Friday, November 10, 2006


NACOL wrapup

I gave a talk about Sakai on Tuesday at the North American Council for Online Learning conference in Plano Texas.

The organization’s focus is K12, so I was a little out of my element, but it was interesting to see the similarities and differences. I came away with the impression that K12 is much less autonomous and much more driven by policy than higher ed, even public universities like Texas State.

The theme that echoed in the conference was that the world is changing faster than our ability to adapt our education strategies. There was also a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the way our schools apply technology in education is to buy a lot of hardware and software and then see what happens. I won’t deny that that’s often exactly what we do in my department.

We heard from Tim Magner, the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He depressed me. In a nutshell, it was “We’re truly unprepared for the educational needs of the next generation, and the federal government can only give talks and make pictures because my department has, like, no money.”

I wish I could be optimistic, but this is a hard problem. Technology is such a great fit for say, accounting, because it’s one of the problems that can be mechanized. Your ledger is either balanced to the penny or it’s not. The root difficulty in education is that we don’t even know what success means in this domain. We’re talking about brains and cognition and emotion and motivation. Standardized testing does not reduce this to a binary equation, in spite of what its proponents may say. I believe we need to be free to experiment, to run thousands of skunkworks and find out what sticks. I like what Grace Hopper said: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” Sakai happened at Texas State because we just put the damn thing up and got to work.

A couple of highlights: An organization called TakingITGlobal builds communities of young people from around the world to learn about global economic and social issues. They create content that educators can use for free, like this game in which you assume the roles of members of a family in rural Haiti and try to overcome their economic hardship.

I also loved hearing Bror Saxberg from K12, Inc. talk about some of the findings of cognitive science and how they may be applied to education. I believe if we don’t start making a concerted effort to apply science like this to our instructional technology projects, then we’re doomed to continue building solutions in search of a problem.

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