In 1999, David Bowie predicted that the internet would change the ways in which people communicate, create, and consume content. Twenty years later, we are living in the world he imagined.
Bowie said, “the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can really envisage at the moment.” He went on to describe a collaboration between creator and audience that would lead to unimaginable genres of art and thought. And, here we are, or could be.
And then, pandemic
Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, academics, educators, and researchers were clamoring for new ways to assess student learning; the overwhelming evidence of standardized testing’s failure meant seeking out better ways for students to demonstrate learning. Publishers, often heavy-handedly, presented slick brochures of the next perfect solution or program or curricula. Teachers, who often have multiple college degrees and who know the student in their classrooms better than anyone were so often reduced to curriculum proctors and data providers that the profession suffered. New teachers quit. Veteran teachers passed the days to retirement without passion or even interest. Young adults eschewed the idea of becoming teachers altogether. When state mandates replaced teacher agency, the profession became largely unappealing.
When schools closed in March of 2020, suddenly teachers were heroes again. They got creative. They found ways to harness the power of the internet and used it to drive student educational experiences. Standardized tests were canceled, and teachers were able to focus, not on mandates, but on students. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, but the most imaginative teachers made it work the best they could with the resources they had. It was hard. It was also often satisfying for many teachers.
From hero to zero in 120 days.
Fast forward to summer of 2020. The uncertainty of the early Spring gave way to fear of what Fall might bring. Districts and states debated: face-to-face classes in spite of the physical health risks or remote education in spite of the emotional and psychological risks. Teachers’ voices were generally ignored as parents and officials demanded both/and instead of either/or. So teachers, who were hailed as heroes in April, were reduced to pawns in a political game of my-way-or-the-highway. Testing may be stalled another year, but publishers, quick to see an opportunity, started promoting even more prepackaged (and often expensive) programs to schools, districts, and parents. Like in the time before the pandemic, teachers were told, “you must” instead of asked, “what do you think?”
What about Bowie’s vision?
The internet still waits for education structures ot catch up with the possibilities. Many, even most, teens access the internet every day, playing games, mashing up songs, perfecting Instagram posts, and becoming Youtube stars. They are learning. They are curating and creating content unlike anyone could have imagined in 1999 (except, perhaps, David Bowie.) Teachers are taking advantage of a marketplace for their ideas, selling products to supplement a salary that does not represent their expertise or experience in any meaningful way, for the most part. Education is happening on the internet. Audiences and creators are collaborating on remixes, fan fiction, and software designs (or hacks). Teens are specializing in things that interest them – and traditional school is not an area of interest for most.
Education is missing a tremendous opportunity to reinvent itself during this pandemic. Rather than push to return to normal, educators ought to be seeking out new ways for meaningful learning. We have the technology, but seem to lack the vision. We need to look forward, not backward. There are challenges of access and equity that should be addressed, but a school or district that seeks the next-best-program can shift those funds from publisher pockets to resources for the people in their communities. (It’s not like packaged programs meet all the issues of access and equity anyway.)
A 20/20 wake up call
Hindsight is said to be 20/20, but the actions of the current education powers-that-be (from the President of the US to the local school board) seem to have clouded the realities of the recent past. Educators, teachers, and parents need to insist that student needs must be the focus. Student interest can drive learning. Student creativity can show mastery. Clear away what doesn’t work. Step into what 21st century education can be.