Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Student Skills in A Virtual Education Environment: Part I

Up to this point I have indicated to you that what is needed is a revolution in education that will fit with the online education environment. I have implied, directly and indirectly, that transposing the present system found in "brick and mortar" schools won't cut it. What we need is a defining vision and mission that will capitalize on the potential opportunities of educating students from a global perspective. Such a position demands a re-examination of the skills that students, teachers and administrators will need in order to make the experience of education enriching not only for the stakeholders in education but ultimately for the future of our societies.

Based upon my experience as an online educator for teens, the following skills that I identify below are essential and do not come naturally to students, even though, they are digital natives:

  1. Self-Discipline: Unlike the programmed school day that dictates where a student needs to be and when, the online environment gives students a level of autonomy that they have never known. Time management is an essential skill mainly because the teacher or administrator is not going to constantly prod the student to access and labour at his/her chosen course of study. Many online schools do have a time limit in which to complete a course of study but it is still up to the student to organize his/her time around other aspects of their daily life. The fact that many online schools operate 24/7 for 365 days of the year allows for a customized, individualized plan but the planning still lies with the student. Having said that, it should be pointed out that online education is not for every student. Careful and honest introspection is necessary before making the decision to embark on virtual education. For example, students have to ask themselves whether or not they can maintain the necessary focus without being sidetracked to Facebook, Twitter or IM which become the same distractions found in the brick and mortar school. The difference is that there is not going to be a well meaning adult, other than parents, who will get you back on track.
  2. Discerning Judgement: The Internet is a world that is ever expanding and the amount of information on a myriad of topics is growing exponentially. Not everything that is posted to the Internet has value, not everything has truth value and most is posted from a particular worldview that very often reflects a bias that appeals to specific global groups. The student needs to be able to judge what is verifiable and valued information and what information is in reality disinformation posted to persuade people to accept a particular point of view uncritically . In broader strokes students should have the skill of being able to judge which websites are valid and useful and which ones are not. There does exist checklists for judging the intrinsic value of websites that can be found on the Internet. Other skills that are implied here are being able to judge facts from opinions, to be able to judge arguments from non-arguments, to be able to evaluate evidence offered in support of arguments made and to be able to construct effective arguments.
  3. Emotional Reasoning vs Logical Reasoning: One of the problems that students have is that they can easily be manipulated by emotional presentations that are designed to elicit affirmation of a viewpoint without taking the time to examine all points of view and the evidential support of all sides in the issue. What should be the case is that after examining all sides and the evidence, a decision is made in support of a particular point of view and then a passionate presentation is reasonable and valid. Too often students receive an emotional presentation on an issue and are then manipulated to accept the point of view before closely examining the presentation for bias, evidence that is verifiable from a reputable source and false statements.
More later.....

Monday, October 28, 2013

Virtual Education: Re-Create the Wheel or Throw It Out?

This past week I attended a technology conference in Niagara Falls Canada. During the three days that I attended, there were a number of things that I observed that I think are pertinent to a discussion of virtual education.
There were three main and familiar groups represented: Google, Microsoft and the Social Media camps. One of the observations that I arrived at was that we still can not overcome the idea of  promoting the consumer complex when it comes to education. In all the sessions, including the keynote sessions, the theme was the same. You must get and use this app or that app. There were elaborate presentations using a multitude of online tools but the underlying message was the same:"Be good consumers and we will do everything else for you."
In my opinion, this is a death sentence for the advancement of the present generation and the next . For once, it would be nice for a conference to have the theme that in this conference we are going to have you collaborate to create new knowledge. You will need to consider present barriers that exist to advancing our societies and cultures and develop a prototype solution. In working together, you will need to set up times so that you may draw in the voices of expertise from other areas of the planet.
At the end, your collaborative group will share and defend the vision that this effort is based on.

Young people who are digital natives to the online world need something to aspire to. Being consumed in the social media environment may satisfy an internal need to belong but it is time that the will never get back. It is time that they could devote to exciting explorations into the creation of new ideas and new knowledge that will help build a viable future; a future of amazing possibilities.

Teachers in online education need to be innovators of new techniques of teaching and true mentors on which students can pose exciting ideas. Teachers need to dissect and dispose of the industrial model of education. In one of my sessions which was hosted by a University of Toronto professor, he postulated that the industrial model of education will never disappear. He then proceeded to use a PowerPoint presentation and gave us a Socratic lecture all the while complaining about the faults of the technology he was using. Ironically, the title of his lecture was :"Surviving the Coming Online Education Age..." What is wrong with this picture? Is this typical of post secondary teaching? If so is it any wonder that many students in the lecture hall are on Facebook and Twitter??

