When I taught middle school, I would explain to my students that the Internet has three uses. It can be used as a resource, for retrieving information. It can be used as a dissemination tool, to publish information for a global audience. And, it can be used to interact with others. My classes were spending about 75% of their Internet time retrieving information, 24% of their time publishing information (I taught the kids to create web pages with a text editor), and 1% of the time interacting online. I thought this was pretty forward-thinking because everyone else seemed to be using the “giant digital library” and “information superhighway” metaphors. At least we were publishing content, too.
As I look back at the resources and activities I’ve covered over the last ten weeks, it’s striking how much has changed since then. Sure, the bulk of Internet activity is still focused on retrieving information. But the new tools help us filter that information, finding what’s relevant and valuable. David Weinberger put it pretty well, and Wil Richardson picked up on his comment:
Open up The Britannica at random and you’re far more likely to find reliable knowledge than if you were to open up the Web at random. That’s why we don’t open up the Web at random.
Information literacy is one of the key 21st century skills. Not only are we getting better at finding reliable, relevant information, we’re also getting better tools to help us.
Interactivity is where the big change is. Nearly half of the things I’ve written about this summer allow users to interact with one another in some way. Whether you’re commenting on someone’s blog (or allowing them to comment on yours), interacting with a community like EdTechTalk or Tapped In, conducting discussions with Skype, or sharing links in Delicious, it’s much easier to connect with people online than it has ever been before. I’m still amazed that I can talk to, text chat with, and share ideas and resources with teachers from all over the world. I do it all the time, and it’s not a big deal. What time is it where you are? The sunrise is beautiful today. Wait until you see it. So when we’re connecting with people in Canada, Brazil, Germany, Australia, Korea, and the United States, we’re learning more about this global age we’re in. We’re gaining a better understanding of global cultures, and we’re connecting with real people in these places. That’s another 21st century skill.
What happens when you build one of these communities? When you get a bunch of people in the same (virtual) place with common interests and common challenges, what do they do? They start to work together to meet those challenges. They raise questions and provide insights and find better ways to do things. They’re collaborating and applying problem solving and innovative thinking skills. Yep, more 21st century skills.
Over the last couple years, these tools have played a big role in how I learn. I have built my own professional learning community. I rely on that community when I need to learn something, and I try to provide help when someone else needs it. It’s a very individualized, personal way to approach staff development. Everyone is a student, and everyone is a teacher, and everyone has an individualized education plan. Everyone grows professionally, and everyone benefits from the experience.
Hopefully, you have too.