Just the Cool Stuff, Please

Warning: early morning, barely edited, snark ahead.

Mixed in with all the other lists from the previous year, we find EdSurge’s Top Ten S’Cool Tools of 2016. Top ten cool tools for school, get it?

Anyway, the people at EdSurge1 don’t explain why these web services are the best of the year or by what measure they declare them to be the most popular of the more than 300 or so “showcased” in their weekly newsletter last year. But all that doesn’t matter, it’s a list. Let’s just get to it.

Number 10, a Jeopardy game. But this is a website so you don’t need one of the many freely available templates that have been around starting two days after PowerPoint was released.

Three of these top tools allow students to search census data, Wikipedia (for maps), and Creative Commons licensed photos. One question. Why aren’t we teaching students to responsibly search for this material on their own? Never mind, I’ve probably heard all the reasons – no time, students getting “off track”, they might find something INAPPROPRIATE!!, etc.

Two of the sites listed – one a “library of open educational resources with curated curriculum collections” and “a crowdsourced map and calendar of education events” – are really for teachers, not students. 161 education events in just the next 8 months? Really?

The only resource on the list that even sounds interesting is an app that uses the sensors built into most modern smartphones – accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer – to perform physics experiments. But haven’t we seen that before?

However, considering all this coolness is free, don’t get too attached. Free is a crappy business model for the long term health of something you rely on, in the classroom or otherwise.

It Doesn’t Exist

Here in the overly-large school district, we’ve had lots of discussions around the term “digital learning”. It’s now part of vision statements and official plans, not to mention plenty of slides in presentations. We’ve ventured out into the community to ask parents, kids and others what the phase means to them. Digital Learning even has it’s own day, which I gather is today.

However, after all the conversations, articles, presentations, pronouncements, defining and redefining, the more I think about it, the closer I get to this conclusion:

There ain’t no such thing. “Digital Learning” is meaningless. It doesn’t exist.

Let’s face it, learning happened before so-called digital tools were created, before all of us were connected to multiple networks. Using non-digital artifacts like books, lectures, and even teachers. Scientists experimented, people explored, and kids came to understand what happens when they drop an analog brick on their brother’s head.2

Certainly learning is made better – easier, extended, enhanced in most cases – using connected devices. I can’t imagine not being able to use all the amazing resources available through the various screens I use. But that is not “digital” learning. That’s learning using the most effective tools I have available.

I understand the need to give the use of computers and other devices to improve the learning process a name, something short, catchy, ready for press releases, sound bites and tweets. Unfortunately, manufactured terms like “digital learning” often get in the way, with too many politicians, education “experts”, and even teachers emphasizing the tools over the desired outcomes.

Kids – people – do not “digitally” learn. They learn. Period. So what we need is to make the necessary tools of all kind available to all classrooms and then let the teacher and students decide which of them work best for the individual, subject and situation. On occasion, finger paints and chart paper can be more powerful to foster learning than a drawing program on a tablet.

We especially need to give students more options to choose their own approach to learning, the tools they will use, and the method of demonstrating the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired.

So, celebrate “Digital Learning Day” if you like. But as you do, remember that the Learning is far more important than the Digital. And “digital learning” is much more of a marketing concept than something that exists here in the real world.

Free Doesn’t Mean Forever

Last week the big buzz around my small corner of the internet was the leak that Yahoo planned to shut down Delicious, the venerable (if anything on the web can be called that) social bookmarking site.

While the fate of the service is far from settled, the whole dustup got me thinking again about our dependence on free when it comes to web utilities.

These days, almost all the services I rely on either charge a subscription fee, or have a relatively solid “freemium” business model, one with a basic level that’s free (sometimes with ads) along with one or more paid levels.

Delicious, however, is the one important piece that doesn’t fit. I’ve been using it since before Yahoo bought it in 2006 and always wondered how they could possibly survive with no visible means of support.  We may soon have an answer.

Of course, when it comes to teachers and schools, free is very popular, especially when budgets are tight.  But even in good times, government bureaucracy can make it difficult to get approval for annual subscriptions from small web companies.

Which means many educators are building lessons and activities for their students on free services that may or may not be available in future academic years.

Doug at Blue Skunk Blog has also been speculating on the longevity of Delicious and other web services while trying to finish a book about this moving target.

I’ve also been attempting to predict which tools are more than a flash-in-the-pan. I’ve been using word processing software for 30 years. I think it is safe to say that in some form or another it will be around for the next 10. It would really honk me off as a time-stressed teacher to put a lot of time into a tool that won’t serve me for a very long time.

And even paying for an account doesn’t necessarily guarantee a site won’t disappear and take all your data with it, which I suppose is a good argument for do-it-yourself.

For myself, part of the concern in the uncertainty surrounding Delicious is that I’ve spent a lot of time and effort helping colleagues learn how this service (and others) fits into their information management flow, both personally and professionally.

I know it would be more future-proof to put everything in general terms – social bookmarking, instead of Delicious – but most in the still-just-getting-started audience are looking for specific recommendations, not concepts.

At the end of his post Doug asks his readers which of today’s technologies will still be used by educators in five years.

By that time I would hope terms like “blog”, “wiki”, and “social bookmarking” disappear in favor of the much simpler concept of sharing information online, regardless of content or format.

Hopefully, by then we’ll also accept the reality that somebody needs to pay something to make it happen.

Update (12/20): Clarence also speculates on the death of free in the wake of the Delicious news and changes in other formerly free web services.

A Tool Box Full of Hammers

Seth Godin, whose blog is well worth a daily read, wonders about the old cliche which says that if your only tool is a hammer then all problems look like nails.


The practical effect of this thinking is that “when the market changes, you may be seeing all the new opportunities and problems the wrong way because of the solutions you’re used to”.

His theme is business, of course, and specifically with how they’re using social media, but Seth’s basic concept still applies to the institution of American education.

For starters, we don’t seem to understand that the “market” has changed (drastically!), so we continue to pull hammers out of the tool box.

Although we talk a lot about “differentiated instruction” and “individualized learning”, the details and solutions tend to look like the same classroom hammers we’ve always used.

When it comes to the major education reform proposals of the past fifty years, we’ve pretty recycled the same old hammers by painting different politically motivated labels on them (think: Sputnik, Nation at Risk, NCLB).

Then there’s the little corner of the system with which I’m most familiar, instructional technology.

Millions of classroom computers, most connected to world-wide networks, with a variety of amazing communications tools should have brought about major alterations to our process of teaching and learning.

If we didn’t just use them as digital versions of the same analog tools we’ve always used.

We want laptops to be electronic textbooks or workbooks.

Expensive interactive whiteboards are too often used for one-way transmission of knowledge, in very much the same way as the traditional analog chalk version.

Students write research papers and create presentations using sophisticated software for an audience of one.

And here in the overly-large school district we’re taking binders full of central office-blessed curriculum materials and test questions, putting it all in a big database, and declaring this to be a paradigm shift.

As Godin has pointed out many times in his writing, in times of crisis, economic and other, smart companies inspect every aspect of their business processes and find new opportunities to grow hidden in the bad news.

Instead of stocking up on new types of hammers as we in education seem to be doing.

Image: Hammer for what…? by Per Ola Wiberg (Powi) used under a Creative Commons License