McLeod, S. (2011, Summer). Are we irrelevant to the digital, global world in which we now live? UCEA Review, 52(2), 1–5. [available at http://www.ucea.org/storage/review/Summer2011Review_lowres.pdf]
Are we irrelevant to the digital, global world in which we now live?
Scott McLeod, Iowa State University
It is difficult to overstate the changes that digital technologies have wrought on our society. As we navigate an ‘Information Revolution’ that is as impactful but apparently also swifter than the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, the collective transformative effects can be seen in every aspect of our lives. And we’re just getting started…
Our world is changing fast
As Shirky (2010) has noted, we currently are living through ‘the largest expansion in expressive capability in human history.’ Individuals now possess unprecedented publishing capabilities, resulting in an incredible wealth and diversity of content (both good and bad). A dizzying array of technological tools - combined with online communities based on interest rather than geography - are fostering incredible thinking and discussion.
The resultant impact is that we no longer live in an information push-out world where we passively receive information that is broadcast out to us by large, centralized entities. Instead, we now live within multidirectional conversation spaces in which 15-year-olds can reach audiences at scales that previously were reserved for major media companies, large corporations, and governments. We all now can have a voice. We all now can be publishers. We all now can find each other’s thoughts and ideas and can share, cooperate, collaborate, and take collective action. Time and geography are no longer barriers to communicating and working together.
In this new information landscape, formerly-dominant news and entertainment institutions are being forced to rethink all previously-held assumptions. For example, all of the top newspaper chains in the U.S. are on the verge of bankruptcy. Music companies are struggling to survive in a market where the model of wholesale album purchases and top-down advertising and dissemination is replaced by a granular system of individual song sales and peer-to-peer marketing and distribution. The emergence of digital, multimedia, hyperlinked texts - and accompanying e-readers and tablet computing devices - is challenging our very definition of what constitutes ‘a book’ and is destroying traditional publishers’ and distributors’ revenue streams. Television, radio, magazine, and movie/video companies are seeing their market share erode year after year as information consumers increasingly turn to online - and often user-generated - information channels to learn and be entertained.
We also are witnessing the early adolescence of a vastly different global economy. For instance, the rapid growth of the Internet and other communication technologies has accelerated the offshoring of jobs from the developed world. Complex corporate global supply chains locate manufacturing work wherever costs are lowest, expertise is highest, or necessary talent resides. Geographic or product niche monopolies disappear in the face of Internet search engines. Micro-, small-batch, and on-demand manufacturing techniques facilitate customized, personalized production. Whatever manufacturing work remains in developed countries is high skill, is high tech, and, more often than not, requires greater education than a secondary diploma. The low-skill industrial system that was the backbone of the developed world’s economies in the previous century is increasingly a bygone memory.
Like manual work that is non-location-dependent, knowledge work also is frequently done cheaper elsewhere. Service jobs are increasingly fungible, able to be located anywhere in the world that has an Internet connection. Ongoing workflow and final products are exchanged at the speed of light via e-mail, instant messaging, and other corporate networking tools. The same technologies that facilitate interconnected global conversations also facilitate interconnected global commerce. As was done in previous decades for manufacturing work, the next two decades will see many complex service jobs broken up into component parts. Once these tasks are disaggregated, they will be done by lower-skilled workers who can do these discrete components of the overall work, facilitated by software. In other words, many high-paying service jobs will turn into globalized piece work. Since the service professions represent over three-fifths of America’s economy, the impacts of this are going to be quite significant.
We’re also realizing that work that previously required humans now regularly can be done by software. If the Industrial Revolution was about replacing humans’ physical labor with machines, the Information Revolution often is about replacing humans’ cognitive labor with computers. For instance, customer service representatives and data entry specialists are replaced by online web forms connected to databases. Technical support and training personnel are replaced by interactive help and online learning systems. Tax preparation, legal, architectural, graphic design, and other software programs give ordinary citizens capabilities that formerly were reserved for highly-skilled, highly-paid professionals. Real estate agents, bank tellers, hotel and airline counter employees, movie rental chains, and many others fall victim to a ‘self service economy’ in which we choose to do the work ourselves - facilitated by ATMs, kiosks, software, and online services - rather than someone doing it for us. A large number of workers are discovering that their work, their skills, and their jobs are not as indispensable as they thought in a technological, hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Radical transformations are everywhere we turn. Look at how robotic surgery, telemedicine, automated drug dispensaries, holographic surgical practice using haptic feedback, and research on aggregated databases of digitized personal health information are transforming the world of medicine. Discover how charities, NGOs, and community groups are tapping into the power of the Web to spread their messages, solicit donations, and enhance their impact. See how politicians, community organizers, and protest groups are utilizing mobile devices and social networking tools for mobilization of interested individuals in service of their cause. Examine the struggles of travel agents, the postal service, and so on…
Impacts on learning
Of course these changes also have resulted in dramatic impacts on learning. Students and educators now have access to all of the information in their textbooks – and an incredible wealth of primary documents – for free. They have access to robust, low cost or no-cost, and often multimedia and interactive learning resources (texts, images, audio, video, games, simulations) that can supplement, extend, or even replace what is being taught in their classrooms. Via collaborative Internet-based tools such as blogs, wikis, videoconferencing, and social networks, they can learn from and with students and teachers in other states or countries. They also can quickly and easily connect with authors, artists, business professionals, entrepreneurs, physicians, craftsmen, professors, and other experts.
