I knew that I would need this for one day, and being the midway point, I think this makes sense.
This is an article I wrote last summer for publication in the National Catholic Education Association magazine Momentum. Enjoy!
Life on the Other Side of a Tipping Point
Nothing is more stimulating to a cause than significant opposition. We in Catholic education gravitate by nature to the underdog position, fighting against overwhelming forces of intractability and ignorance, armed only with our idealism and passion. We are fueled by a vision of a better world of education, energized to challenge all who believe otherwise. However, occasionally a time comes, in education and in life, when the challenging idea prevails over the opposition and becomes the new establishment. Ironically, this is the time when we are most challenged as educators and reformers as our vision becomes reality.
Such a time faces us now in the field of educational technology. Gone are the heady days of predicting radical transition of classroom instruction to educators convinced that what was always would be. There is nothing shocking about a presenter who urges schools toward 1:1 instruction, blended learning, or flipped classrooms, as many of these are the current reality of large percentages of the audience. Phrases like “21st Century Skills,” “Digital Immigrants,” or “Sage on the Sage vs Guide on the Side” are beginning to sound trite, old banners of a past campaign. While we know that schools and teachers are in all stages of digital evolution, there is a strong collective agreement on direction toward digital tools and resources. A few skirmishes still take place on the periphery, but even these feel like the dying moans of a bygone time.
The term tipping point has existed long before educational technology, but it was brought into popular understanding mainly through Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In this book, Gladwell explored how a variety of forces work together to create substantial change. All of these forces push against an existing reality or perception and over time reach a boiling point, irrevocably overturning the old and introducing a new dominant reality.
In the past few years there has been a tipping point in attitudes and approaches to technology in education. The belief that technology will have no effect or limited effect is no longer dominant. The point has tipped, and it is not tipping backward again. Even the most traditional of instructors grudgingly accept that technology is here to stay.
It is a exciting experience to have envisioned change and see the idea catch on. Conversations can start with assumptions that were once a point of argument. Ideas that were once dreams start appearing in classrooms. Things don't work, and then they do work.
However, in the midst of these successes, another voice is present. It stirs in the hearts of the most fervent advocates.
It was easier before, when it was impossible. A hypothetical wifi network doesn't experience outages. Hypothetical apps work smoothly and intuitively. Most importantly, hypothetical students are engaged with the lesson, don't drift off task, and never look at things they shouldn't. A real technological classroom is a messy place, a jungle of unintended consequences. Even an educational technology zealot can feel adrift in a sea of “success.”
For a Catholic educator these challenges are even more profound. Digital citizenship isn't enough to serve our mission. We are called to bring children to Christ though all means at our disposal. Writing the roadmap to holiness with new tools, tools that have potential for good and evil, is not an easy task. However, this is why the leadership of Catholic educators has never been more vital, as we model and teach not just appropriate use, but good use (and uses for good) of digital and social tools.
So how do we navigate in these uncharted waters on the other side of the digital tipping point? While there are no simple answers (if there were someone would publish them and the discussion would be over), but there are three major keys to guide planning, implementing and growing digital schools.
1. Move from equipment goals to performance goals.
A large part of the pursuit of the world of digital education has been an equipment arms race. School programs (and schools) have been defined more by the stuff in classrooms than by what is going on in the classrooms. This has led to an aggressive technological arms race as schools advertise their projectors, document cameras, Smartboards, student response clickers, and 1×4/1×2/1×1/2×1 device ratios. “We’re a Smartboard school,” an administrator brags (which at least verifies that the boards are smart there). While the pursuit of equipment was a vital stage as we pushed toward the tipping point (and remains important still), there needs to be an intentional movement away from devices being the end goal to a greater focus on student performance. Schools need to return to the most basic and vital question of education, “What will our students know or be able to do at the end of the day/month/school year?”
While there will be a tendency to reduce these goals to improvement in test scores (particularly on standardized tests), this should not be the only criteria. Students do not primarily need to be better test takers, they need to be better learners, independently and collaboratively. While these skills can be harder to quantify than multiple choice tests (often a good example of testing what we can instead of what we should), schools can set goals for clear indicators of critical thought, of problem solving, of cooperative investigation. On the other side of the tipping point, devices only have validity in connection to student achievement.
2. Make friends with failure
One of the unfortunate by-products of a crusade is the reluctance and inability to admit weakness or failure. While understandable, this can lead to wrong decisions perpetuated out of stubbornness and fear of criticism. If a digital future for education is now generally accepted, then the best decisions must be made, and mistakes must be admitted and corrected. The constant growth and change in the digital world virtually guarantees that schools will make honest misjudgments. Rather than fight this, school administrators need to develop a more failure-friendly voice with faculty, parents, and students, recognizing that things will go wrong and that all will work together to fix them.
This is not to encourage skittishness, abandoning a solid plan at the first sign of trouble or the introduction of a new “hot” device. Rather it is an acknowledgement that technology planning is a highly complex process with many moving parts in a field of constant change. An educator who makes only correct decisions in this area is either a divinely inspired genius, or delusional (more likely the second). On the other side of the tipping point, we are no longer fighting for a cause, we are fighting for the best approaches.
3. Plant good wheat
One does not have to look far to find articles decrying the “bad stuff” available on the Internet (one does not have to look far to find bad stuff on the Internet). This is an undeniable reality, but it is also undeniable that our children will inhabit this world whether we provide direction to them or not. Faithful to our mission as Catholic educators, we cannot ignore this evil, and teaching safety is a vital life skill. However, we can be true change agents in the digital world by teaching students skills of positive participation.
In the parable of the Sower and the Seed, Jesus talked about wheat seed that landed among thorns, which stifled its growth. As Catholic educators, we need to turn this parable around, encouraging students to sow appropriate Internet venues with so much good wheat that over time it will be the weeds that are choked out. On the other side of the tipping point, the solution to evil on the Internet is good on the Internet,
For those who have struggled to make the case for digital integration into our Catholic schools, finding the wheels of history turning in their favor can be a challenging transition. However, this is not the beginning of the end. Rather, it is the end of the beginning, as new, more exciting chapters await on the other side of the tipping point.