CoSN 2009 Conference

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Coalition of School Networking’s (CoSN) 14th annual conference in Austin, Texas. The conference was of the highest quality and provided an opportunity to engage with many of the issues around ICT that are facing the world’s leading education systems. The conference opened with an international symposium where the focus was on the use of Web 2.0 technologies in education. This is now a global issue and one that is providing some challenges for schools. The greatest concern appears to be around young people not protecting their privacy online, particular in relation to social networking websites. There also is the issue of many states and national networks banning Web 2.0 tools. However, the majority of speakers focused on the positive contributions Web 2.0 is making to education. In particular the use of blogs and wikis are deemed to have tremendous use in classrooms. For a more specific example visit our recent blog entry on Writing in the 21st Century.

A number of countries – Australia, Singapore and the United States – are linking their current ICT investment to improving their economic competitiveness. Australia has its Digital Revolution, Singapore has published its third Masterplan for IT in Education, and President Obama is calling on schools to prepare students for the 21st century. President Obama also sees technology playing a major role in reshaping the US economy and allowing to compete even more agressively in the digital age.

We had many wonderful presentations but one in particular struck a chord. Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard Graduate School of Education, made a short presentation on President Obama’s Education Plan. Chris focused on the one issue many of us were grappling with in relation to Web 2.0 and 21st century skills – will anything really change as long as the assessments remain the same? Chris directed us to work currently underway in North Carolina (NC) around the issues of standards and assessment and suggested that President Obama’s team should explore the model as a possible solution for the rest of the country. The following slide, taken from Chris’s presentation, depicts the proposed NC assessment system. It is a mix of Summative, Benchmark and Formative Assessment all built on a set of essential strandards. The issue of curriculum overload appears to be an issue in many US states and also in a number of developed countries. Chris stressed the need to just focus on essential standards and not try and include everything – otherwise the teacher is faced with the challenge of “covering ground” and this can get in the way of deep learning.

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The issue of assessment dominated much of our discussions throughout the week and many speakers and attendees spoke of their frustration with existing assessment tools that just require students to learn material off by heart and then to reproduce it on the test. Many spoke of the need to reduce the amount of content that teachers and students need to cover and to place more focus on providing students with the skills to become lifelong learners. A number of speakers including Don Tapscott, Clay Christensen and Michael Horn, Chris Dede and Jim Bosco spoke about transforming schooling not just integrating ICT or education technology into our existing systems. Christensen and Horn believe that ICT will change the way the world learns and Tapscott provides seven strategies to educators who are interested in becoming better teachers in this new digital age. The message appears to be move away from a paradigm where the teacher is the fountain of knowledge, the Sage on the Stage, lecturing students that are conditioned to “sit back” and let the teacher do all the work. It was suggested that we need a new paradigm where teachers and learners are co-collaborators and where the focus is more on “learning by doing” than on teachers broadcasting and students receiving. Others, such as David Thornburg, who spoke about the need for teachers and students to “get up to their armpits” in hands-on science and math projects also echoed these ideas. David gave an example of where teachers and students can find interesting science projects by visiting the Instructables website. Teachers, present at his session, commented that they too found the site a great resource for their learners. The approach and philosophy echoed the approach being taken here in Ireland by Discover Science and Engineering in their Discover Sensors project.

One message I took from the conference is that the days of using the lecture as our main teaching pedagogy (PowerPoint included) is doomed and we need to consider alternative teaching strategies. For more on teaching perspectives check out our previous post from a weeks back. Quality relevant teacher continous professional development will be crucial to ensuring that teachers have the skills to manage these new learning environment. This CPD will need to focus as much on learning theory, how young people today learn most effectively as they do on using the latest piece of hardware or application. Web 2.0 is creating a new world, a connected world, where the emphasis is on collaboration and sharing. This also has profound implications for how we view digital content, as Web 2.0 allows everyone to become a producer. The key for learners is to find the quality resources and bypass the lesser quality material – a form of digital literacy. The future of learning is exciting and I believe the role of the teacher will be central in devising and implementing this new educational paradigm but we need to start debating what it will look like in an Irish context. To date this discussion is happening elsewhere but not here.​

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