Students and teachers now can more authentically replicate (and actually do) real-world work through the use of the same tools and resources used by engineers, designers, scientists, accountants, and a multitude of other professionals and artisans. They can share their own knowledge, skills, and expertise with people all over the world. They can find or form communities of interest around topics for which they are passionate and they can be active (and valued) contributors to the world’s information commons, both individually and collaboratively with others.
Essentially, we now have the ability to learn about whatever we want, from whomever we want, whenever and wherever we want, and we also can contribute to this learning environment for the benefit of others. The possibilities for learning and teaching in this information space are both amazing and nearly limitless, but right now this learning often is disconnected from formal elementary, secondary, or higher education institutions.
The big disconnect
If it is difficult to overstate the technological disruptions that are occurring around us, it is equally difficult to understate the lack of progress that most schools have made in response to these overarching societal changes. The reluctance of school personnel to adopt modern technologies and significantly alter existing pedagogical and organizational practices has long been catalogued. For example, Stanford University historian Larry Cuban noted in 2001 that “the quantities of money and time [spent on technology] have yet to yield even modest returns or to approach what has been promised in academic achievement, creative classroom integration of technologies, and transformations in teaching and learning” (p. 189). Other reports from the turn of the century found that - two decades after development of the personal computer - only one third of public school teachers felt ‘well prepared’ or ‘very well prepared’ to integrate the use of computers and the Internet into their teaching (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000) and that few school administrators used technology meaningfully to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their own work (Riedl, Smith, Ware, Wark, & Yount, 1998). Back in 1992, the era of the laserdisc, Allen noted that ‘schools and teachers act as spectators to the passing trends, while technology leaps forward, leaving the onlookers behind’ (p. 126).
Unfortunately, these trends continue today. While students are extremely active technology users outside of school, their technology usage inside school, particularly for higher-level cognitive activities, is extremely limited (Cisco, 2008; Moe & Chubb, 2009). While students “power up [at home, they] power down every time they go to class” (Prensky, 2005, p. 64). The Consortium for School Networking noted recently that, “at this point in time, educational mindsets and school cultures do not yet align learning to the realities of the 21st century” (2009, p. 5).
While classroom educators certainly play a part in this widespread lack of technology adoption, ultimately it is the leaders who are at fault. After all, it is the school administrators, not the teachers, who control all of the critical resources: time, money, vision, personnel allocation, professional development, internal policy, etc. When the leaders don’t ‘get it,’ it doesn’t happen. And right now most school principals and superintendents don’t ‘get it.’ As a result,
schools have kept new digital technologies on the periphery of their core academic practices. Schools … do not try to rethink basic practices of teaching and learning. Computers have not penetrated the core of schools, even though they have come to dominate the way people in the outside world read, write, calculate, and think. (Collins & Halverson, 2009, p. 6)
Since reading, writing, calculating, and thinking “are the bread and butter of traditional education, schools ignore computers at their peril” (Collins & Halverson, 2009, p. 6). Moe & Chubb (2009) reiterate that digital technologies can replace “the sameness of the traditional classroom model with a vast range of innovative learning alternatives [and can replace] the ‘one size fits all’ approach to students with powerful new ways of customizing schooling to the needs and interests of each individual” (p. 179).
If every other information-oriented societal sector is finding that transformative reinvention is the cost of survival in our current climate, schools and universities shouldn’t expect that they somehow will be immune from the same changes that are radically altering their institutional peers. We shouldn’t pretend that these revolutions aren’t going to affect us too, in compelling and often as yet unknown ways. And, yet, for some reason we do.
Our inactivity is damning
As long-existing barriers to learning, communicating, and collaborating disappear - and as what it means to be a productive learner, citizen, and employee shifts dramatically - it’s worth asking how we as educational leadership faculty and programs are responding. Are we doing what we should? To date the evidence is pretty clear that most of us are not.
On the research front, the attention that we pay to technology-related leadership issues is nearly nonexistent. The presence of (and attendance at) technology-themed presentations at our most important conferences is scant at best. Even worse, the prevalence of technology-oriented topics in our most-cited journals is virtually nil (McLeod & Richardson; 2011). Accordingly, we have little to no scholarly knowledge about what it means to be an effective school technology leader.
On the policy analysis and advocacy fronts, few of us are familiar with the federal and state policies that impact school technology funding, implementation, and integration. Even fewer of us are serving as advocates in this area or conducting analyses that could inform legislators and other policymakers. As such, our nation’s laws and policies regarding school technology continue to be informed primarily by corporate vendors, fearmongerers, and a bevy of other self-interested parties.
