Tipping Points for Change: Are We There Yet?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Tom Preskett‘s most recent article, “Making Sense of e-Learning Strategy,” and Harry Keller‘s response raise a number of issues, and, together, they suggest that we may have reached the tipping point in three areas that loom large as we use the latest technologies to extend our powers of communication. As we begin to shake free from classrooms and lectures that serve as content for the new medium, we find ourselves in the dark, able only to grope our way toward understanding the new medium of the internet and the unimaginable changes that it represents for our educational systems, in particular, and our global society, as a whole.

Marshall McLuhan theorizes that the medium is the message, and that in the early stages of change, the old medium serves as content for the new. However, as we become comfortable with and begin to fully understand the new, we shuck the old and the medium does, finally, become the message. This happened with television. Until we fully understood the power of this new medium, we filled it with content from radio, mainly, talking heads. When we finally understood its power to visually transcend space, we began to use it as a means to open live audiovisual windows from any point to any other point, including one from the moon to my living room. The new medium extended our sense of who we are and our place in the universe. TV changed us and, in turn, changed the world, making what’s happening in New York right now instantly accessible to even the remotest mountain village in New Guinea or rural village in China.

But that was TV, a one-way medium that placed transmission in the hands of a few and reception in the hands of the many. Computers and the internet changed all that. The power to receive and send is now in the hands of all — no longer the domain of just a few.

With all this communicative power in our hands, it’s understandable that we had no idea what to do with it. As McLuhan has predicted, we’ve used it to deliver the old media, classroom-based strategies. However, we’re beginning to realize that this is a transitional stage and that the next step will take us to an understanding of exactly how the new technology of the internet extends and, in the process, irrevocably changes us as human beings.

Returning to Preskett and Keller — I believe we’ve reached a few important tipping points in understanding the message that the new medium represents. For example, as Keller suggests, the role of a teacher is being radically altered. It is no longer the dominant source of but a guide to knowledge since, theoretically, all the world’s knowledge is accessible to everyone at any time through the web.

And as Preskett suggests, short-term measures of learning may no longer be viable when we consider learning in a virtual environment that makes a mockery of assessing arbitrary divisions of learning according to grade levels, subject matter, semesters, and credit hours. The results of active, exploratory, student-driven learning in grade school may not become obvious until students are in grad school or well into their careers. But as Preskett says, he knows, without hard data, that active learning in which students learn how to identify and explore issues that matter to them will reinforce the kind of learning that will last a lifetime rather than a semester.

The third and last tipping point concerns the role of specialists who assist teachers in using the new technologies. As Preskett, an instructional design manager, says, his function is theoretically to assist, not to dictate. What this means is that he often finds himself biting his tongue, catering to clients who are misusing or, more accurately, seriously underutilizing technology.

In the case of expertise in technology, we may have reached the tipping point where the TLQ (technology literacy quotient) for teachers at all levels must be very high. Without this increase, we have the longterm prospect of learning and instructional strategies that are simply unsuitable for the new media.

The medium is the message, and if we don’t understand it, we can’t reach out to the full extent that the new media allows.

When we do, finally, fully extend our new reach, what will we find? This is the question that Keller leaves us with, and I for one am excited by the possibilities. What radically different forms will learning and teaching take, and how will these forms change the roles of teachers and students? And a question that Keller suggests is, perhaps, the most relevant: What new roles will it create?

The problem is that we won’t even begin the exploration until we remove the old medium from the new. And the first step in the removal process may be to unbundle our notions of school and college and discard those elements that run counter to the principles embedded in the new medium. Fortunately, the principles aren’t a mystery. They’ve been around from day one. And perhaps the two most important are: Communication — any time and anywhere.

These two pinciples provide all the light we need, for now, to get started. If the strategy or practice runs counter to these two, then we leave it behind. And move on.

