How the Other Half Lives: A Report from the 2013 Highlander Institute Blended Learning Conference by Dawn Casey-Rowe, Social Studies & Educational Technology
Last weekend, the Second Annual Highlander Institute Blended Learning Conference took place on the campus of Rhode Island College. RIC is one of Rhode Island’s largest teacher colleges, with a reputation of using methodology that is field-based and practical, so it only made sense to host the rapidly growing event at the college’s Alger Hall.
The event tripled in size from last year, showing the demand for professional development and discussion around concepts of technology and blended learning. Some of the most tech savvy-teachers in the region participated, alongside teachers who love technology but have not yet jumped in.
But there was another group. I saw them watching intently, sometimes fidgeting, at times getting more and more antsy. Teachers from “The Other Half of the Tech Divide.” I know. Not too long ago, it was me. And in many respects, it still is.
I introduced myself to one teacher, and we began to talk.
“Yeah,” she said, “All this is…overwhelming.”
“Overwhelming because you would like some help planning technology for your classroom, or overwhelming for some other reason?”
“I’m not allowed to use this.” She worked at a school with a lot of restrictions. Her system had blocks and a controlling policy. I empathized with her. I had nothing in my classroom until this past September myself, and still have many blocks and restrictions in place. I spent all last summer bound and determined to seek out teachers who had similar problems with budget, infrastructure, or policy but managed do great things with technology. I now have a partially-flipped classroom, where I use a couple of apps to great success—a class blog, Learnist, and Twitter. Still, I’d love to see a BYOD or 1:1 policy in my school.
The teacher to whom I was talking was nowhere near this, I got the impression.
The conference’s keynote speaker, Jean Tower is somewhat of an expert on this subject. She spoke about how we can progressively get technology in schools. Stating that many schools start off with bans, move up the ladder to tight control, and eventually revise policies to allow technology, Tower feels that we’re all headed to a Bring Your Own Device policies in the near future. Anything else is just too hard to fund and sustain, and is a disservice to students who now use and will be expected to use these technologies in the real world.
Tower asked the capacity crowd to imagine, “What if I asked you to leave all your devices at the door. Then I issued you a Chromebook or device of my choosing? You’d be unhappy. Students are too. They’re very intimate with their devices.”
BYOD is not an option for many teachers, for many reasons. Some districts do not grant permission, and others would like to develop responsible use policies, but the physical networking and firewalls are not where they need to be.
Technology director Paul Barrett spoke, urging teachers to become involved with their school boards in advocating for upgraded tech infrastructure. Many people, he pointed out, don’t see infrastructure as a useful expenditure, and communities have to be proactive in showing the value of technology in their schools.
Policies must be updated. Infrastructure must be updated, and teachers must receive support.
The Second Annual Highlander Blended Learning Conference was eye-opening for me. I always enjoy meeting visionaries in the EdTech world. I met people from my Twitter-chat professional learning network in person—our #edchatri has become national, so it was great to sit with other educators with whom I have been exchanging ideas over the past year.
But in meeting “the other half,” the teachers who are not supported in their use of technology, who do not know how to take that first leap, or who are in a place where they are threatened with “liability,” and “what ifs” instead of “try this,” reminded me that we still have a long way to go.
This was my message when talking to these teachers. “I had none of this twelve months ago. And now, I do. We will help you.”
Hopefully, those conversations continue. Blended learning engages students. It meets them where they are. The research shows further that social learning motivates and sticks. But we must not forget “the other half.”
“What if the students do something bad?” someone asked. Jean Tower answered this best.
“They didn’t do something bad without technology? And I’ve got news for you—don’t think they’re not using their smartphones just because you have a policy that bans them—they’re using them more. You need to embrace the technology and manage your classroom—give them directions on when to use the technology and how.” Goals, processes, and instructions must be clear for BYOD and technology-integration in general—just like for any other lesson.
Teachers without permission to use technology, without support, and without advanced knowledge came to the Blended Learning Conference. I was fortunate to be able to sit and talk with these amazing educators who were excited to try new things and remember my own journey.
It is incumbent on the entire community to directly and indirectly support these educators and make sure that the best of 21st century learning reaches us all. Reach out to them in social media.
Contact them directly. Share ideas, resources, and work-arounds.
Direct them to blogs and other sources of the tools, thinking, and people that can help them make change in their own classroom, school, or district.
Image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad