Throwing rocks at the ivory tower. . .

On Friday, I had an interesting opportunity that took me out of my comfort zone a bit.  I’d been contacted by two professors at a major Northeastern university who were interested in learning more about Voicethread and the role that it could play in classroom instruction at the college level.  We scheduled an interview that they planned to use in some upcoming work with their colleagues.

Our conversation quickly drifted away from Voicethread, however, when one of the two professors asked me about my decision to post tons and tons of resources that I’ve developed online for others to use.  “I wonder if you can explain that decision for our audience,” he asked.  “That’s going to run counter to everything that our peers—who earn tenure and status by publishing—hold dear.

“Why would you just give your ideas away?”

Ironically, my original decision to freely share nearly everything I create was heavily influenced by higher education!  Several years ago, I read about MIT’s decision to post all of their coursework on the web.  Students with Internet connections anywhere can access syllabi, notes, and class readings—as well as audio and video lectures—from one of the world’s leading universities for free.

Described as one of the greatest acts of “intellectual philanthropy” in history, MIT is seeking to democratize knowledge in a world where knowledge is the key commodity.  As Ann Margulies—executive director of the open course project at MIT—explains in this Christian Science Monitor article, “We believe strongly that education can be best advanced when knowledge is shared openly and freely.  MIT is using the power of the Internet to give away all of the educational materials created here.”

For me, the idea of intellectual philanthropy had great resonance.  I’m a passionate advocate for public education and have written often about my desire to see students in every school succeed.  Advancing knowledge is what I’m about.  I’m also a passionate advocate for the effective use of technology in classrooms.  Blending those passions convinced me that sharing was the right thing to do.

What’s more, I’ve taken as much from the digital community of learners as I’ve given.  I spend the first 30 minutes of every day reading the thoughts of other powerful educators around the world.  They challenge my thinking and force me to refine and revise what I’m already doing with students.  Professionally, I’ve grown exponentially from the free knowledge posted on dozens of blogs and wikis—responsible participation in this ongoing conversation requires that I offer ideas for others to learn from.

Finally, making my work transparent has forced me to carefully articulate what it is that I believe about teaching and learning.  The pressure of a public audience that can question what I do raises my level of reflection.  I know that if my ideas are not centered, I’ll be questioned—and that questioning is the “refining fire” that helps me to understand my own practices and positions better, both before and after I post my thinking for others to review.

Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?

Now, before you go and think I’m making a pitch for Sainthood, I’d better come clean:  Giving material away for free online has also raised my profile to a point where people are willing to pay me cold hard cash, too!

I’ve been offered—and signed—multiple book contracts, I’ve written for countless top-flight educational publications, I’ve been given all-expenses paid trips to conferences for presentations, I’ve been hired to write regular columns and I’ve been contracted as an expert adviser by national educational policy and technology organizations.

Not bad for a guy who is “just a classroom teacher,” huh?  It turns out that giving knowledge away hasn’t been a professional mistake at all.  It has improved the quality of my thinking, changed my positions, exposed me to new ideas, forced me to articulate positions, elevated my voice, established my credibility and helped to pay my bills all at once!

When I was finished explaining my reasoning for joining in the “share-and-share-alike” world of the Internet, my interviewers were semi-speechless.  “Your thinking makes perfect sense,” they said, “and your ability to generate opportunities after freely sharing resources proves that freely sharing resources doesn’t hinder one’s professional career.  These ideas are going to be controversial, though.  They’re sure to spark debate among our peers.”

Which is why I doubt that colleges can effectively prepare teachers for tomorrow!

Think about it:  We live in a knowledge-based world where collaboration and creative thinking are becoming the key to success in nearly every industry.  Organizations that paint pictures of the 21st Century workplace emphasize the need for employees that can work on interdependent, multi-cultural teams.  Innovation and design are skills enhanced by cooperation—and hindered by isolation.

This changing reality has had a profound impact on the way that K-12 public schools operate.  A profession once defined by isolation has worked to embrace collaboration.  It would be nearly impossible to find a district that hadn’t experimented with professional learning communities—and while old habits are hard to break, buildings across America are becoming places of professional synergy where colleagues learn from each other and improve practice together.

As classroom educators begin to see the benefit of learning together, they are also incorporating more collaborative opportunities into their classroom instruction.  Driven by a passion to show others how to learn—and valuing the ideas gleaned from peers—-teachers are convinced that cooperative work around ideas must drive the learning of their students.

Yet undergraduate students are studying under professors who not only work in isolation, but who openly fear cooperation because it could jeopardize their professional standing and career track.  How can we possibly expect to change the isolated culture of public schools when the role models for our newest teachers are educators who see little value in sharing what they know?

I think it might just be time to pressure universities to change, don’t you?

Why should tenure and career status be tied to behaviors that award isolated behaviors in a world where collaboration has become the key to the kingdom?  Is it possible that we’ve taken direction from colleges for too long—-and that stagnancy has left our primary institutions for higher learning behind?