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disruptive innovation : Are We There Yet?

Lessons from Egypt

February 14, 2011 · Posted in culture, social networking · Comment 

The extraordinary events that have unfolded in Egypt over the past month have affected change throughout the mideast and have profound implications for the future of that region. We’re probably just beginning to become aware of what’s in store for the Egyptian people and for freedom and democracy in general in Egypt and the rest of the world. It has been an inspirational and awe-inspiring experience for me.

I watched Mubarak’s and Suleiman’s addresses, along with much of the Egyptian Revolution, in real time on my iPhone via a live feed from Al Jazeera–coverage currently not available to much of the US. As moved as I was by the events I was observing, I was also constantly aware of the role that social media was playing in the revolution–not just in the reporting of the events, but in the actual creation and facilitation of the protests. Given what I have read and observed, I’m not sure that the revolution could have occurred without Facebook and Twitter.

Even in a society in which the major media outlets are controlled by the government, Facebook and Twitter and other social media tools exposed Egyptian citizens to ideas and viewpoints other than those espoused by the Mubarak regime. Perhaps more importantly, these media tools allowed citizens to communicate with each other about these new perspectives and to coalesce around them informally and passionately, beyond the reach of government. The seeds of the Egyptian Revolution were sewn by free access to information. It became a leaderless revolution–not led by an individual or a group but by passionate adherence to the idea that the people could find their own voice and make that voice heard. It is significant that the Egyptian government shut off access to the Internet as a defense against the gathering uprising–a strategy that is happening in other regimes as well–and even more significant that people found ways around the lack of access by using modems and finding access in foreign countries to keep the information flowing. Ultimately, the Mubarak regime could no longer hide from free access to information and the exchange of ideas. The regime fell because it could no longer control the top-down message that was the government’s chief tool for controlling the people.

Political considerations aside, there are profound lessons that we can learn from the role of social media in the emerging change sweeping the mideast. The first, and most important, is that information can no longer be controlled by a news agency or a government. As long as people can freely communicate, it will not be possible to surpress an idea supported by passion and conviction. Information will find a way to be heard as long as the message is shared between people and not filtered by an entity with an interest in controlling the message. Media outlets in the US–from Fox to CNBC–shape messages for their audiences. Al Jazerra, at least in my recent experience with the English broadcasts, is far less guilty of this than are our major networks.

The second lesson is that access to information is no longer in the hands of a select few. Over 73% of the people in the world–that’s more than 5 billion souls–have access to a mobile information device. (http://bit.ly/eneE4J) Had that not been the case, the Egyptian Revolution would never have happened. Tools like Twitter–critical to the uprising in the mideast–work over the simplest cell phones via text message. Smart phones make the process even more accessible. Controlling Internet access is one thing, but controlling cell phone access is something else entirely.

The third lesson is simple–the genie is out of the bottle. As much as governments and news agencies might try, they will not be able to manage the message in the face of a connected populace who can see through their efforts and who can communicate with each other.

Educators at every level need to be aware of the lessons from Egypt. We should examine our attitudes toward social media and to information dissemination in general. There are so many questions to be researched and answered. How will the breaking down of information barriers affect the use of propaganda to control political messages or advertising? What are the implications for media literacy? How can we use social media to involve our students in engaging pursuits? And what are you personally doing with social media? Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The Tyranny of the Vertical

April 16, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · 12 Comments 

My university uses Blackboard. When I say we use it, I mean that we have it available. It’s actually used by a very small percentage of the faculty. In my estimation there are a number of reasons for this–resistance to change, lack of effective implementation models, no mandate, lack of training, too much work, the usual litany. I used to think that it looked bad that so few professors were using this tool and tried to encourage more widespread use. However, I have joined the ranks of those who don’t use it for instruction–and let me tell you, it feels great!

First, a little background. I’m an instructional technology teacher. I used BB extensively for all of my classes. All of my assignments and supplementary materials were posted there. I used extensive embedded media resources and tweaked the HTML to make things look and work just right. But it wasn’t long before BB’s limitations started to show. Students couldn’t submit multiple iterations of a single assignment. (Didn’t the BB authors ever hear of rough drafts?) Discussion boards were uselessly difficult to follow. The tiny editing window was frustrating to use. Assignments–the heart of Blackboard, to me–wouldn’t copy from one semester to another and had to be recreated each time. I couldn’t make ad hoc student groups for projects. Students couldn’t access their work after the semester ended. Social networking tools such as blogs and wikis, while present, were pale imitations of the real thing. The gradebook didn’t interface with our Sungard grade reporting system. And then there was the endless clicking on OK buttons…

I decided to move my content to Google Sites. There I had much more control over the format and functionality of my content. Media files were much easier to manage. My students set up real blogs and used real wikis for their work and we linked them to the class site. Instead of working in a vertically integrated management system, students were working with real tools and learning skills that would help them in their future careers. They were developing portfolios using Google Sites (some purchasing their own domains from Google) and creating online materials for use in their classes. They were in control, not Blackboard. It has been liberating for all of us.

I’ve concluded that Learning Management Systems place a much greater emphasis on management than on learning, and the learning that does occur is not always transferable to the world outside of Blackboard. Learning how to use Blackboard is a dead-end skill for students. How much better is it for them to learn to create portfolios with real world tools, to be able to access their work after the semester ends, and to gain an appreciation of personal learning networks and a potential audience for their thoughts through social networking tools?

