February 28, 2015
“I’m less concerned with technology replacing teachers than I am with teachers losing the ability to work creatively with students to prepare them for a lifetime of learning.”
This month Technos is talking to Andy Carvin, whose blogs about education, technology, and society are well known among Internet and Web enthusiasts. Some might call him a pundit, but whatever his title, he certainly knows a lot about all of these topics, and he’s not afraid to share his opinions. He’s also not afraid to hear yours; a key word in his vocabulary is “community.” He is the author of EdWeb: Exploring Technology and School Reform, launched in 1994 and one of the first Web sites to advocate the use of the World Wide Web in education. As founding editor and coordinator of the Benton Foundation’s Digital Divide Network, he has assisted a community of more than 8,000 activists, policymakers, business leaders, and researchers in over 130 countries that are working to find solutions to the digital divide. He is moderator of PBS LearningSource’s learning.now Weblog for teachers and anyone else interested in ed tech. Some of the current topics he’s written about are cyber bullying, educator-ranking Web sites, online porn, MySpace, and legal issues concerning education management systems. Andy has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Harvard Educational Review, Education Week, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Wired, San Jose Mercury News, The Industry Standard, and the second edition of The Internet Unleashed—a list that reflects his eclectic interests and talents. His extensive travels are chronicled at his Where in the World Is Andy? and the Travel section of his Weblog. In October 2005, Andy was chosen as a member of the Technology Review 35, an annual list of leading technology advocates under the age of 35. This summer, he was named senior product manager for online communities at National Public Radio, and he was in the process of moving his family (wife, daughter, and cat) from Boston to Washington, D.C. when Technos happened to catch him. You can read about his transition to NPR at Andy Carvin’s Waste of Bandwidth Weblog.
T.: What do you think is the most important educational issue facing us in the 21st Century?
A.C.: I think there’s enormous tension that exists between those people who want to see classrooms as places were students and teachers focus on innovative, creative learning, and those who want to see classrooms that focus on reinforcing the basics. Current trends in education generally emphasize standardized testing and meeting particular literacy benchmarks, while other educators argue that using the Internet and other tools to foster creativity and expression will help young people improve their skills even more effectively. It’s basically a cultural clash, and our kids are caught in the middle of it.
What role do you see technology, in general, playing in K–12 education in the future? What role do you see the Internet, in particular, playing?
A lot will depend on politics. There’s a heavy push in Congress right now to limit access to interactive Web sites out of concerns for online safety, but critics argue that such limits will take away the most useful tools on the Internet. Many educators are embracing tools like blogging to encourage their students to work together and solve problems, but there’s fear that commercial Internet sites might attract predators. So while there’s lots of promise in terms of the Internet serving as a tool for constructivist educational practice, lawmakers may put the kibosh on these opportunities. The result could mean that the Internet returns to being a large reference tool, with all the interactivity taken out of it as far as schools are concerned.
What is a “blog”? What’s the purpose of a blog in educational settings? And should everyone be blogging? How about “vlogging”? “podcasting”? How do (or can) these communications technologies facilitate learning?
In simplest terms, a blog—or Web log—is an online journal or diary. People have been journaling on the Internet for years, but in recent years, developers have created tools that make it easy for people to do this without knowing how to design Web sites. It’s democratized the Internet in the sense that anyone with Internet access can now go to sites like livejournal.com or blogger.com and set up their own blog, immediately communicating with an international audience. There are somewhere between 30 million and 100 million people blogging today, and the number is growing every day.
Educators are using blogs in several ways. Some use it for their own professional development, serving as a platform to discuss teaching and educational best practices. Others see blogging as a student enterprise, where students can develop their writing skills and receive constructive feedback over the Internet, whether from other students, teachers, or even the general public. Many students blog collaboratively, so it’s a form of team writing, but in the context of a public forum. Many educators argue that the public nature of blogging forces students to take their writing more seriously, as well as take more pride in their writing abilities.
I strongly believe everyone should have the opportunity to blog, but it’s not for everyone. There’s a cultural shift in which young people are more likely to blog than their parents because many adults simply aren’t comfortable sharing their personal ideas to a wide audience. But to kids, there’s a culture of transparency that’s second-nature to them.Yet teachers and administrators can use the tools to communicate with peers, parents, and their communities—it’s just a matter of whether they’re comfortable doing it. But it’s certainly becoming more common.
