June 23, 2016

Addressing School Leaders’ Connected Learning Concerns

Category: Connected Learning
Empty desks in classroom

I recently had the opportunity to talk about technology, equity, and learning with a group of administrators, coaches, and support staff in an urban school district during their end-of-year leadership summit.

My morning presentation offered Connected Learning as a framework for instructional design that takes advantage of the possibilities for amplification, dissemination, and (of course) connection afforded us by digital media tools. I used a quote attributed to 20th century American philosopher William James to establish my thematic focus – the need for learning experiences that recognize and capitalize upon the interconnectedness of citizens within a global society. The quote:

“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.”

I gave shout outs to educational organizations/campaigns who are utilizing Web 2.0 tools to facilitate connections between individuals over issues of shared civic concern. Shout out to the Harry Potter Alliance, John Green’s Nerdfighters, Youth Radio, and the National Writing Project’s Letters to the Next President 2.0! And, I shared my experiences of designing Connected Learning experiences for students in and out of classrooms under the banner of Youth Participatory Action Research. (More on that here)

While the school leaders were enthusiastic about the examples I shared, I could not help but recognize a sense of hesitation hovering over the room — a vague but definite feeling of reluctance to fully embrace this framework in their classrooms. I wondered if their doubts mirrored those I often hear from teachers when first introducing them to Connected Learning. Were they concerned about access to devices? About the context of standards and testing?

Thankfully, afternoon breakout sessions provided time and space for constructive dialogue that helped expose the major tensions that I imagine school leaders nationwide are navigating. I want to introduce them here so that the Connected Learning community can continue to address what folks on the ground in schools are thinking about.

Distraction, Danger, Development

I call the school leaders’ concerns the 3 D’s: distraction, danger, and development. I will briefly list them here — it will take more posts to fully address them.

Distraction: One principal told me that his teachers were in favor of implementing a zero tolerance technology policy in their school because they were overwhelmed by students texting, Snap-chatting, and generally amusing themselves on their phones during classroom instruction. This is a very common issue, but I think it involves some complex assumptions and beliefs about learning that need to be unpacked. For example, consider the amount of time that we adults spend multitasking on our phones as we go about our academic and/or professional pursuits (I’ve checked my email, Facebook, and Twitter several times so far while writing this post). There are definitely valid concerns about attention span, focus, etc. to be considered, but we often hold different expectations for our students around technology use than we have for ourselves. Plus, we need to consider what needs students are getting fulfilled on their devices that are not being fulfilled by what is going on in the classroom. And, of course, what the interest and engagement level is of the instruction itself. But, in the end, we need to take seriously the struggle teachers and leaders are having as they compete with the worlds students can access anytime from their devices.

Danger: Another administrator said that she was worried that if she allowed students access to the full scope of the internet (without firewalls to block certain sites or content), they could see inappropriate content or interact with unsavory people. They could also engage in online bullying of classmates, which could translate into trouble in the hallways. This issue speaks to the way we often conceptualize the internet as a site of danger for young people and react with an instinct to protect students by restricting their access to this perceived threat. I think we need to recognize that, whatever level of danger does exist, students will encounter it no matter the lengths we go to in order to protect them from it; and as a result, that we can more productively use this situation as a teachable moment about digital citizenship rather than engage in self-censorship. More on what transformative digital citizenship education looks like in a future post.

Development: The most prevalent concerns that school leaders expressed can be grouped into a general category of student academic development. How can we make sure digital tools are supporting rigorous academic learning instead of just generating a quick jolt of novelty? This is the overarching question that our field continues to grapple with and must do a better job of answering if we want teachers and school leaders to take the difficult step of making themselves vulnerable and considering changes to their practice.

I think we have the answers — they are shared on sites like this and through various professional organizations. We need to keep sharing them while understanding the very real struggles that educators face in the battle to alter a schooling structure that has resisted change for over a century. I’m excited to keep sharing efforts to make this work relevant to teachers as we continue to move the needle toward a vision of education characterized by connectedness.

Banner image credit: Dorothy Voorhees