Steve Sasson had a brilliant idea. He started with a movie camera lens. He added an array of capacitors, a basic processor, and a cassette tape recorder. After hooking up some batteries, he had the first “portable” digital camera. Sure, by today’s standards, it wasn’t even usable. It’s resolution was 100×100 pixels, it was black and white, it weighed eight pounds, and it took 23 seconds to capture and store a photo. But it was a portable camera that captured and stored images digitally instead of using film.
Steve’s employer was (and is) Kodak. At the time, Kodak held a very lucrative 90% of the American film market. They weren’t crazy about the idea of introducing new technology that didn’t require film.
The story is a common one. Many of the fundamental technologies we use today were developed by Xerox in the 1970s, including the idea of using a mouse to control a computer, laser printing, and the basic networking technologies still used to connect computers together. But none of those products has a Xerox name on it.
Large organizations are slow to adapt. It’s difficult for them to see disruptive change and capitalize on it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. While they may miss out on huge short term advantages, they’re also less likely to be destroyed by adjusting to short-term “revolutionary” trends. Weller points out that universities are trusted institutions that have been around for hundreds of years because they insulate themselves from the fickle whims of every new trend. They adapt, certainly, but they innovate very slowly.
In K-12, this resilience to change can be infuriating. Technology has a very short life cycle, while instructional practices have very long ones. I’ve seen cases where we have replaced the technology three or four or five times in a learning space without re-examining why we’re teaching a particular class, what the students and teachers are actually doing in the space, or how we know if any learning has actually happened. We spend an enormous amount of time and money trying to do the same things we’ve always done.
The pandemic has been wildly disruptive. That’s unsettling, and the emotional needs of our students and staff need to be at the top of our priority list. Change and disruption are really hard on us. But the pandemic has also recalibrated “possible.” It’s no longer inconceivable that a quarter of our students stay home on any given day. It’s not longer unthinkable that we can have a classroom full of learners at school with a teacher who is working remotely. It’s not unreasonable to have a significant portion of learning happening in online spaces.
Right now, we’re using technology to do what we can to maintain some sense of normalcy, some sense of security or familiarity. But the choices we make now to adapt to the current reality are going to become the practices we rely on moving forward. As we work to redefine what “school” is in the aftermath of the pandemic, we have to think about the long-term direction in addition to the short-term needs.
We need to take time — now, during the pandemic — to examine what we want from our schools. Are we serious about getting beyond knowledge and skills to analysis, synthesis, and design? Do we really believe students need to be innovators and critical thinkers? Is it reasonable to expect that schools should meet the individual needs of every learner? Do we believe that active learning is important? Do students need to have an application and reflection component to their learning? Should we be measuring learning through tools that assess what students remember, or how students apply knowledge? What does success look like?
We have the opportunity to redefine education in a way that keeps it relevant and sustainable. Or, we can just keep making film.
Photo credit: First digital camera, err, borrowed from Wired.