The text below is an invited talk that I gave this morning to a symposium organised by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals – the heads of primary and secondary (high) schools of Ireland, and their deputies.
My goal was to encourage the teaching profession in Ireland to seize the initiative, and help themselves to help their colleagues. In these very challenging fiscal times in Ireland, it seems clear to me that our Department of Education and Science will not have the fiscal capability to lead, and so leadership must be bottom-up, indigenous and community based – which, in my mind, is at the core of the ethos of the internet.
If you are a technologist yourself, please forgive my poetic license below in categorising some web sites and technologies – I am trying to explain essential characteristics in laymens’, non-technical, terms.
“The ancient Masters didn’t try to educate the people, but patiently taught them to not-know. When they think they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. When they know that they don’t know, people can then find their way”— from Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” – the Book of the Way.
Teaching is about not-knowing. Educating is about fostering self-awareness. Learning is about finding.
Being an educator is one of the most privileged professions. In knowing herself, an educator imprints on the next generation a way to understand themselves and thus to find their way.
I went to Newpark Comprehensive in Blackrock, finishing in 1974. John Harris, who introduced the Transition year project to Ireland, was my Mathematics teacher throughout my time in secondary school. Derek West likewise taught me in English classes for six years. Dr John de Courcy Ireland taught me History, and also French. I was so fortunate to have many further fine teachers – Derek Langran, Chris Sealy, Roy Rohu, Bob Weatherill and many others. And I believe in every case, all those years ago, I viewed each of these teachers as a prime source of information and knowledge. They knew, and I didn’t.
Today, I think many of us accept that the situation has irrevocably changed. Teachers are of course still fine people, but many students no longer accept their teachers as the prime source of information and knowledge. The internet, and in particular Google, is now the primary way to find out and learn. Wikipedia – an online encyclopedia, to which I will later return – is a chief reference and authority. Twitter – an online headline broadcast service – is a rapid access to what’s happening. Facebook and Bebo – online social communities – are a quick way to find and share what’s cool. Youtube – an online video clip service – is a quick way to humour. iTunes – an online music and “podcasting” service – is a quick way to music and interesting interviews.
Ten years ago, I used to worry about the ‘digital divide’ — that the wealthy had access to the internet, and those of limited means did not. I remember the Ennis Information Age project in which we asked ourselves what would happen if an entire community was trained on how to use a PC and had access to the internet. Over the last decade I believe that, in Ireland at least, there is considerably greater uptake and affordable access to the internet, compared to some of those countries I have experienced through my work with UNICEF. There are of course still digitally impoverished communities in Ireland, but the situation is improving. The convergence of mobile phone technology with broadband internet access, is a further catalyst.
Now I worry, maybe unnecessarily, about the digital divide of the generations. Most of us know how to book an airline seat online. Most of us know how to send an email, or access our bank account. But how many of us know how to upload a video to Youtube, or to make a podcast, or how to contribute to the wisdom of the crowd ? Meanwhile, for the younger generation there is no divide between virtual reality and the real world: for them this would be an unnecessary and unnatural distinction, and for them the internet is an intrinsic part of the real world as much as the telephone, the radio or even the weather.
Therefore today, what role should a teacher and educator now play ? It’s now clear to many students that their teachers don’t know as much about their chosen subject as Google does. It’s also clear to many students that traditional classroom teaching isn’t particularly interesting or stimulating. Instead, on the internet, you can quickly browse from headline to headline, quickly learn, quickly find out what’s happening, quickly participate and quickly share with your friends and community. It’s not that today’s students have attention deficit, and are incapable of absorption or focus: on the contrary, they immerse themselves deeply – for hours sometimes – in what they find interesting, such as specific games and challenges. The difference today is that students have found a way – the internet – to so much more easily quickly find out what is really interesting, and to rapidly filter out and discard what is mundane.
So, as educators and technologists, what should we do ? How together can we change Ireland ?
One thing we must of course continue to do is to challenge students’ understanding – the old “compare and contrast” technique which Derek West drummed into me. No single source of information should be taken as definitive, including Wikipedia. How easy it is today for example to instantly compare the front pages of the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, but also for example the Sydney Morning Herald, the South China Morning Post and the Los Angeles Times!
One thing I personally strongly believe that we cannot do, is wait and expect our Government and the apparatus of the State to help us. From where we stand today, it is pretty clear that the State has a rapidly diminishing capability to invest in education. With a ballooning national budget deficit, the worst thing we can now do is to fold our arms, sit back, and wait for some fiscally impotent Minister of Education to put together some study on what on earth should be done; then perhaps sometime put a computer and broadband link in front of every single student in every classroom; ensure that there is support and maintenance for all those machines; and put all of our educators through continued professional education on computer use. Ladies and Gentlemen, from where I stand, this just isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
So, we have two challenges: (1) how to get all of our professional teachers conversant and confident with the latest internet technologies; (2) even if we achieve the first challenge, how do we make teaching relevant in today’s internet world where the teacher in general knows little and Google knows everything ? Let me address both challenges with the same solution.