My use of Blackboard now consists of a link to the “real” class site and a My Grades button so that students can check the progress of their assignments–as long as they just submit one iteration of it. Next semester, I’m going to drop that function as well.

It’s great to be free of the tyranny of the vertical.

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Will 3G Lead the Revolution?

March 12, 2010 · Posted in iPhone, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

I just ordered an iPad.

I already have an iPhone. An iPhone on a 3G network is an immensely powerful tool, capable of doing just about anything I need to do on a day-to-day basis anywhere I want to do it unless that thing includes Flash, which I hope will die soon anyway and free up our processors and bandwidth for useful tasks.

The iPhone is a disruptive technology when applied to the context of K-12 schools. Schools can control what happens on their Wi-Fi networks, but they can’t control what happens on a publicly-accessible 3G network. A YouTube video that I can’t watch over my local SD’s network plays just fine on my iPhone from the same location. Schools can restrict searches, block Twitter, and prevent access to certain sites on their own networks but not on my phone’s 3G network. With 3G, I have the same access to the world in school that I have everywhere else.

The typical school reaction to a technology that it can’t control is to ban it. But students and teachers are increasingly walking into classrooms with 3G devices in their pockets intent on using them for productive purposes. They’re engaged with their technology, and that engagement can be (should be) worked into productive time spent on research, collaboration, and real-world experience. Schools can’t control 3G technologies, and they shouldn’t try. It doesn’t impact their bandwidth, their IT expenses, or their capital outlay. If students access inappropriate materials, it’s their problem and not the school’s. Deal with it, as we always have when students do inappropriate things.

But back to the iPad. Schools can somewhat justify banning cell phones because talking on the phone to a friend is not always a productive use of time and can be very distracting to others. Smart phones are still phones (although I very rarely use mine as one) and so somewhat logically fall under the same impulse to banish them from schools. But iPads are horses of an entirely different color. They aren’t phones at all (yet, anyway)–they’re very mobile, highly connected, and easily accessible computers that will work on 3G networks in some configurations. They’ll make field trips into entirely new experiences. Students already have them. Let them–encourage them–to bring them in and use them. Make sure to play your role as an educator wisely and help students understand what’s appropriate and what’s not, and when it’s OK to tweet, watch a video, or find a simulation game.

Join the revolution. It’s happening everywhere but in schools.

UPDATE: A question by way of Twitter asks who will pay for 3G access. If a student walks into your classroom with an iPhone, 3G access is already paid for. They’re bringing their own bandwidth. I can walk into my local AT&T store and buy a $199 3G-capable netbook. Why wouldn’t I bring that to school and use it the same way I use it everywhere else?

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The End of Schooling As We Know It?

February 26, 2009 · Posted in culture, Teaching 2.0 · 1 Comment 

Sometimes I think that post-secondary schools in the US are some of the best examples we have of Newton’s Laws of Motion. The first law is usually referred to as the Law of Inertia: “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.” Newton’s second law explains that the more mass that object has, the greater the external force that must be applied to it move it from its current trajectory.

Does this sound familiar? Universities are massive by any reckoning; they employ millions of people, consume billions of tax dollars, have huge collective carbon footprints, and have basically been doing business the same way for hundreds of years. They are so ingrained into our social structure that most people can’t imagine a society in which they didn’t exist in their current form. They’re on a trajectory that will take a truly massive application of external force to dislodge them from their course.

And that force may come sooner than we think, at least according to two items that grabbed my attention this past week.

The first was a television commercial for Kaplan University. I should explain that I don’t watch TV very much and this particular commercial may have been around for some time, but last week when I first saw it it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here it is:

I first thought it was a commercial for Apple, Inc., and was surprised to find at the end of the commercial that it was for an online university–essentially a competitor for my brick-and-mortar institution. My initial thought was that the “professor” in the ad got it right–that we need to be paying attention to learners who may not fit the traditional concept of a post-secondary student. They expect to be able to use their favorite media to learn when and where they can, on a schedule that suits their lifestyle, job, or personal preferences.

The second item was an article from eSchool News entitled AASA hears what’s about to disrupt schools.” In the article, Clayton Christensen from Harvard’s Business School predicts that within the next ten years half of all instruction will take place online and that schools risk losing enrollment to the online learning market if they do not adopt the model for their own students. The massive external force that may move schools off of their current path is something that Christensen calls “disruptive innovation”–innovation that is so powerful and so different that it completely changes the marketplace, dislodges old market leaders from their positions of leadership, and gives rise to new ways of doing business. It’s not at all difficult to see examples of disruptive innovation that have happened within most of our memories–VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet), the personal computer, the World Wide Web, the iPod, etc. Each of these innovations changed the way business was done before and allowed new players into the market, typically at the expense of the “old guard.” And it’s personal, too. This morning I spent several hours answering e-mail, editing some documents (including a spreadsheet), evaluating my students’ projects (PowerPoint lessons that they uploaded to Google Docs and embedded into their blogs) and recording their grades and my reflections on their work, and the only application I had open the entire morning was Firefox.

My job is to prepare post-secondary students to teach in K-12 school systems. It may take an even more massive application of external force to change their current vector. What should I be telling my pre-service teachers?

I immediately flashed back to the Kaplan commercial I had seen a few days before. Bob Dylan was right:

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.


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