Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Commentary: Sotir: Preparing Students for the Future

It's now 2008, and we are on the downside of the decade following the millennium, safe from the Y2K but still dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. In reviewing where schools now fit into our tech society, I realize that we still fall short. Recently I read an article about students who chose to give up technology for a specified period of time, and the difficulties they encountered in the process. Frustrations included trying to get assignments completed for instructors who only accepted papers online, or trying to figure out how to use a typewriter versus a computer keyboard. As I've noted in the past, the societal changes due to technology have been evolutional, not revolutional. Can you remember, for example. seeing an outside phone booth lately? Pay phones still exist, but are becoming less and less commonplace now that almost everyone has access to a cell phone. All generations are touched by technology.

Of course, schools have evolved. But has staff evolved as well? To some extent, yes, but is it enough? From the iPhone to Wi-fi to the Wii, technology is part of daily life for students. Yes, there are pockets of educators creating innovative 2.0 interactive Websites and Podcasts, but it is hardly a universal phenomena. The average instructor is satisfied with accessing 20th century technology. Many have changed (usually reluctantly) to LCD projectors and PowerPoint presentations but I am sure that in most every school there are still those using the overheads with abandon. Professional development workshops are given, often showcasing the newest and most innovative technologies, but how much of that is truly brought back into the classroom?

The excuses I hear from educators range from 'there's not enough time' to 'there's not enough money'. Probably true enough, but the reality is, there's not enough interest. I have what I call AELC 10 minute wonders; technology applications that require only about 10 minutes to develop, and a computer with Internet access to implement. Many of those are highlighted on this Blog, with Blogs and Wikis as the first tool shown. Others are apps like Gabcast (yes, that does require a phone too, but it can be a landline phone), Tiny URLs and Filamentality Hotlists. These are powerful applications, easy to use, and readily available without additional equipment or cost.

Do adult students also crave these tools? Of course. Our college is closed to students for about 7 weeks between fall and spring semesters. In response to student requests for continued access to instruction during the hiatus, my staff created Gabcasts and Hotlists. During the week prior to the start of the break when classes had ended but the college was still open, I had over 20 students stop in to make sure they knew how to access the lessons, and one student who purchased a laptop computer specifically to allow him access to those tools. Over 100 students have accessed these sites to date, and I anticipate that now that the holidays are winding down, that number will increase. My staff saw a need, utilized easily accessed applications and provided a solution.

The advantage of technology is that it is accessible and readily available to most of us. It is sometimes overwhelming, but often that sense is created by those who are providing instruction rather than by the application itself. From my first attempts with administration of technology, I realized that how easily you access the tool is more important than the tool itself. If it is easy to use, it will be used. If it requires an instruction book to utilize the process, the actual usage will be low.

Look at your own cell phone. Sure, most people can make calls and answer calls on them, and probably even access voicemail and a few other general features. How many additional features does it have that you never utilize, simply because you don't know how to use them? The iPhone is a success largely because it is intuitive. If you want the weather, touch the weather icon. If you want to get directions, touch the maps icon. People are now accessing things like stocks and email from their phones because Apple made it easy to do. Many of those same tools are available on other cell phones too, but accessing them requires several steps, not the least of which is actually knowing that they are there and can be accessed. On the iPhone, there is an icon, and when you touch it, it opens the application. Sure, it may take a bit longer to figure out how to use the tools effectively, but at least you know they exist. And knowledge is power.

We need to approach education the same way. If you want instructors to use a tool, then make that tool easy to use. Do whatever it takes. Quick Notes? Labels? Short instructional training sessions? Whatever it takes. I often think about the professional development workshops where instructors are given everything they can possibly learn about using a new application or tool. Most say wow, that is truly amazing. And then they go back to the same way they had been working all along. Technology training should be in short bursts, with immediate opportunity to apply the training. Utilize the business axiom of JIT, or just in time, for providing training. Make sure all tools and technologies are in place, tested and ready to use. Give instructors concrete examples of how to use those tools with their students. Provide after training to answer the inevitable questions that occur. Allow peers to showcase their use of the tools to other instructors. Training is a necessity. Make it worthwhile.