One of the key points about the internet is that it is self-creating and self-sustaining. It is bottom-up, a community phenomenon. In the early days of the internet, you could connect your computer for free to the mesh of computers already in the network, but only if you were then prepared to let others – even strangers – use your computer to in turn connect theirs into the mesh. The world wide web came about by a bunch of physicists devising their own way to better share their scientific results, and then sharing their new way with anyone else interested. The ethos of the internet is sharing, “bottom-up”. So let me talk to you about the technology underpinning wikipedia.
Perhaps some of you have a jaundiced view of wikipedia. It has replaced the Encyclopedia Britannica – which my parents encouraged me to consult in Blackrock library as the definitive source of knowledge. But some educators, and I do understand, question its accuracy and are concerned that students may place an unnecessary over-reliance on its authority. We should always compare and contrast.
But allow me to distinguish between wikipedia – the web site – and a wiki – the technology on which wikipedia is based. Wikipedia is but one example of a wiki, and there are many others. The basic technology of a wiki is free – zero cost – as result of Ward Cunningham’s work in the 1990s. A wiki is a web site in which not only can anyone read its content, but anyone can also edit the content. At first this sounds extraordinary – what prevents somebody from editing accurate content and defacing it ? In fact, the answer is nothing, and defacement happens – however, the wiki keeps a record of who edited what, and what was the previous version (and the previous version to that and so on). Anarchists and political pundits can quickly be identified by the community of readers, isolated from the wiki so that the wiki refuses to accept any further edits from these rogues, and the maverick changes made by these fraudsters are quickly unwound.
The consequence is that the community of bona-fide contributors work together to make the wiki better and better, capturing the best inputs from everyone, and discarding the weaker edits. The system becomes Darwinian – the best survives, the weakest is dropped. A wiki thus captures the “wisdom of the crowd” – the collective wisdom of a community of readers and contributors.
If you Google on the topic of wikis and teaching, you will see some articles about how some teachers elsewhere in the world (I couldn’t find any from Ireland) are experimenting with the use of wikis within the classroom, to encourage a class of students to work together on group projects. We can of course adopt this idea here in Ireland, but I have a broader suggestion to make to you.
Ladies and Gentlemen, you are a community. Your professional teaching colleagues are another larger community, to which you also belong. Why not use wiki technology to address the two challenges – digital confidence amongst your community, and enhanced teaching ?
I do make the assumption that the vast majority of you and your teaching colleagues already have access to the internet (not necessarily in your schools but at home or elsewhere), and know the rudimentaries for example on how to book an airline ticket online. To contribute to, or to just read, a wiki you do not need needlessly complicated tools like Microsoft Word or Powerpoint or some such. Instead, you use any internet browser: editting is done using the browser itself and very simple controls. In fact, by examining a wiki, you can quickly see how other contributors have achieved the layout and presentation of the wiki, and simply copy their styling. If you know how to start a computer, connect to the internet and launch an internet browser, then you really need only learn very little more to be able to read and to contribute to a wiki.
I then envisage a new wiki (not Wikipedia!) created by some of you and your teaching colleagues which starts to capture the wisdom inherent in the national community of teachers in Ireland on how to get the best out of the internet, and out of internet trends (such as podcasting..), for teaching students in Irish schools. Such a wiki would then potentially help every teacher in Ireland. I envisage another new wiki that some of you, and/or some of your teaching colleagues, create on experiences, and best practice, of engaging classroom experiences in Irish schools. Such a wiki would then further help every teacher in Ireland.
I envisage another wiki, created by some of your mathematics teachers, on each topic within the Higher Level Leaving Certificate Mathematics syllabus, not only explaining each such topic but illustrating it from real world examples from applications in society and science as to how that particular mathematical technique can be beneficially used. I envisage another wiki, created by some of our Irish history teaching colleagues, on each topic within the Junior Certificate History syllabus, not only laying out each such topic but explaining its consequences on Irish society and culture.
I envisage many wikis, one for each syllabus in Irish schools, through which both experienced and neophyte teachers alike of that syllabus can share with each other nationwide the best ideas and experiences.
Ladies and Gentlemen, my proposition to you is that in todays fiscal environment, it is unrealistic to expect much help anymore from the State. Instead there is a huge wealth of competence and wisdom within your own community, and it really would not take very much for you to work together to help all of your interests.
In the business world of global companies, such as IONA was, great emphasis is placed on team work, and ensuring that every member of a global organisation contributes to and benefits from the collective wisdom of the staff: domain experts share their knowledge and skills so as the whole company benefits. The commercial world for which we are preparing the vast bulk of our young people is one in which team work abounds. In the world of education, perhaps the current fiscal position of our State can be a catalyst for change, an impetus to encourage sharing amongst education professionals what is the very best.
A wiki is a community self-help tool. Best of all, a wiki can be created by anyone, by any small group of like-minded professionals, at any time. It does not require a mandate from a Government, a Minister, a Trade Union, or even the NAPD! It is a “bottom-up” tool, deep from within the community itself. A wiki can just emerge pretty much overnight, and regardless of any national agenda and policy: it just needs bona fide like-minded professionals.
Be wary of educating people, but instead teach them to not-know and hence to find out. When people think they already know the answers, they become difficult to guide. When people know that they don’t know, they can find their way. One of the best ways is to ask and share with others. That is what the internet is all about.