What does it mean to reimagine education?

This is the question I had to ask myself this summer as I attended Blackboard World 2014 in Las Vegas – a conference for educators, administrators and technology leaders using the LMS in their schools.

To be honest, I have had a love-hate relationship with Blackboard since I started using it in September 2013. I had come from a school where MOODLE ruled and transitioning to this new system was challenging. I was worried I could not deliver the same program I had worked so hard to develop the year before. I found Blackboard awkward, and clumsy. Gathering student data to inform my teaching was difficult and time consuming. Tracking student progress was a nightmare. And frankly the user interface was visually unappealing and uninspiring. Some of my aversion was a result of lack of time to fully explore the potential of all the features in Blackboard. I later learned, however, that we did not have access to its full arsenal. Therefore, when I was told that we would be upgrading and that this professional development opportunity was available, I said yes immediately. I was ready to be more open minded about Blackboard and embrace its vision to “reimagine” education. I needed to believe that this system could support and improve my blended, personalized model of education.

Upon arrival my first impression of the conference was that it was enormous, extravagant, and expensive. However, in the end I realized it was more style than substance. How appropriate that it was held in Las Vegas! I’ll come back to that later. In this post I’ll focus on the best part of the conference – the opening keynote by Joi Ito.

Joi Ito was a very wise choice to promote the idea of “reimagining” education. The director of MIT’s media lab presented us with a glimpse of some of the incredible new technology that is being developed by students to solve problems around the world. From portable geiger counters to bioengineered microbes, it is amazing what can be accomplished with an “antidisciplinary” approach. Joi used this word frequently to describe what he referred to as the spaces between disciplines. I found his presentation especially inspiring and relevant as one of our goals for the year is to create integrated STEM units in our middle years program. He described the ideal individual as someone who encompasses aspects of a scientist, designer, engineer and artist. His view of “reimagining” education is to develop graduates that have all these qualities rather than isolating people into different quadrants. He explained that the current model of education was useful when jobs were formulaic and repetitive. However, as these tasks are becoming more automated, we need people who are creative and different. In the past, kids got chemistry sets for Christmas. In the future, they’ll be given recombinant DNA kits! My favourite quotation of the presentation was “it’s not about if you have to learn biology, but when.” In the antidisciplinary world, synthetic biology is being embraced by computer scientists who look at genetic engineering as if they are writing code. Their language is not Java but base pairs. Their programs are threads of DNA. Their hardware are bacteria.

trapeze The burning question is how can we embrace this antidisciplinary idea as educators?

How do we teach in the in-betweens?

The media lab does this by embracing the 4 P philosophy – projects, peers, passion and play. Joi Ito encourages practice over theory. One of his greatest examples came from a visit to a factory in Shenzen, China. Here, on the factory floors, kids are building their own cell phones. In Canada, kids might play around with software – developing websites or apps. In China, they are retooling and remodelling hardware. They start by copying existing phones, but quickly get creative and innovative as they see the competition around them. Joi’s point here is that these phones are being developed to be cheap, simple and functional by the manufacturers themselves – not a body of individuals with chart paper in an office building of a multi-million dollar telecom company. The designers are not separate from the manufacturers. Joi challenges us to engage learners by turning them into makers and creators. He cites several examples of tools educators can use to spark student interest such as Makey Makey and Scratch. He lamented the fact that most students are focused on getting out of school rather than enjoying their time there. One of the most shocking parts of the presentation was a visual he presented on a week’s worth of electrodermal activity for a student. Unfortunately brain activity during class time was lower than both sleep and relaxation periods. There’s a problem here.

brain activity
Joi’s take away message was that in order to reimagine education, the mission of our institutions has to be “passion and project driven.” Only then, he argues, will students “do what they need to do to get it done.” Although I have tried a project-based learning approach in the past, I feel I have been unsuccessful in its implementation, year after year. But Joi’s talk has reaffirmed my belief that it is worth trying again. In my head I have my own vision for how I feel education should move going forward. I imagine less compartments and a more fluid and holistic approach to teaching that prepares students better to solve the problems left for them by previous generations. A lot of change needs to occur within our current system in order to accomplish a truly authentic “antidisciplinary” style of teaching and learning. I’ll take baby steps this year and see how it goes. I’ll let my students tinker more, design more, create more and even fail more.

This year I’ll let them play in the in-betweens.




Joi Ito’s Keynote Address

A Week of a Student’s Electrodermal Activity on Joi Ito’s website

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