A digital divide in education

Wikinomics_jigsaw_piece.jpg In preparation for my attendance at the upcoming Digital Summit in Auckland this week I’ve been re-reading Don Tapscott and Anthony William’s book Wikinomics which I reviewed earlier in the year.

I’d like to quote some parts from the introduction that have caused me to think again about a digital divide that is appearing in our education system.

Throughout our history corporations have organised themselves according to strict hierarchical lines of authority… While hierarchies are not vanishing, profound changes in the nature of technology, demographics, and the global economy are giving rise to powerful new models of production based on community, collaboration, and self-organisation, rather than on hierarchy and control.

Small companies are encouraging, rather than fighting, the heaving growth of massive online communities – many of which emerged from the fringes of the Web to attract tens of millions of participants overnight…. Indeed, as a growing number of firms see the benefits of mass collaboration, this new way of organisaing will eventually displace the traditional corporate structures as the economy’s primary engine of wealth creation.

Companies that engage with these exploding Web-enabled communities are already discovering the true dividends of collective capability and genius.”

These comments are not simply the suppositions of a couple of digital optimists. They are based on the evidence of several large scale research projects costing several millions of dollars and involving a number of the world’s most successful commercial companies.

But what has all this got to do with education? In a sense our education system is simply a large-scale corporate body, focused on outcomes, growth and wealth creation. It is also an example of bureacracy that is extremely hierarchical – like all government departments. So what is happening in our education system to embrace or adopt these new forms of online technology, and to participate in and engage with others in these Web-enabled communities?

Well, on the plus side is the example of the massive amount of collaborative effort that went into the co-construction of the new NZ Curriculum – reportedly around 15,000 teachers contributed their time, knowledge and collective wisdom to the development of this document – all within an online environment. It will be interesting now to see if the same level of collaborative effort and sharing will be facilitated to assist with the implementation of the document and the professional development of teachers to do this as the teacher unions quite rightly point out will be necessary.

Of course, this is arguably an example of an online community that has been constructed and managed within the bounds of the hierarchy itself , and while I see a real benefit in this sort of participation, it only goes so far in enabling the development of a deep understanding of the power and transformational potential of these online social networking tools and environments. Within the MoE, as with most government departments here and overseas, staff are discouraged from (according to some, not allowed to) having their own blog or wiki where they can express thoughts and ideas as a part of the broader social network. In some cases this even applies to leaving comments on other people’s blogs etc. The concern is that the opinions shared may not reflect the view of the government department, and may place the department at risk if it is read widely and interpreted as policy for instance.

At a recent Educational Leader’s Summit I was asked to speak about the impact of these technologies on our education system for just a few minutes. It became evident that among the group of around 100 educational leaders present, only a handful professed knowledge of the sorts of things I was referring to, and even less actually had a blog, flickr or del.icio.us account of their own. An online community was established where participants in the event could go to review presentations and to actively participate in the discussions following the event. To date less than 10% of those who attended have activated their account.

This is in stark contrast with the hundreds of teachers attending the ULearn conference held recently who have returned to visit the conference website, and the many dozens who have expressed their ideas and ‘new learnings’ from the conference on their personal websites or wikis.

Reflecting again on the Wikinomics quotes, I have a concern about the impact of these web-based technologies within our education system. Sure, there are dozens of new examples appearing weekly of these technologies being employed by classroom teachers to achieve some wonderful learning experiences for and with students – but all too often I also hear stories about firewalls preventing access, and students not allowed to participate in activities using these tools.

My concern really is that it appears to me that the very people in our education system who should be experiencing these technologies in an ongoing and profound way aren’t. These are the various leaders, decision makers and policy developers who work at the school and national level. Their experience of what is happening in these communities must be based on more than reading about it in the media, or briefly visiting a site – they should be immersed in the experience and involved in reflecting critically (as a part of a community) on that experience and the value they see arising from it.

Sadly I don’t see this happening. As a result, we have policy decisions made in ignorance. Safety decisions made through fear. And decisions affecting learning dominated by concerns about risk mitigation.

I fear we have a way to go yet before we see education systems as systems realise the benefits outlined in Wikinomics. Oh well, we can live in hope….

2 thoughts on “A digital divide in education

  1. Derek,
    So often we blog like this… then I don’t know about you but I get the feeling I preaching to the converted. My ICT facilitor printed out a couple of blog entries from Karl Finch and I did the same from ULearn. Just to ensure the message is getting out there… we certainly have some way to go with ICTPD.

  2. Hi Derek
    Did you get to catch Radio New Zealand Insight programme on Sunday morning?
    listening to Richard Pamatatau put together a piece about “whether NZ’s Pacific population is missing out on the benefits of information technology” is a bit of a reality check. Some of this stuff we worry about in the blogosphere is such an indulgence when there are families down the road who haven’t had a telephone for a generation…

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