It’s collaborate or perish, Brett. . .

I’ve got a bit of a confession to make, y’all:  I still haven’t gotten over the unexpected criticism that Brett and the boys of Kitchen Table Math laid on me last week over my confession that I struggle with evaluating the impact of my instruction.

And while I’m certainly comfortable with my responses to the gang about accountability, I haven’t had a chance yet to reply to their other assertion:  That the time I spend advocating for digital tools in the classroom is wasted.

Brett writes:

His blog focuses on incorporating new technology (wikis, Twitter, etc.) into instruction, and he argues forcefully for the use of these tools. But you have to ask the question – to what end? Why would you advocate so strongly for the use of technology – or the use of any other instructional tool – when you admit up front that you have no idea whatsoever whether it helps students learn…

He’s incorporating technology because he likes it; there’s no other explanation. If he cared whether students were learning, he’d make an effort to learn how to assess that learning, and tailor his instruction based on their progress.

Clearly that’s not going to happen – not, at least, until he retires.

Actually, Brett, I’m incorporating technology because it facilitates learning the required curriculum for my students, delivers instruction in a highly motivating format and prepares students for the workplaces of tomorrow.

You see, technology has the potential to make all learning easier.  Students today have access to information in ways that you and I never had access to information.  They can almost immediately find content that would have taken us hours to hunt down—and that information is far more engaging than any of the traditional resources that schools provide for classrooms.

Which means that one of the greatest challenges facing kids today is learning to manage the amazing amount of information that is available to them.

They need to learn to identify resources that are reliable and to streamline their searches for content that connects to personal and professional interests.  If I were to allow my students to leave my classroom without a developing foundation of strategies for working with online information, they would be hopelessly inefficient learners (and employees), wouldn’t they?

I also incorporate technology into my classroom because I know my students—and they are completely driven by communication with peers.  This innate and unrelenting desire to interact was probably best defined by Danah Boyd–a PhD student at the University of California-Berkeley studying the networks developing between digital youth–in a 2008 blog post when she wrote:

They are desperately craving an opportunity to connect with their friends; not surprisingly, their use of anything that enables socialization while at school is deeply desired.  [The value of social networks] is about the kinds of informal social learning that is required for maturation — understanding your community, learning to communicate with others, working through status games, building and maintaining friendships, working through personal values, etc…

We need to recognize that not all learning is about book learning — brains mature through experience, including social experiences.

So I’m decidedly unapologetic about creating opportunities for my kids to communicate around ideas related to our curriculum.  I see each of these conversations as motivating places for my students to wrestle with content together.  They polish their core beliefs, have their thinking challenged by peers, and revise notions that they once held as true.

Need proof?

Then take some time to poke through the thinking in this Voicethread presentation where my students wrestled with political cartoons on the genocide occurring in Darfur.

Interpreting political cartoons allowed me to address several of the required elements of my language arts curriculum (identifying bias, making inferences, challenging the thinking of peers) and of my social studies curriculum (identifying how governments treat their people, recognizing how culture joins and separates people, understanding how countries wrestle with issues of justice and injustice).

Oh yeah—and while viewing, remember that the 85 UNGRADED comments you’re looking at were ALL done out of class.  My students found this digital forum motivating enough to willingly engage in an ongoing conversation about classroom content without any formal assessment needed.  It was the social nature of the learning experience that mattered to them.

When was the last time that you’ve gotten students to willingly engage in an ongoing conversation about classroom content without attaching a grade to the final product?

For me, it happens all the time.

Here’s a follow-up conversation with over 250 comments that we had with a group of eighth graders on the idea of hatred after studying the cultural elements of conflicts that have divided the US, the Balkan countries and Northern Europe—also a part of our required curriculum.

Brett and the gang specifically mentioned wikis in their criticism, so I wanted to explain why wikis matter:

Wikis are tools that are designed to promote digital collaboration between individuals in an organization.  Easily editable websites, wikis can be used to develop shared final products by groups of people regardless of location or time.

In education, wikis are largely being used by students to create repositories of knowledge about topics connected to the curriculum.  Two of my favorite examples of classroom wikis include the Carbon Fighters (a collection of jointly created letters to the Governor of North Carolina advocating for alternative energies) and The Flat Classroom Project (a collaborative project between students in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Camilla, Georgia).

Like the wikis that I use in my own classroom, both of these projects engaged students in the process of peer production.  Teams of students used digital tools to create content together while studying the required elements of their curriculum.

And while the learning outcomes of both of these projects are significant in and of themselves, I’d argue that teaching students the skills necessary for peer production are far more important.  You see, major industries are embracing peer production and creating work environments that are driven by digital collaboration.

Don’t believe me?

Then pick up Wikinomics someday.

Written by Dan Tapscott and Anthony Williams, Wikinomics works to explain how digital tools are changing today’s workplace.  In it, Tapscott and Williams highlight how industry giants like Proctor and Gamble are opening their companies and encouraging digital collaboration across borders, primarily because they recognize that the human capital beyond an organization will ALWAYS be greater than the human capital within an organization.

To Tapscott, Williams and other business leaders, this can only mean one thing:

“A power shift is underway and a tough new business rule is emerging:  Harness the new collaboration or perish.  Those who fail to grasp this will find themselves ever more isolated—cut off from the networks that are sharing, adapting, and updating knowledge to create value.

Heck, even IBM has recognized the importance of joining digital communities that are creating knowledge together.  They’ve released tons and tons of their proprietary information to the loose programming network building Linux—a free online operating system that probably best represents the new business marketplace.

IBM has also assigned hundreds of their programmers to work on the Linux project full-time.  That means IBM engineers are being paid by IBM to collaborate with dozens of volunteer programmers across the globe to create a free operating system.

Crazy, huh?

Why would a company join collaborative communities creating products that run in direct competition with their primary product line?

Simple.  It saves them HUGE amounts of cash:

IBM spends about $100 million per year on general Linux development.  If the Linux community puts in $1 billion of effort, and even half of that is useful to IBM customers, the company gets $500 million of software development for an investment of $100 million.  (Kindle location 1493)

So I guess what I figure, Brett, is that if companies like IBM and Proctor + Gamble are embracing peer production and open collaboration across borders today—and making huge amounts of money doing so!— more companies are likely to follow in the future.

Does this make sense?

Which means the skills necessary to be efficient digital collaborators will be of great value in the corporations of tomorrow.  If one of my charges is to prepare students for the workplace of the 21st Century (and it is—check out the State Board of Education’s recent mission and vision statements), then using collaborative tools like wikis is entirely appropriate, don’t you think?

Whew!  Glad I got that off my chest.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that digital tools have a well thought out place in my classroom.  They’re far more than just novelties that make me feel good.  Instead, they’re essential for delivering content, for engaging students, and for preparing kids for tomorrow.

If any of these goals are essential outcomes for education, then I guess I’m doing the right thing.

Push back, anyone?