Saturday, September 27, 2008

A New "Digital Divide"?

There was some talk on one of the educator listservs this past week about technology and teachers. We've fussed for a decade or more about "technology competency standards" for teachers, with early adopters holding up the highest standards and the rest of the profession wondering a bit anxiously about where it will all go. At times I've been glad that the technology sluggards I know have not sought access to some of these discussions, as talk gets heated and opinions can become intemperate.

Lately the "2.0" revolution has swept through schools; at some point I think the enthusiasm of many of us for the likes of Daniel Pink and our own explorations of new possibilities in technology and communication reached a tipping point (reflecting our fondness for Malcolm Gladwell here, too), and things have begun to develop. Teachers with podcasts, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Delicious accounts, Flickr pages, and other presence on Web 2.0 suddenly found themselves not just mainstream, but vindicated in a way. The potential of educational technology in the digital age needed only to become interactive to invite the digital natives we teach into our virtual classrooms and discussions. It looks as though learning really will be different, and potentially much better, as we learn how to realize this potential.

Not surprisingly, those teachers who have not embraced Web 2.0 as part of their pesonal lifestyles are having to play professional catch-up in this new world, and for some of them it is a challenge. This has been the way of teachers, no doubt, since someone suggested giving students individual slates and bits of chalk; that we are all doing something for a living that was done unto us for sixteen or more years in a certain way tends us toward conservatism, perhaps. And most of us were reasonably good at things as they were done unto us, inclining us to the notion that it was a pretty good way, at that.

What I have observed signs of for the past 25 years (since I went into hideous debt to purchase my first desktop computer and printer) has been a kind of fear among the late adopters and Luddites. The world is changing around them, and they either don't want to or don't know how to keep up. The techies (and I have been one of them) have been quick to proclaim their own role in "the future of education." A first this created what was for a long time a subtle separation between those who, say, word-processed their comments in 1985 and those who hand-wrote or typed them. By the early nineties everyone had mastered word-processing and simple spreadsheets at least enough for schools to standardize expectations, but the folks on the cutting edge had already discovered email, and the esoteric secrets of the World-Wide Web, and they were soon to begin leavening their lectures with PowerPoint. That each innovation could cost frugal teachers quite a lot of money out of pocket made the purchase of modems and CompuServe accounts into bold lifestyle choices that must have looked awfully extravagant to more skeptical colleagues.

Now we're in the midst of a new whirlwind, sanctified by speakers and special programs at NAIS conferences and best exemplified by the things we are told our students can already do instinctively with wonderful and expensive gadgets. Get on board, the word seems to be, or get left behind. There has never been a time when the technology enthusiasts among us have been able to feel so superior to those who are not.

But we techies had better take a moment to think about what is going on. What has been an observable but relatively benign rift within faculties for a couple of decades threatens to become a new Digital Divide. No longer separating those who have the economic wherewithal to participate fully in a digital age from those who don't, the new divide severs those whose innate understanding of technology's potential is still "1.0" from the 2.0 crowd. With the future so clearly apparent to many 2.0 dwellers, it is easy to feel justified in considering with scorn those who do not yet share their vision. "2.0 talk" is even becoming a new kind of political correctness; if you aren't sharing it with the world on your Facebook page or your blog, you had better not say it at all. If you are skeptical when you hear all students described as being up to their cerebella in New Technologies, you had best keep such thoughts to yourself.

It's easy to understand the anger, perhaps. We have spent half a century pulling one another forward around issues of diversity and multiculturalism, and these issues lie at the very core of student experience; laggards in these areas are in the wrong profession nowadays. Likewise, for technological true believers, the promise of interactive, pervasive technology is every bit as wonderful as the promise of culturally inclusive teaching, and teachers who can't see that and jump on board may be short-changing their students.

But we've learned a few things from our work on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. We know that we need to keep our focus on the kinds of communities we want to create and the kinds of experiences we want our students to have. We know that we have to begin this work by first acknowledging where people are and what frightens and excites them. We know that we must include everyone, and that no one can opt out, either because they don't want to do the work or because they think they know it already. We even admit that we have taken false steps: the color-blindness training teachers received in the '70s was a mistake, and recruiting diverse student bodies was barely a start toward building multicultural school communities.

As the 2.0 revolution moves through schools, the best schools will do their best both to harness and encourage the enthusiasm of the early adopters and to provide strong and comprehensive support for all teachers. It's not just about "tech plans" any more; good schools will build in professional development that encourages experimentation and risk-taking by all teachers--starting where they are and acknowledging their anxieties. Schools will work hard to bridge this new digital divide and to avoid character judgments based on teachers' degrees of technological expertise and enthusiasm.

As this work goes forward, there will be those whose struggle and succeed beyond their wildest dreams and some who will just struggle, and schools will have to work with the latter. There will also be a few who reject or rebel on principle, just as there have always been when the winds of change blow through schools, and these will either have to find new schools or new professions.

I like this technology stuff, and I do think there is an educational revolution at hand. As an old guy, I admit that I'm not as adept at all the new technologies as I might be, and I'm unlikely to be the first to spot a new application for Twitter. But I know that I have colleagues who don't know what Twitter or Jott are, and I still respect them as educators. If it is what we decide to do, I want our schools to help these folks along, not by scolding and harrying them, but by supporting them in their explorations. Teachers want to do the right thing, and we are at last learning to work together as educators rather than as isolated individuals. Just as 2.0 technologies promise to bring people closer together, we need to use learning about these technologies to close the digital divides within faculties.


Jamie B. said...

Peter, Thanks for this thoughtful writing. I'm reading it, having after it sent to me by my academic dean. I'm in the Chicago airport waiting my return flight from Chicago.

While reading your post, the words of Guy K. echoed in ear. I wonder if I (and we as independent school technologists to a larger extent) have been too willing to smooth over these differences in faculties, too ready to reach consensus. Guy's message of innovation was to accept tensions and polarization.

I don't think it's an either/or proposition but I'm heading back steeling myself to feed the early adopters and not worry so much about how other people feel about it.

Laura Webber said...

I have copied and pasted part of this post to my Evernote notebook of professional inspiration: " avoid character judgments based on teachers' degrees of technological expertise and enthusiasm." Bravo and thank you. I am in my second year as an Upper School Technology Coordinator and have learned so much. Above and beyond all our site-specific software and network stuff, I have learned how important it is to connect with the faculty on a personal level, on a level that acknowledges how hard they work and affirms how much they care. Neglecting to do so is the surest and quickest way to tank a technology initiative.