4 Responses

  1. Hi,
    We have received 495 nominations for The Top 100 Language Blogs 2010 competition. For each of the four categories we have admitted 100 blogs into the voting phase. Your blog is included for voting in the ‘Language Technology’ category. Congratulations!
    As stated in our language blog Lexiophiles, 50% of the final score will be based on user votes. You can promote your blog by embedding a voting button in your page. The button code is available in the Lexiophiles blog. It can also be sent via email if you contact me.
    The voting phase started on May 12th and ends on May 24th. Winners will be announced May 28th.
    Good luck!
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  2. Hi Priscilla

    Thanks for the nomination – looking forward to exploring the other nominated and winning blogs.



  3. Hi Jim, Tom and Harry,

    Is the role of the teacher really being altered by the new medium? Active, participatory learning, where the teacher’s role is to accompany and point to resources and methods has been advocated for decades now. The new means make this approach to education so much easier that people who don’t want it are becoming all the more strident.

    Yet in all fairness, teachers at schools whose funding depends on the students’ results in national and purely notional tests that do not evaluate at all capacities are under considerable pressure to coach them for such tests.
    This type of pressure may not exist at college / university level, but there are motives for a reluctance to become more of a coach . than a knowledge dispenser in higher education too: publish or perish evaluation, and its consequences.

    And then there is the fear to lose face – less dramatic maybe than with a bunch of leering middle-school kids, but it may still exist at university level.

    On Jan. 31, 2007, Michael Wesch published his Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us video (2nd draft), an immediate classic. He also put it on Mojiti, where people could comment directly on the video: some of us made further Mojiti copies to subtitle it quietly away from the avalanche of comments and drawings. It was fun and exciting, and instructive for all: Wesch and his students and anyone who cared took notes.

    Now a few months later a lady teaching at another university decided to lead her students in an exploratory foray in the YouTube jungle. Her first video, where she explained their project, sounded like Tom Lehrer’s “I should like to consider the folk song, and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time, to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.”, but without the irony. It got duly savaged by YouTubers. She at least never blocked comments. And I am sure she and her students learned a lot from the experience.

    But would a higher TLQ really have helped her? Is it not a question of social skills more than of technology literacy? The technology is actually getting simpler and simpler, because user-friendliness is an important factor in competition.

    If higher education institutions recognized and rewarded social and collaborative skills in teachers, and their capacity to help students develop / orient theirs constructively, teachers would seek out tech specialists to learn about which app might best suit a given project.

  4. Claude, thanks for these thoughtful comments.

    The “Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us” video is fabulous! The nonlinearity and dynamic quality of text and other info on the web is a fact that most people simply don’t “see.” The medium is the message, and the message is that the screen only appears to be 2-dimensional. It’s really not. Clicking and dragging, the user is able to step through and into an infinite variety of realities, literally allowing her/him to wander and explore the 3-dimensional universe whenever and wherever she is. The world and all its info and people is the content, and through the screen, we have access to it. The screen truly is a magic window.

    Re student-centered, experiential, discovery, holistic, active — take your pick — learning, yes, it’s been the hallmark of effective pedagogy ever since the first human being took on the role of teacher. But with the magic carpet of the web, the individual as learner rather than pupil is freed from the teacher-as-content definition of learning. In essence, the most effective teacher becomes part of the medium of learning and adapts her curriculum to the virtual environment. The goal of education ought to be empowerment and freedom, not dependence and obedience, and a great teacher is one who’s able to let go, to get out of the student’s way as soon as possible.

    I like your thoughts on technical vs. social skills. It’s grounding, bringing us back to the fact that, basically, all the tech, regardless of complexity, is ultimately geared to improve and facilitate communication between and among people! The bottom line is, as you say, social.

    I agree that technology is becoming simpler by the day, like driving an automatic car that’s maintained by computers. The driver doesn’t need to know anything about the mechanics or tech. Get in, turn the key, step on the gas, and off you go — whenever you feel like it, to wherever you want.

    The web is getting to be exactly like that. Little or no tech skill needed to create a web presence and to interact with anyone at any time. All that’s required is a strong desire to communicate, to socialize.

    Yet, my eyes tell me that the vast majority of educators are reluctant to or unable to see the message in the new medium. For them, the message in the new tech is still the old classroom, the old methodology, the old sense of time and place.

    -Jim S

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