Makers vs Sponges

The rumbling debate over whether technology helps or hurts us — and our kids — is growing louder. The ever articulate writer, Nicholas Carr, stoked debate with his book, “The Shallows.” (Yes, he believes, Google makes you dumb.) The New York Times is worrying that technology may be reshaping our brains. And neurobiologist Steven Pinker has weighed in on the New York Times op-ed pages with a piece that waves away those concerns. (Everything rewires our brains, he notes.) If that seems like too many quick links, the New York Times’ Bits blog recaps some of the debate here.

On the education side, the Washington Post took these questions to the classroom in a piece entitled, “Some educators question if whiteboards, other high-tech tools raise achievement.”

But why do we keep lumping all “technology” into the same basket? By doing so, we ignore the most important distinction of all: whether we are sponges for absorbing other people’s ideas, or whether we’re making our own.

There are some notable champions of this notion, starting with O’Reilly Media and the “Maker” movement. So here’s one slice through the technologies organized according to their potential relationship to kids:

IT Tool: Sponge or Maker?
Smart boards in classroom–SPONGE: Kids absorb lectures with better graphics
Electronic games–SPONGE: Kids learn to master rules of the games (and sometimes the content, too)
Scratch–MAKER: Kids create their own games
iPod Touches–SPONGE: Kids absorb & interact with presented material
iPod Touches with “homemade slides”–MAKER: Kids create their own “flashcards” to present on gadget
Powerpoint/Keynote/Prezi/Glogster, etc.–MAKER: Kids have to pull together materials to create presentations

A Powerpoint (or Keynote) presentation is hardly the height of intellectual achievement. But when we think about how kids interact with ideas and media — what promotes creativity and learning — it seems to me we need to focus on whether the gadgets are the means for kids expressing themselves or a way of imprinting someone else’s ideas onto their brains.
Of course, a kid doesn’t need to make a Prezi presentation to deliver a great and inspiring report. But we live in a world that values flashing lights and cool transitions.

That struck home this past spring when I saw a group of fifth grade students show off a semester’s worth of work to their parents and guardians. They had done traditional, glue-and-paper reports on different U.S. states, a project that had extended over about a month as the students gathered information, wrote summaries and clipped out pictures. Then, a week or so before “open house” night, the students were asked to deliver a report on one element in the periodic table using a Keynote presentation.

On the evening the parents and guardians showed up, I saw the same act repeated over and over: students grabbed the arm of their guest and dragged them over to watch their Keynote. They stood by, beaming as the slides clicked through. They had also absorbed a surprising amount of information about their elements, where they were found and why they were located on the periodic table. The students were proud of their state reports, too — and knew they had worked far longer on them. But at least on this evening, the Keynotes stole the show.

Back in the 1970s, kids who sat glued to the television screen didn’t have a choice: we were all just sponges for the stuff broadcast over the airwaves. Today’s computer technology lets us choose if we want to be a maker or a sponge. Shouldn’t that be starting point when we argue about the role of technology in schools?

Postscript — Could this be the ultimate “Maker” class?

Reposted from O’Reilly Media, edu 2.0

How to tell a VC from a philanthropist

Pitch a new idea to venture capitalists and the first question they’ll shoot back is: “Who else is in your space?”

If you can’t answer that question, go straight back to “Go” and don’t even dream of collecting $200.

VCs, of course, needs to weigh competitive as well as potentially complementary efforts. But answering that question should help the entrepreneur, too. Entrepreneurs are most likely to help a field move forward if they build on the knowledge and the mistakes of the past rather than tripping down the well-trodden road.

Really compelling ideas draw multiple entrepreneurs (think of how the idea of social networking brought out Facebook, MySpace and a swarm of other startups). And sometimes ideas have to wait for the technology to catch up (picture phones and electronic books come to mind).

Smart startups, however, look for unique approaches even when tackling a problem that others are–or have–taken on. And the fastest way to assess whether an approach is fresh or a rerun is to know what else is going on.

So what about the educational-technology space? We want to invent new approaches and ideas that will engage students, teachers (and even the occasional parent). But do we have good maps of what’s going on—not just in the for-profit venture sector but in the philanthropic sector, too?

Dale Dougherty, who’s no slouch when it comes to staying on top of the latest technology, summed up the problem well in his recent post:

“I wished the teams themselves were a better judge of their own proposals, and that they understood how their project advanced appropriate uses of technology in education. I wished that each of the applicants had been able to consult an evolving set of best practices for developing educational technology projects. …. They might help others avoid pitfalls and learn from failures.“

Our problems in education are too intense, funding is too thin and time too precious to take on duplicative efforts. We need to apply some of the same discriminating standards in our philanthropic Edu2.0 projects that we use in for-profit ones.

So what would be the relevant features of a topographical map of the educational-technology sector? Here’s one set of categories:

Projects aimed at:
• Improving instruction
• Individualized (adaptive) instruction
• Doing assessment
• Improving teacher practices
• Promoting project-based learning
• Improving transparency
• Bridging the school-home communications gap
• Improving school infrastructure

What would you add? What elements do you think would help people designing education-technology projects get a useful picture of what else is going on?