The advancing technology is making possible things that we have never dreamed about in the past. However, in order to benefit from these advances we need to be part of the new knowledge and skills exploration and production. We need to use our imagination and inspire others to explore this new frontier and to break the addiction that makes others a profit but does not inspire others to use new skills.

More later....

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Virtual Education: A Question of Vision

One of the great experiences that I had in education was the opportunity to teach Russian history to teens.It was even more interesting to me because I was not teaching from an American or Canadian world view but from the viewpoint of the Russian people. One of more useful resources to get a feel for the history of these proud people was a book by Sergei Alekseyev titled: "Russian History in Tales"(Progress Publishers, 1975) . A primary lesson that I learned from this resource was there was a very good reason why people such as Catherine the Great and Peter the Great were in fact called "great". These were Russian leaders who had an understanding of where their people were at and even more important a credible vision as to where their people should be in the unfolding future of the world.
One problem that we have in education is the lack of a defining vision for what education should do for society.
Two points of view are: (1) Education should reflect society and seek to support its direction, and (2) Education should be an instigator of change in society for the better. If you consider the first view point then your efforts as educators may be reduced to "navel staring" and you could becomes slaves to other forces that have a different agenda in society. If you consider the second point of view then it becomes clear that a defining vision of where we would like society to go is absolutely fundamental for moving forward.

With the arrival of virtual education, we now have access to a mosaic of visions that are defined by a multitude of cultures. Never before have we had so much access to global points of view on where the planet should proceed in the future. The real trick is in judging which visions are viable for global citizens and which are equally sustainable.
Where are the men and women of great vision in our societies? Going back to Russian history, not all visions were visions that were good for humanity. We think of people such as Stalin and Lenin  as examples of people who had vision but theirs was not a vision that was a benefit to humanity or for their own people as hindsight has demonstrated.
In virtual education, who will be the "great" visionaries of online education? Will they be the ones who hold the first point of view that education should reflect society or the second view that education should be a stimulant to bring about change in society? In order to see this worked out, we need to give up our addiction at being consumers of knowledge which serves only one point of view and become producers of new knowledge that is to the benefit of all people in moving a society forward.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Innovation in Global Education-Part III

In the last segment, I suggested that there is needed and is coming, a revolution in a number of facets of education. The online virtual education school will spearhead the need for these changes. The reason is that we can no longer do things the way we have always done them. With each generation of student, the interconnectedness they have, via the Internet, to people on the planet requires new skill sets that allows these prospective citizens to function in an online world.

A revolution in the organisation of teachers and administrators for the online world will undoubtedly be met with much resistance from the status quo but has this not always been true with revolutions? What I am going to suggest in this segment may result in some having temper tantrums because they find it threatening and certainly not within their comfort zone!

First, lets look at the concept of public education over the last century. The noble goal of public education was to make education available to anyone without regard to the parents' socio-economic status in life. This has enabled generations of young people to excel and become contributing members of the societies that they lived in. In the developed countries, and notice very carefully my choice of words, I said "developed countries", this has led to advancement in many areas of life for certain segments of the population. However, if examined in the light of the 21st century, we see constant complaints from the general public, which are then taken up by the politicians who based upon little or no scholarly evidence, pass legislation that has an impact on all stakeholders in education. Add to the this mix the power and influence of teacher's federations, unions, organizations or what ever name is in vogue in your country, you have to ask the question:" Has this form of public education outlived its usefulness for the advancement of  our society?" Should public education be totally privatized in much the same way that Medicine, Law, and other professions have been established? Yes, I do know that we have families who live in poverty in many developed countries but they still have access to a doctor or a lawyer if they need one despite how these professions are organized.
With regards to how teachers are organized, what would a possible organization look like? During this century, one of the mantras found on ministries of education web-sites was the concept of "life-long learning". However, despite educational structures such "night school", life-long learning has been difficult to obtain for adults because of work schedules. If as societies we say that life-long learning is important to our societies then it should be important for all age groups within our societies. That is precisely why the way that  teachers are organized much change.
A few years ago, I suggested that with the rise of online learning it was time to talk about "mentoring communities" rather than the just the children of communities. To do this, I suggested that teachers needed to be re-organized into structures that I termed "Master Teacher Guilds". If you remember your lessons from world history, a "guild" was a organization of craftsmen in medieval times whose primary pursuit was to refine their craft to such a high degree that the general public sought them out because of the integrity and care they exercised in perfecting their craft. In teaching you have some who think, much like scientists, that if you use a particular formula to address something that is desirable for students to develop, you will always get what is expected. If you don't obtain the expected results the fault lies with the practitioner, lets call him/her a teacher, and therefore re-training is required. However, there are some who don't agree that developing skills in students just requires the administration, in the prescribed ways, the collected best practices. Some have the audacity to suggest that teaching is also an art form and in the right combination with best practices, not only are the expected results obtained but there is room for innovation. This leads to the rise of what we may call "master teachers".
A "Master Teachers Guild" would mentor communities via the online environment and it would be a private organization of teachers and administrators.
Well, coming back to the present, watch carefully the growing tide of online schools but judge carefully their vision. Two interesting but dated books to take a look at is: "The Organization of the Future" (Drucker Foundation, 1997) and "The Ingenuity Gap"(Thomas Homer-Dixon, 2001).
More in the next segment....

