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Leaders and Technology: Every Student's Need

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A serious rift exists between the students who freely use technology and the Internet and their educators who hesitate, hold negative biases, and yes, sometimes remain blissfully ignorant of the very environment in which their students have become explorers. This is not only a classroom issue. It is a cultural issue. It is an issue that calls school and district leaders into the fray.

Dismissing technology and its use because of discomfort or unfamiliarity or uninformed judgments has no place in an educational environment.  It is akin to a teacher saying, "I don't enjoy reading." or  "I am not good at math." And worse, although either of those two sentences might result in a student feeling something in common with their teacher, the dismissing of technology is a separator. It places the child and the adult firmly in two different worlds.

Superintendents and Principals as Lead Technology Learners
The approach to technology leadership matters. There are so many tools, games, social media outlets, presentation tools, and commination options that it is not possible to be masters of them all.  But, there is no need to be. It is the open-mindedness that a leader must bring and deliver. Rather than dismissing or not paying attention to techno-opportunities, or allowing them to be in the hands of the techno-elite students, educators all will benefit from stepping away from possible overall bias that "time with a device in hand is time away from important learning."

Ours is not a call for all educators to become experts. Rather, it is a call for all educators to know and understand the world that is attracting some students, and leaving others behind. The gap in techno-skills at graduation will be as wide as some other literacy gaps and that too will be laid at the feet of the education system. We best not allow some students to venture forward on their own while leading schools where technology rests in extracurricular activities that are choices or in one teacher's classroom or another but not all.  And most importantly, the messages received by students who hear teachers dismiss gaming or social media, or crowdsourcing as just a few examples, are messages that leave students living in the 21st century being held in an educational system dominated by a mindset from years past...a gap that leaves them alone in a rich and yet potentially dangerous environment. 

We are in a thinking and learning business. Technology is also a thinking and learning environment. As leaders of this developmental thinking and learning business, it is just as important to be concerned and have a plan to be sure all students are literate in a variety of subjects as well as literate and skilled in the uses of technology.  If a driver's license was equal to a diploma, would anyone present an adolescent with a license without them having learned the rules of the road and having practiced and demonstrated their skills?  Does it make sense to allow students to graduate with a hodge-podge scattering of skills with no standard to measure them? No. School leaders have to clear the way, even if it means facing their own bias and lack of knowledge. Two examples of where folks are either dismissive or confused are with Minecraft and Wikipedia.

Minecraft
Will Burns, Founder & CEO of Ideasicle, a virtual marketing-ideas company wrote in his Forbes Magazine article:  "Minecraft as Mind Craft":

...what I love about Minecraft, and why I think it's an important phenomena, is that you can almost hear the kids' neurons growing, shaping, firing, wrapping themselves in new ways, as they play the game. You might say, as they build their worlds, they build their brains...In fact, I'd argue it's really not a video game, per se. It's a creative boot camp that you have to beg your kids to stop playing.

And from Benjamin Herold, staff writer for EdWeek:

One of the world's most popular video games has made significant inroads into K-12 classrooms, opening new doors for teaching everything from city planning to 1st graders to physics for high schoolers...The game, of course, is Minecraft, a 21st-century version of Legos in which players use simple 3-D digital blocks to build and explore almost anything they can imagine.

Many educators have brought Minecraft into their classrooms. Many others have not. This is not a recommendation that Minecraft be included in all classrooms. It is a recommendation that minds remain open, curiosity remain alive, and leaders invest in the education of faculties in order to decide how to best bridge the world between classrooms and students' learning in environments like Minecraft; always remembering only some students are in that world. A gap is growing.

Wikipedia
Another example lies in a widely held bias against Wikipedia as a resource. It is not unusual to hear folks scoff at Wikipedia or to hear teachers warn students that it is a disrespected source. That teaches an incomplete and confusing lesson. To shut the door is to close off an important lesson for educators and students alike. In 2005 a study was conducted by nature.com.

For its study, Nature chose articles from both sites in a wide range of topics and sent them to what it called "relevant" field experts for peer review. The experts then compared the competing articles--one from each site on a given topic--side by side, but were not told which article came from which site. Nature got back 42 usable reviews from its field of experts...In the end, the journal found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123.

For reliable research, as libraries grew and became more accessible to students, the encyclopedia, too, was relegated to back shelves. But Wikipedia has an advantage that the encyclopedia does not. Wikipedia offers a valuable a community learning opportunity. Crowdsourcing. Merriam-Webster.com defines crowdsourcing as

the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.

Herein lies an important understanding for this century's humans.

Research, as early as in the first years of report writing in schools, should be accompanied with a sense of ethics. The reliability of a resource may be able to be verified through Internet searches, but as educators, we all know using more than one resource is a basic verification method. Wikipedia offers lessons beyond the information it offers. The experience of crowdsourcing information, including the ability to add to and edit information posted by others, is a real-world application of 21st century skills required to be college and career ready. Whether educators choose to allow Wikipedia as a resource or not, it is the dismissing of its value that is detrimental. Instead of dismissing it as a disrespected resource, create learning experiences in which the students themselves can discover the validity of tool. Have students contribute or edit in Wikipedia. In the spirit of gaming as learning, turn the tables, flip the learning. The experience will yield the value and students will have learned its value and limitations as personal experiences.

***

In the end, we are advocating for open mindedness and a continued building of literacy on the part of the adults who have accepted the responsibility of educating students in this century. How to use the medium for gathering or sharing information and how to use the medium as an experience, whether watching a YouTube video or playing a game, has a place in teaching and learning.

Making the decisions about how and where it fits into the educational landscape of districts, schools, and classrooms is one that is best made in collaboration with open minds, while remembering that not all children are techno-savvy. Some are waiting to be taught.

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