On the teaching front, only a handful of the nearly 600 educational leadership programs in America are even attempting to provide meaningful, substantive preparation of technology-knowledgeable school leaders. Many of the rest have no coursework at all in this area or, what may be even worse, have a single course that often is dedicated to tools rather than instructional and organizational leadership issues. This would be fine if technology-related topics were substantially integrated into other courses, but they usually aren’t (Schrum, Galizio, & Ledesma, 2011). As a result, our conversations about what it means to be an ‘instructional leader’ ignore the powerful learning revolutions that are occurring all around us. And, of course, few of us are preparing the next generation of educational leadership faculty to be knowledgeable and proficient in this important area of school leadership.
On the service, outreach, and professional development fronts, few of us are facilitating and enhancing existing school leaders’ knowledge, skills, and understanding in the area of digital technologies. Not many of us are working hand-in-hand with school systems to create relevant and powerful digital learning experiences for students, nor are we assisting them with the organizational adoption of communication, management, analytical, and other technologies. The resultant impact is that we’re often seen as largely irrelevant by practicing administrators who are desperate for help as they scramble to adjust themselves and their institutions to the realities of a technology-suffused, globally-interconnected age.
We must do better
Can we as educational leadership faculty do better? Given the scale and scope of the transformations occurring around us - and their power and potential for student learning - we MUST do better. It’s embarrassing to consider how little we’ve done to stay relevant. A learning revolution has occurred and - given the attention we’ve paid it - it’s as if many of us didn’t care.
Every societal and economic sector that revolves around information is being radically transformed by digital technologies, online services, and social media. Very few areas of American life remain relatively untouched by these paradigmatic shifts. Unfortunately, one of those areas is our elementary and secondary schools and we as educational leadership faculty share the blame for this dismaying situation.
Alan Shoho said in his 2010 UCEA Presidential Address that we need to focus more on “being proactive, accepting the social responsibility of the field, extending our community beyond the ivory tower and the silos within it to tightening the linkages to K-12 practitioners, and probing ways for our work to become more relevant and meaningful to the children and schools we purport to serve” (2010, p. 2). If we are to accomplish these goals - if we are to treat seriously the task of graduating school leaders who can create school environments that prepare students for a digital, global era - we must recognize that there is a significant difference between our traditional educational leadership coursework (that occasionally is delivered online) and coursework that puts technology and 21st century skills leadership at its core.
We know, simply from projecting current trends forward, that in the future our learning will be even more digital, more mobile, and more multimedia than it is now. It will be more networked and more interconnected and often will occur online, lessening dependence on local humans. It frequently will be more informal and definitely will be more self-directed, individualized, and personalized. It will be more computer-based and more software-mediated and thus less reliant on live humans. It will be more open and more accessible and may occur in simulation or video game-like environments. And so on. We’re not going to retrench or go backward on any of these paths. We thus need school leaders who can begin envisioning the implications of these environmental characteristics for learning, teaching, and schooling. We need administrators who can design and operationalize our learning environments to reflect these new affordances. We need leaders who are brave enough to create the new paradigm instead of simply tweaking the status quo and who have the knowledge and ability to create schools that are relevant to the needs of students, families, and society.
Like teachers, administrators, and media specialists, educational leadership faculty have a voluntarily-assumed (and paid) responsibility to be relevant to the needs of children and education today and to prepare administrators as best we are able for tomorrow. Our professional priorities must be aimed at preparing our graduates for the world as it is and will be. Otherwise, what are we here for? In other words, who’s going to prepare these school leaders if we don’t?
None of us are exempt. We can’t firmly believe in ‘life-long learning’ and simultaneously not be clued in to the largest transformation in learning that ever has occurred in human history. Those two don’t co-exist. Being a ‘life-long learner’ is not ignoring what’s going on around us; we don’t get to claim the title of ‘effective educator’ or ‘excellent professor’ if we do this. We must change inertia into momentum. That’s what we owe our children and grandchildren.
In the end, it’s not about us. It’s not about our personal or professional priorities and preferences, or our discomfort levels, or any of the other stuff that has to do with us. It’s about our students: our children and our youth who deserve at the end of their schooling experience to be prepared for the world in which they’re going to live and work and think and play and be. That’s the obligation of each and every one of us. No educator - or preparer of educators - gets to disown this.
It’s 2011. The status quo no longer suffices. Isn’t it time for us to get serious about technology?
Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Educational Administration at Iowa State University and the Director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE). He can be reached at dangerouslyirrelevant.org and scottmcleod.net.
- Allen, D. W. (1992). Schools for a new century: A conservative approach to radical school reform (p. 126). New York, NY: Greenwood Publishing.
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- Shoho, A. R. (2010, Winter). Rise? Or demise? UCEA Review, 52(1), 1-8.