Friday, October 11, 2013

Innovation in Global Virtual Education---Part II

My last post may have seemed to some to be a rather harsh treatment of the brick n mortar school systems but what they still haven't learned is that the industrial model of education is a dead concept in this age and the ages to come. Young people are not widgets on the education conveyor belt any longer. The rock group, Pink Floyd, probably expressed it well in their protest lyrics "all in all, you're  just another brick in the wall".
With the rise of a new generation of young people, called Generation Y who were successors to Generation X, came the rise of the concept of the virtual school. As a side note, the fact that we would label generations of young people this way and even referring to some as a "lost generation" speaks to the sense of betrayal that young people felt. After they had gone through the system, did what was required only to discover that the skills that they had acquired did not result in gainful employment and the "good life" that they had been promised, led to disillusionment about their future. However, with the growth of the Internet, technology and the virtual world of education, the new "digital natives" have renewed hope about the future.

What we are seeing is the beginning of a new revolution in education on many fronts. Consider the fact that with an online school, state, provincial and national borders no longer have a high priority if at all. Students now can attend school by logging in from anywhere in the world where there is Internet access. The revolution that is happening will happen on a number of educational fronts:
  1. Revolution in the vision and purpose of education.
  2. Revolution in what is offered to students
  3. Revolution in the organization of teachers and administration
  4. Revolution in assessment standards
With respect to a vision of education, we need to ask ourselves where do we want the journey to take us. In the past, visionaries in education had a "rock star" persona, complete with "groupies" and various other minions who while in a state of idol worship, would do anything that the visionary proclaimed as necessary to the survival of education in the land. I remember one in particular who I  will only mention by the initials M.F. because I have a serious dislike for being sued for libel, that people would stand in long lines to hear. They were mesmerised by every word that he/she proclaimed and yet, failed to ask the question: where has his/her vision taken us?
The combination of vision and purpose must be matched by commitment that our young people will be the builders of a better society, that society for the good of the people will survive. In order for this to come about the vision of education must inspire young people; it must be about great ideas that will shape the future.
As an example, I once had the privilege of teaching robotics to young people in a school setting. What happened truly amazed me! I have never experienced such dedication to learning, such zeal for working as a team, such a readiness to help each other acquire concepts and such remorse that their study couldn't continue into the summer. I had to ask myself what happened. My conclusion was that the appeal was that we were dealing with a great idea in their future.

This of course brings me to the revolution of what can be offered to students in a global virtual education environment. Consider the following great ideas of the future but also consider the secondary ideas that also have great potential and appeal to young people:
  1. A virtual field trip that takes you inside the pyramids of Egypt. As a result of streamed video, you are led by an Archaeologist  who shows you the ancient writings on the walls. At any time on your virtual tour, you can stop the Archaeologist to ask questions even though you are thousands of miles away. Another possibility, is that as a high school student you are interested in going into Medicine. You take a virtual field trip to the operating room of a large teaching hospital where you watch cardiac surgery being performed. As the surgeon works he explains what he is doing and why. When the patient heads to the ICU, you get to ask the surgeon questions.
  2. Robotics and Nanotechnology--You sit in a virtual presentation given by a leader in Bioengineering as he/she explains how Nanotechnology will enable the miniaturization of robots to the point where they can be injected into the bloodstream. Then based upon their programming you could witness the destruction of a cancer tumour.
  3. As a student you gather with other students from other countries in the virtual environment to work on the design of engineering projects under the mentorship of a well known scientist in the field. The scientist along with your sponsoring teachers them do an assessment of your final product.
With a virtual environment, many of the barriers to creativity and exploration that existed in the past, are now gone.
Now the obvious question that has to be asked is how does this change the nature and organization of teaching. I will leave you with one thought that is a question that Peter Senge asked in his book titled:"The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization"(1990). "How can we hope to create an effective learning environment for students without first having created one for teachers?"
Wait until the next post for that.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Innovation in Global Virtual Education-Part I

