Why Ed Tech had it right at the very start but lost its way

If you think back to the early days of educational technology when the Apple IIe was  first making its way into classrooms, you may recall some of the very first software programs including games like Oregon Trail, SIM City and Where the World is Carmen Sandiego. Those games, although primitive in terms of today's multimedia rich world of hi-res animations,  were not only engaging and interactive but also adaptive, adjusting to the player's choices along the way and creating new challenges as a result of those choices. 

Critical thinking was a big part of those early games but somehow as time progressed Ed Tech lost its way. Just as corporate America and emerging knowledge economy demanded that schools develop critical thinking skills across disciplines, schools and Ed Tech shifted their focus more and more on teaching productivity skills such as how to use  Word, Excel and the like in isolated computer classes. Sure there are outliers like Tom Snyder productions who developed high quality instructional simulation software like Decisions, Decisions, but was expensive to create and even more difficult for teachers to integrate an increasingly prescribed data driven curriculum. 

As the Internet made its way into classrooms in the mid to late 90's, there was a  new opportunity for schools to teach critical thinking through effective Internet research and evaluation. Some schools integrated this into the library curriculum while others ignored it altogether despite a push from organizations like ISTE to make it a part of the curriculum.  But as search tools quickly became smarter,  the students and teachers using them got into the habit of blindly trusting the search results they provided creating a generation of information consumers who tended more to copy and paste instead  analyze and synthesize. The advent of Wikipedia provided yet another opportunity for schools to teach critical thinking skills in ways that forced students to dig deeper into the information presented to them while evaluating the sources and making decisions on its validity based  on the credibility of the authors. Once again schools, by and large, chose to block this important teaching tool instead of embracing it as a way to improve students media literacy and critical thinking. 

All the while, video game creators who were making millions selling incredibly life like simulations to kids sitting in front of their TVs for hours on end were trying to think about how they could tap into the multi-billion dollar K-12 education technology market. Several companies tried and failed to break through the now mostly test--prep curriculum states had adopted after No Child Left Behind was enacted. Most recently,  Minecraft, sort of virtual legos bursted onto the scene and upended the  gaming market with a force not seen since Atari was first released  back in the late 70s and early 80s. Similar to a predecessor called SimCity, kids were given the opportunity to build fortresses, cities and other structures with their creative mind with the caveat that at some point it would be attacked and potentially destroyed by what the game calls Griefers. Some avantgarde teachers recognized the powerful lessons being taught within this gaming platform and began to try and tap into it as a tool for teaching and learning in their classrooms, but as in the past, schools have been slow to adopt game-based learning and the intrinsic rewards that come along with it as a mainstream learning tool as it remains a fringe idea for educational innovation. Still,  several educational technology start ups, unwavered by past failures,  continue to compete against more popular productivity and collaboration tools like Google docs, to promote simulation gaming as a mainstream learning tool if for no other reason but to transform the over 100 year old K-12 educational experience and develop the kinds of critical thinking skills required of being a successful participant in the 21st-century economy our students are graduating into. 

The long slow push toward true personalization of learning

"ALEKS starts everyone at the same point. But from the moment students begin to answer the practice questions that it automatically generates for them, ALEKS’ machine-learning algorithms are analyzing their responses to figure out which concepts they understand and which they don’t." From the article No more pencils, no more books by Will Oremus for Slate

The above video demonstration of one of the many burgeoning adaptive instructional  tools (ALEKS) designed to personalize learning and the quote from the article it was embedded in continues to show how far the educational technology industry has come and yet how far it still has to go in realizing the utopianesque vision of personalized learning for everyone. That said, it is likely that as computing power continues to increase exponentially and at a pace more rapid than ever, we will begin to see more effective and reliable adaptive learning systems emerge as their complicated algorithms have the strength to learn our learning needs. I am especially interested in see which of the several  start-ups involved in this race will prevail and provide the product so many of us in education have been waiting for as the be-all-end-all solution to the differentiation and personalization problem in classrooms today. 

The Desperate Need for Digital Citizenship Courses NOW!

"Social media interactions often matter more than real life conversations. The line between the real world and the cyber world no longer exists to middle schoolers." Not surprisingly, this is among several other conclusions this CNN investigate report found over three years studying how tweens (middle schoolers) used and felt about social media.  As a principal responsible for investigating alleged harassment, intimidation and bullying incidents (face-to-face and online) I see the results of this quote day in and day out.  As a father of three, I also see the blurred reality social media offers my children and the emotional impact is has on their daily lives. But as a lifelong advocate and avid user of communication technologies as a tool for teaching and learning and leader of a one-to-one computing initiative in my school, I also see the desperate need for our students to be engaged in daily activities that build their awareness of both the power and pitfalls of the social media world. Toward that end, we must, as a society, recognize the desperate need for digital citizenship course to be taught in our schools alongside other social and emotional development curricula. In our high school, our digital librarian is charged with working with teachers and students in all classes to provide instruction and consultation on all matters digital citizenship while also representing this issue as a critical member of our school climate and culture council. While we use several different online resources to facilitate learning digital citizenship skills, we really like Common Sense Media's free curriculum and activities . While this approach is working for us (for now), we must move to a more structured sequence of courses for our students beginning  in the primary grades just as the students enter school already accustomed to using digital technologies throughout their little lives.