Thursday, February 17, 2011

Olde Education

The thing I remember most about reading Beowulf in high school is how bizarre the language seemed to me. It barely made sense when my teacher told me it was actually written in English. I never put much thought into the evolution of the English language until I was confronted with the snapshot of linguistic history that is Beowulf, but it fascinated me once my teacher explained it. She explained that Beowulf is written in Olde English and we now speak Modern English.

I learned that language isn’t static; it evolves in many ways for many reasons. Ironically enough, the same teachers that can explain this change in language remain entrenched in an antiquated educational model. Many of today’s lesson plans are not Modern Education, but Olde Education.
If you listen to the discussion about education reform closely, you’ll notice that the phrase “21st Century skills” gets thrown around quite a bit. This makes sense; after all we are living in the 21st century. However, it is always striking when I hear people use it in the future tense.

People talk about the skills students are “going to need” like the 21st century is still approaching. The reality is that we are over a decade into the 21st century. We shouldn’t be preparing for the upcoming influx of new technologies and cultural shifts because we can’t prepare for things that already happened. For the last decade, students around the world have experienced cultural shifts their teachers never experienced.

Students are connected to their friends 24 hours a day, regardless of their physical location. Students today consume massive amounts of digital content, remix it then share it with their friends. Mobile technology created an entire generation of amatuer photographers, film makers and writers.

Last summer I worked on a mini-documentary titled “Decade 2” that is intended to be a wake-up call to educators who haven’t upgraded their lesson designs to match these cultural paradigm shifts over the last ten years. The movie is basically the manifestation of the William Gibson quote “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The same hypothetical future that many veteran educators envision way out in the distance is actually the very practical, ordinary, everyday existence for twenty-somethings as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.

Decade 2 is a series of short clips mostly taken via webcam and shared from twenty-somethings across the United States describing their daily social media use, the pros and cons of tech saturated lifestyles and advice for educators. Many of the contributors to the movie are people I have never met in person but collaborating with them was shockingly easy. The ease with which we can find and connect with new people then share digital content can be startling.

If I tried to do this in 1991, the task would have been beyond impractical for me. Aside from the prohibitive cost of flying around the country to film people F2F, the film development and editing process would have taken months instead of days. It would be a long-shot to even find the people I found in the days before people had digital footprints on the web. Decade 2 is a movie made using the wiki model and it worked because to the contributors, digital collaborations are commonplace.

The world has changed a lot in twenty years and as educators we need to stop speaking to our students in Olde Education and start using a language they can understand.

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