It was once a well repeated mantra that was drilled into the heads of bright newly minted teachers at faculties or school of education that: "If you teach the way you always teach year after year, you will get what you have always gotten". I have found that there is a great deal of truth to that mantra but there is always a corollary to that which implies that: "If you innovate in teaching year after year, what you will get will be students who are intrigued, delighted, engaged and shocked." Why shocked?? When students start their education, they are inquisitive, creative and eager to learn more and more. However, as they progress through the "SYSTEM", they learn not to expect more than their prescribed programming. By the time students reach junior high, they are jaded, disappointed, stressed out young people who quickly learn that the system has built them a prison which they can not leave until they demonstrate that they can repeat back all that the those invisible people in the Ministry of Education say must be regurgitated.

If this seems cynical and a cold condemnation of school systems, try seeing it day after day from the students who are trapped in the system which systematically deletes anything that does not fit the mold. Should students lose heart and just go through the motions?

No, enter the cyber world of education. The important thing is not to re-create the system that exists in the brick and mortar schools! With the virtual world and the tools that are available to young people, the creativity that they had when they started school can once again be re-kindled and grow to the benefit of all society. How you ask with noted incredulity?? Stay tuned for Part II.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Rise of Global Education--Virtual Education

You are not going to like my message if you are a teacher who thinks that brick and mortar schools, assemblies, recess and the Socratic method of teaching are always going to be needed by the families of this age and the next.
The walls that education has built over hundreds of years are coming down as surely as the Berlin Wall had to come down. The Berlin Wall had to come down because it was a remnant of an age of tyranny where freedoms of the population were strictly controlled and limited. This is true of education today. The walls need to come down in order for a new age of freedom in education to begin to blossom.
The education system has tried to resist this change. It thought that by introducing the latest technology into the classroom that this would satisfy those who thought that education was not turning out citizens ready for the future that they would live in. The problem with what they did is that it was merely a disguise in which they continued to do what they had always done in education. They called these by the term "best practices" but one quality that these best practices had was that they were intolerant of practices that were completely unique and alien to the practices of the past. For example, the Smartboard was just a way to continue to give students notes, bland assignments and assign research papers. Where is the innovation or creativity in that? We still have not broken away from the industrial model of education! We are still instructed to turn out good, law abiding, consumers. It is the economic powers within society which pressure governments in real and substantial ways that do not want those walls to come down. Why would they? They have been too profitable!

In response to an unresponsive education system, a new, virtual education system has come about as a result of advances in technology. There are some who say that even in this new environment, the old pedagogical practices must be used. The reach of this new system is no longer bound by national borders but instead has a reach that is global, touching on many of the cultures on the planet. The potential for an education that is enriching and able to provide skills for the citizens of the next century and beyond is enormous. What is needed are new innovative practices that are totally alien to the practices of the past and yet fully in synch with the new education environment. INNOVATION is what is needed from educators not "more of the same". Students need to be producers of new knowledge instead of being trained to be good, unproductive consumers. A new assignment for students might be something like this: Using the tools of the Internet, create a fully interactive virtual tour through the Pyramids of Giza. Use a real archeologist as a mentor in its design and include interdisciplinary tools that students can use to interpret ancient writings that they will see on the walls as they proceed through your virtual tour.
Notice that in the above example that the student is being asked to consider the world as a source for his assignment. In line with such innovation, there must also be innovation in methods of assessment. A new paradigm outlining benchmarks is needed.
Some "virtual schools" are better than others. Some have given away the freedom that such a system could have in favour of conformity to the directives of old men and women in ministries of education who only look forward to their retirement and not to new innovative approaches.

Well, by this time, some teachers who may have stumbled onto this blog have walked away content with their assessment that I am a crack pot! That's okay because this blog is not for them. It is for those who want to see an education system where the dreams of young people can experience freedom to think & create.In the present systems of education, the dreams of young people go there to die.