Podcasting and vlogging are multimedia forms of blogging. With a podcast, you include audio files in your blog posts, allowing people to subscribe to your audio like a radio show. Vlogging, or video blogging, is the same idea, but with video instead. I’ve been doing vlogs and podcasts since 2004, and they’re both becoming very popular. Some educators produce podcasts to discuss education, and a few of them are vlogging, too. Personally, I’m more excited about student-generated podcasts and vlogs, where young people create their own radio shows, documentaries, etc. Apart from the technical skills involved, both formats force you to learn how to tell stories, to collaborate, to understand target audiences, etc. They may seem like a form of play to some, but fundamentally they can be very educational experiences. And when you have your students create podcasts or vlogs that are relevant to their community, they’re creating knowledge that has use in the real world.
What role will the teacher have in the future? Will we define a “teacher” differently in the next century? Is there a difference between a “learner” and a “student”? If so, which one understands and utilizes technology in the most appropriate and effective ways?
A lot will depend on how that clash of cultures is resolved. For some people, a teacher should simply be someone who prepares kids for tests. For others, a teacher should be someone who prepares kids for life. I’m less concerned with technology replacing teachers than I am with teachers losing the ability to work creatively with students to prepare them for a lifetime of learning. And that gets to your question of learner vs. student. To me, at least, your days as a student come to an end when you get your diploma or certificate and enter the workplace, but that doesn’t mean that you close your mind and refuse new knowledge from that point onward. The 21st Century is already proving to be a period of rapid change, and that means preparing kids to become lifelong learners, so they can go with the flow, capitalize on new opportunities, and help make a better world for themselves and their communities.
What is a “school”? or a “college”? Why pay tuition to sit in a classroom, when you can access all the information you could want or need online at your home computer? (or at a wifi spot)
Schools and colleges are still community-sanctioned institutions that have the ability to determine whether a student should be certified as having learned something. We can learn things in or out of schools, but schools are what hand out diplomas, certificates, and the like. More and more schools and universities are now offering distance learning through the Internet, of course, and these are particularly important for people who can’t afford to be somewhere in person to gain specific skills. But I don’t expect schools or colleges to simply vanish and go virtual, because there will always be value in gathering in person to debate and learn. The ratio of time spent in these real-world places may change over time, but there will still be a need for them.
Can you explain a bit about the phenomenon of “citizen journalism”?
Citizen journalism, in a nutshell, is the idea that any average person has the ability to create civically-relevant knowledge for the community. Rather than relying on mainstream media outlets to determine what’s news and what isn’t, citizen journalism embraces the notion that everyday people can identify and cover news stories going on in their own communities, using the Internet to distribute their reporting.
Meanwhile, some people prefer to describe it as “networked journalism,” in which the public is working in concert with professional journalists to develop news stories. Journalist Dan Gillmor has often said that the public knows more about any given story than he ever could as a reporter, so it makes sense for journalists to engage the public as partners in researching and developing news stories. Jay Rosen of NYU has written a lot about this on his PressThink blog.
What effect do you think citizen journalism will have on civic participation? Do you see today’s students—tomorrow’s voting citizens—becoming more, or less, engaged in public debate? Will this be a good thing, or a bad thing, for American society?
Well, it depends. Take a look at Youtube.com. Nine out of 10 videos there are about inane things that aren’t journalism, yet the individuals posting these videos are still contributing to an aspect of current pop culture. Today’s young people are comfortable with uploading original content and sharing it with friends, but the question remains whether they’re doing this because it’s cool or because they think this content can somehow make a positive difference in people’s lives. But hopefully, as these young people get a bit older, they’ll channel their Web 2.0 energies to positive social things, including citizen journalism, perhaps.
How is a blogger different from a citizen journalist? Or is he?
Not all bloggers are citizen journalists. Most aren’t. If you’re blogging about your cat or your obnoxious little sister, that’s just journaling. A lot of blogging is a form of public cultural criticism, though, whether the blogger realizes it or not, since they’re blogging about what’s going on in society and commenting on it. But a certain subset of bloggers are indeed citizen journalists. Take a look at sites like h20town.com or globalvoicesonline.org and you’ll see serious attempts of citizen journalism, locally and internationally.
What is a “wiki”? And how does it fit into this picture of blogging & citizen journalism?
