EdTech Talking

It’s an anniversary of sorts. Tonight, the EdTechWeekly crew is celebrating show #200. That’s two hundred Sunday nights spent talking about educational technology, new tools and resources, approaches and strategies and policies, and whatever else comes up.

The webcast started five years ago this month as an experiment. The hosts participate in an audio conference and talk about educational technology. That conversation is streamed live online, so anyone can listen in. The listeners and the hosts are also in a text chat, which allows a level of interactivity. The whole thing is recorded and posted online as a podcast. The first year, I was involved with EdTechWeekly as a listener and occasional guest before finally becoming a co-host near the start of the second year.

In the last 200 episodes, we’ve logged many hours of discussions, engaged dozens of guests and co-hosts, interacted with hundreds of chat room participants, and amassed a fairly impressive list of nearly 10,000 educational tools and resources. Along the way, I’ve also managed to learn a few things.

Herewith, then, are the top five things I’ve learned from participating in EdTechWeekly:

#5 You can’t drink the fire hose. “Did you see that recent article on Edutopia?” one of my principals wants to know. “Uhh, no. What was it about?” Bud Hunt posted a link in Twitter. Paul Allison hosted a fascinating discussion in Google Plus. Did you listen to Last week’s Seedlings discussion? I could spend every waking moment trying to keep up with the people in my learning network, but it wouldn’t do any good. You can’t read everything. You can’t even read all of the interesting fascinating things. Eat until you’re full. Then do something else.

To put it another way (and throw in yet another metaphor), think about cable TV. Lots of people have it. They pay$50 or $80 or $100 for hundreds of TV channels. But do they watch all of the channels? They can’t even watch all of the stuff that’s on ONE channel. All of that content is going to waste. The Internet is like that. Social networks are like that. Personal learning networks are like that. You can’t do everything, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about missing stuff.

On EdTechWeekly, we spent the first four years doing a fast-paced roundup of news and resources. In a typical week, we’d go through 30 or more different links. That’s 30 topics every week for 40 weeks (or more — we used to be more ambitious) a year. Almost all of it related to educational technology. We never ran out of things to talk about. But we also didn’t really know anything about any of those topics. We learned that it’s better to take a little more time, add a little more depth, and try not to cover everything.

#4 It’s not about the technology. Every new technology is going to revolutionize education. The One Laptop Per Child project was going to make ubiquitous 1:1 programs a reality. Netbooks were going to do the same thing. The “Web 2.0” applications were going to enable “any time, any where” learning. Cell phones were going to finally give students access to the technology they need. Kindles and Nooks and open educational resources and wiki textbooks were going to put the big textbook companies out of business and finally make information free. Now, the iPad is going to save education. For some reason, I’m skeptical.

There are so many things going on with education that have nothing to do with teaching and learning. Schools are at least as much social entities as an academic ones. The idea of students going to a building, meeting in a room with 25 learners and one adult, and covering “subjects” while they sit in neat rows is such an ingrained component of our society that any “reform” that significantly alters the romantic view of what “school” is will fail.

From an academic perspective, prom doesn’t make any sense. Neither does marching band. Or football. If we really understood the costs of all of the non-academic things the schools do, and the things that aren’t happening because we’re holding on to them, we would have eliminated them a long time ago. But they’re part of the social norm that is school, and they’re not going away.

Realistic change has to understand that this system, however broken we may think it is, isn’t going anywhere. We have to work within it to improve things. And from a technology perspective, that means identifying the problems and using technology appropriately to address them. It’s not about looking at a neat new tool and looking for a problem to solve with it.

#3 Talking is important. I’m a writer. I’m not a speaker. I like blog posts. Email is better than a phone call. I’d rather use an online forum than a face to face meeting. I function better when I have an opportunity to compose my thoughts. I like being able to speak uninterrupted about a subject. I don’t do conversations well.

But by having conversations every week, I’m getting better. I find myself better able to make a case and defend it. It’s easier to explain complicated things verbally instead of relying on written text. I can express an opinion and speak extemporaneously to a group much better than I could a few years ago. That’s all important. I still like blog posts. I still communicate most effectively in writing. I still hate phone calls. But I’m getting better at talking, which is what this show is all about.

#2 Learning is social. When I think back on all the crap I learned in grad school, it’s a wonder I can think at all. Taking graduate workshops isn’t going to help me become a better professional. Attending our district’s professional development sessions won’t help me learn important things I need to know. My professional development comes almost exclusively from the network of smart, thoughtful people that I’ve built over the last five or six years. A big part of that has come through the EdTechTalk community, where I’ve met some extraordinary educators. While we may interact in many different ways through myriad technologies, ETT is where we met, and how we came together. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them, and value participation in the community as one of the most valuable educational experiences I’ve ever had.

#1 No one is an expert. It’s funny, and sad, when we can’t get things to work right. The four of us regularly struggle with the technology we’ve been using for years. From finding a headset that works to getting rid of audio echo to managing to get a decent recording, this stuff is complicated and flaky. Sometimes, it’s frustrating. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all. It helps to have a plan B. But it also helps to empathize with all of the teachers who are trying to do innovative things in their classrooms who are running up against these barriers all the time.

One thing that really impressed me about Dave and Jeff from the beginning is that they’re so — approachable. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re just two guys fooling around with some geeky toys and having a good time with it. If you get value out of that, wonderful. If you don’t, then at least you’re getting your money’s worth. That’s been the attitude with EdTechTalk all along. We’re not the experts.  We’re just trying to figure this stuff out. You can come along with the ride if you want. Maybe we can learn from each other. This modest (and, frequently, self-deprecating) attitude has given them a credibility that they never could have built otherwise. For me, I’ve learned that if you treat people as equals — if you meet them on their terms and try to help them — you can work together. A lot of technology people haven’t learned that yet, and it causes a lot of friction in the schools.

I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in this community, and I’m grateful to Jeff Lebow and Dave Cormier and Jennifer Maddrell for letting me into their club. I’ve certainly gained a lot more than I’ve contributed. So here’s to 200 shows.

I look forward to continuing the conversation.