we learned to navigate as successful adults and educators. Understanding the digital, participatory, global, complex, challenging, flat world we live is a little like understanding Parkour.

Just as Parkour throws the mind off balance ~ how could someone do something so dangerous? ~ the digital world represents a paradigm mind shift that most of us have little time, patience, or interest in understanding. At some level that reaction, as I explained above, is natural but also counter-productive to our mission to educate students in ways that engage them in their education so they develop the capacity to pursue their personal goals and life-long learning as autonomous, self-directed, confident participants in communities of learners.

In Times of Change

Eric Hoffer sums up our challenge.

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