A wiki is a type of Web site that lets its users create, edit, and delete all the content contained within it. They’re a type of collaborative workspace, since users can edit each other’s stuff and improve upon it. Wikipedia.org is the best example of a wiki in action. They’ve created a site called wikinews.org, which is an attempt at wiki-based journalism, and it’s producing interesting results. Meanwhile, Mitch Kapor, the creator of Lotus software, recently proposed the use of wikis for political engagement and policymaking. He argues that blogs are too linear and tit-for-tat—good for arguments but not collaboration. So he’s trying to get people to start using wikis for drafting new policy. Call it citizen policymaking, if you will.
One of your most recent blogs at PBS Teacher Source Learning.org discusses Web sites that allow students to critique their teachers—such as RateMyTeachers.com. You mention that some educators see these sites as the “latest progression of online democracy in action” while others think they are “downright subversive.” What is your take on these teacher rating sites?
I’m all for students being able to offer constructive criticism about their teachers in the hopes of improving teaching. My concern is that these types of sites are sometimes framed so students can debate whether a given teacher is “hot or not.” Students have also used these tools to launch personal attacks, even racist ones. So while the idea behind them is potentially useful, in practice they’ve raised the eyebrows of lots of educators.
What’s your opinion of such Web sites as MySpace, FaceBook, and YouTube? Obviously, the bad news we hear about them is really bad…but are there positives to such sites? What is it about these cyber-gathering places that is so attractive to young people? And why do adults find them so threatening?
It’s all about the sense of community. People go to these sites because they want to interact with all the other people who are participating, and share original content with them. It’s very empowering in many ways. MySpace has gotten a bad rap because they let kids run wild on the site, just like teens whose parents had gone out of town for the weekend and left the liquor cabinet unlocked. But online social networks in themselves aren’t necessarily bad. I’d argue they’re quite powerful. Check out sites like www.takingitglobal.org, where more than 100,000 young people have come together to talk about solving major world problems. My own former endeavor, the digital divide network, is a type of online social network. These tools aren’t inherently good or bad—it’s what you do with them that counts.
You’ve pointed out in a learning.now piece that Moodle is getting a lot of attention these days…what is it, and how is it impacting (or will it impact) education?
People are excited about Moodle because it’s an e-learning management tool that’s open source, built by a community of educators, for educators. Again, it’s that strong sense of community driving it forward. Moodle works well for a lot of people because lots of people care about Moodle and are helping to improve it. And it’s built by educators who see the Internet as a tool for implementing constructivist learning, so they’re really trying to take advantage of the Net’s capabilities.
Congratulations on your new job as senior product manager for online communities at National Public Radio. What will your responsibilities be in this job? Will you continue with your Digital Divide Network, PBS Teacher Source learning.now, and EdWeb activities?
I’m just about to start at NPR, where I’ll be working with them on community issues, helping them figure out ways of changing the Web site so there’s a stronger, more personal user experience. Public radio has such a loyal community that cares about the programming as well as other listeners, it seems like a natural place to implement some cool Web 2.0 tools. My first assignment will be learning all of my colleagues’ names and not messing them up. I’m no longer editor and publisher of the digital divide network, but I’m planning to stay involved as a member and a volunteer. Learning.now will continue, which probably makes me one of the few people to work with both NPR and PBS. :-) And edweb is basically an archive of my early edtech writings and travel journals; it’s no longer a work in progress. But I’ll keep blogging from andycarvin.com and contribute occasionally to other online efforts like Rocketboom.com.
What is your educational and professional background? How did you decide to narrow your focus to technology, especially as it relates to education? At what point did you venture onto the Web and into blogging?
I have a bachelor’s in rhetoric, with a minor in religion, actually—not exactly the kind of degree to lead to major work opportunities. I ran a Chicago-area music magazine for a while, then got a master’s in telecom policy, which eventually led me to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1994. There, I got to research the impact of telecom reform on education, and that led to the creation of my site, edweb, in October 1994. A month later, I created a personal homepage called Andy Carvin’s Waste of Bandwidth, where I would write about life and my travels. Over the years I stopped hand-coding this site and adopted a blogging tool, so it continues to this day after nearly 12 years.
What advice would you give a classroom teacher, or a teacher in training at college, for being successful with students? How does all this technology fit into the teacher-student relationship?
Technology is amazing stuff, but being a great teacher will always be more important. Tech isn’t a crutch—it’s a tool for facilitating learning and making it more fun and engaging. The Web lets students be creative and have a say—and we adults don’t always make the time to listen. So listen to your students, get to know what they care about and are passionate about, and build upon these things to suck them into learning until they love it as much as you do.