Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Day: April 25, 2011 (page 1 of 1)

Transformation of education through communication

If you look at every major change in our society, you will find that communication between individuals was instrumental to the change, and that in many cases, a change in how communication occurred between individuals precipitated the change itself. For example, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and the current revolution in Libya are all the result of the masses who believe in change being able to communicate that belief through social media.

What is strange about education is that by and large we know an awful lot as a profession, but the rate of change is glacial. We actually know a tremendous about how kids learn best, but schools keep re-inventing the wheel every time they encounter a new problem. Why is this? My thought is that while there are lots of great ideas out there in education, they are not generally communicated well.

So if we want to institigate change in education (and I think we do need a change) then we need to change how communication happens in schools. As much as the people reading this blog believe that change is around the corner in education, the vast majority of people involved in education are not on Twitter, they don’t read blogs, and we are lucky if they are even on an email list of any kind related to education.

We need to bring down the barriers to using these types of communication tools if we want to deepen and enrich the conversation about education. Some of the barriers include:

  • Knowledge:

    Most educators don’t even know that educators are using Twitter and other social media tools to connect about education. We can counteract this by being proactive and talking about these tools with other teachers. Be brave and introduce teachers you meet to productive uses of social media.

  • Access:

    Many educators work in areas where they don’t have access to the tools themselves because they are blocked at their workplace. It is ironic that in places that are supposed to foster learning, that some of the best tools available for learning are blocked. Here the problem is administrative, and if your school district is one in which social media is blocked, it is worth having a conversation with your administrators about its potential value to their district.

  • Time:

    It is hard to convince someone who is already overworked that social media isn’t just going to be "another thing" to add to their pile. Take the time to show how to use Twitter as a search engine, and as a time-saver. Show them how they can engage with other educators to brainstorm lesson plan ideas, and just generally save themselves time re-inventing the wheel. Savvy school administrators could even build time into schedules expressly for the purpose of communicating & sharing with other educators.

  • Permission:

    In many school districts, there is an explicit policy against using social media professionally. In others, there is a fear of using it incorrectly and having it destroy your career. This problem can be best mitigated by sharing the stories of the thousands of educators who are using it effectively (while keeping their jobs). Point out that the people who have lost their careers as a result of social media were actually involved in some pretty stupid activities already. Make the recommendation that if you wouldn’t say it to your boss, you probably shouldn’t put it in print. We also need to develop policies around social media which recognize that teachers are learners too, and that people who are learning make mistakes.

  • Fear:

    Educators are afraid someone will steal their ideas. They are afraid that someone will reject their thoughts and dismiss them out of hand. When you visit stories on major news websites about education, and read the comments, you can see that a lot of their fear is justified. How can we combat this? I think we need to build a sphere of trust wherein educators feel comfortable sharing and know that at least within this sphere, they will at worst receive constructive criticism.

It is my opinion that if a school district adopted a social media policy which was intended to promote open dialog between the educators in their district, and then encouraged educators to use social media responsibly to communicate with each other, that this would be far more effective in terms of changing their school system than any professional development day could ever be.

The effect of communication tools on education

It should be clear to anyone reading this that the type of tools we have for communication strongly affect how education occurs. If we examine communication tools over time, we can see two trends in our communication tools.

History of communication tools

The first is that our communication tools have evolved from more personal and intimate, to greater mass distribution of information and less personal engagement. When we communicate via body language only, you have to be fairly close to the person, and you need some understanding of who they are for the communication to be successful. At the other end of the extreme, the Internet requires almost no intimacy, no personal connection, and only a modicum of cultural understanding.

Evolution of communication tools

(Graph not to scale)

The purpose of the graph above is to illustrate that the communication tools we have invented tend to allow for both a greater communication speed, and for a greater reach. I can  talk to a few hundred people from on a top of a hill, but I can potentially reach millions of people through a single tweet. The effect of this trend on education is that the flow of information, once painfully slow, is now more like a fire hydrant.

Another interesting trend is the evolution of communication tools in such a way as to promote the more personal, more intimate communication but at a greater distance. For example, tools like Skype allow for a greater degree of interpersonal communication than is possible through sending text messages back and forth. If this trend continues, we will soon be able to communicate in 3d holographic projection to people across the planet, allowing for the subtlety of body language to be included as part of our communication. We will be able to have truly intimate and personal conversations with people who we have never met in person.


A flaw with the current system of mass communication is that most of the "communication" that is occurring is just noise. There is vastly more information than one can ever possibly digest available through the web, and a huge amount of that information is just garbage. There may be 35 hours of video footage uploaded to Youtube every minute, but how much of it is worth watching? How much of it is family vacation videos?

If the flow of information through the interactive web is like a fire hydrant, then it should be the role of schools to help our students develop tools for filtering that flow.

We must also recognize that if the intimacy of the classroom can be replicated through the Web, that it will be, and that educators will need to adapt to this change. Already schools have seen their traditional classroom students start the migration toward online learning. While I still think that services like the Khan Academy and MIT’s Open Courseware are poor substitutes for the intimate classroom experience, I do not think we are far away from the kind of technological changes which will place a huge strain on the typical didactic classroom model.

I think we need to ensure that the importance of personal and intimate communication, which has always been important to us as a species, is not lost during this transition. While our communication tools may change how and where we connect with our students, we must remember that our value as educators lies not in what we know, but in the relationships we form with our students.

Here is my presentation from the Digital Learning conference in April.

Have you been cyber-bullied?

I sent out a request for responses to a cyber-bullying survey a number of weeks ago, and I’ve finally gotten around to analyzing the results. I asked two questions: "Have you been cyber-bullied?" and "What is your age?"

Pie chart - Have you been cyber-bullied?

From this chart we can see that half of the people who responded indicated that they have never been cyber-bullied, and that about one third indicated that they had been cyber-bullied, and a final sixth of the participants were not sure. This seems to match the results of the 2010 Pew survey of 800 teens.

Cyberbullied - bar chart with age and results

From this chart we can see that the peak age of the people who responded was 13 or 14 and that there aren’t any obvious trends. I’m sure that we have a strong selection bias that skews our results, as only 124 people responded, and those people who responded are just people who I was able to reach with the survey via Twitter and my school’s email. I was hoping for a much larger pool of data with which to work. If you are interested in further research, see this Wikipedia article for summaries of larger research studies.

There were a few interesting comments added to the survey. At least one person (over the age of 18) said "Boo hoo, block and move on" which really has a complete lack of understanding of the seriousness of bullying. Obviously not every young teenager is going to be able to just block the offending person and move on, as they may also be cutting out a significant portion of their social circle.

These results do suggest that cyber-bullying is a problem, but that it is not a significantly bigger problem than face to face bullying ever has been. However, since we have historically had problems combating face to face bullying, the significance of these results is that the online social spheres have similar risks as the traditional social spheres. From this you can conclude that if your school has a bullying problem in the playground, they have a similar bullying problem online. My suspicion is that the best way to spot cyber-bullying is through the same channels we spot more traditional playground bullying, by watching the social interactions of the teenagers involved.

How do these results fit in with what you know is happening at your school?