Today I did something I would never have believed a possibility five years ago. I Skyped from the sky with teachers on the ground. We were linked with each other for a few short minutes; them on the Earth’s crust and me in its troposphere, face to face and laughing out loud at the craziness of a superintendent in a plane connecting with teachers engaging in professional development in a classroom. We were hundreds of miles apart, yet seconds away from each other in this virtual world we call the Internet.
Most American educators haven’t processed the learning possibilities that communication systems will provide in a future that’s unfolding in the real world through the power of wireless networks, satellites, and cell towers. Of those who have, some fear the possibilities of what education might become and the loss of control over what it currently is. Others dream of the learning potential of bringing students closer together in their work – as connected learning communities across the boundaries of states and nations.
Today was insignificant in accomplishing anything of substance. We couldn’t hear each other very well, but @jacatlett who was present in the classroom says they could “see the clouds.” Maybe, seeing the clouds was enough to mark the significance of possibilities that exist for school to occur anywhere and in any space there’s a child and a connection to learning.
Does an educator have to be present for learning to occur? Not really, if the task we set in front of learners simply confirms information someone has deemed a “need to know.” Contemporary learners can find information; data trivia points from reputable sources available all over the Internet. They can access print, audio, video, experts in a field, tutorials, simulations, games, social learning networks, and online courses across the world.
Consider teachers standing in front of rooms across the country last week lecturing about government while some of their students were accessing breaking news on their mobile devices about the revolution in Egypt. It happened.
If the purpose of teacher is to stand in front of the room and act as a conduit of information while learners sit in rows, passively taking notes, hands cramped by grasping an implement they use in no other context, then teachers also will soon be an obsolete technology. Millions of kids already are walking with their feet into the thousands of virtual courses available today. Many others will have that choice tomorrow.
Should an educator be present in more than a virtual context with learners? My answer remains yes. I am perhaps “old school” but, in my opinion, excellent educators create the context for a vibrant and interesting learning world. Learning at its best reflects the potential that exists when two or more minds – learners and teacher – interface to ask questions, share ideas, figure out knowledge sources, use technologies, and challenge assumptions. This happens purposely. It also happens spontaneously. It happens when both teacher and learner access the tools they need when they need them to power up learning – not power it down.
It also means educators must change, evolve rapidly, and retool to prove our continuing value to learners and learning. Despite our angst at the thought of it, just as with nineteenth century buggy-whip makers, much of what teachers do today is replaceable by new technologies. It won’t happen in five years, but it could happen in a decade in some content areas. Just as the need and desire for more efficient and customizable transportation accelerated with the invention of the car, the same need and desire will drive education through rapid changes as new learning technologies emerge and access becomes more ubiquitous.
What’s the take-away lesson I learned up above the clouds while Skyping with those teachers on the ground?
The sky’s no longer the limit.