Jan 252013
 

The-Tipping-Point-Malcolm-GladwellWell, as usual… I am light years behind the curve. I always seem to be a little slow to arrive at the party and when i finally do, all the cool people have already left but I never no mind, it’s all good. Better late then never my dear old pappy use to say.

My most recent late arrival, was a book called The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell. I found it sitting on the old and irrelevant table at Indigo while doing some Christmas shopping. Normally, I would have never even noticed the unassuming title but since I spent most of 2012 listening to educators yammer on about the “Ed Tech Tipping Point…” When I saw a book with “Tipping Point” in the title, it caught my eye.

Now that I have finally arrived at the party, long over though it may be, I can finally put my two bits worth into the Ed Tech Tipping Point discussion.

First of all, I have to say, I enjoyed the book. Gladwell brings up some very interesting points about social epidemics and I certainly understand why some educators are looking for just such an epidemic to occur with Education Technology. However, after hours of careful consideration, my conclusion is that there wont be a Gladwellian Tipping Point in Ed Tech. Instead, advances in Educational Technology will to continue to be (as it has always been) more of a slow submersion into the digital domain. A dipping point as it were.

Coincidentally, not a week after having come to this conclusion, I stumbled upon a Blogpost from Mind Share Learning, talking about the Ed Tech Tipping Point in their Top Ten EdTech Predictions for 2013. They seem to think that 2013 WILL be the year the Ed Tech tipping point occurs but I am holding my ground…. There will be no tipping point in 2013 or any other year and here is why.

I will try best I can, to relate Education Technology to Gladwell’s book. If you haven’t read the book, give the original article (on which the book is based) a quick read The Tipping Point – June 3, 1996 (New Yorker Magazine).

Stickiness

From a purely hardware perspective, the tipping point has already happened. If you don’t believe me, just look in your nearest high school classroom. There is a digital device in the hand of 90% of the kids and based on the degree of digital distraction going on at staff meetings, one in the hand of 90% of the staff as well. If I ask kids if they have a digital device to use for any given lesson, the majority of the class reaches in their bag or pocket and pull out more computing power then put a man on the moon. Now I realize that this situation is not the same for every school community but at my school, we long since tipped and are swimming in the digital deep end. The hardware is here and in the hands of many if not most but still we have not seen an Ed Tech tipping point.

Just as Gladwell tells us in his book, in order for an epidemic to occur we need “it” to stick and technology stuck to education long ago. The jump from scroll to bound books is an example of technological change. A little more recently, I remember how people thought VHS was going to revolutionize education; then desktop computers came along and were suppose to change everything; then the internet came along and distributed leaning systems were born, which promised to change the way we learn. Now mobile devices are being held on high and trumpeted by proponents as the most revolutionary thing education has ever seen… Adoption of new technology has always been a part of education but there is still no tipping point as Gladwell describes it.

In my mind this can only mean one thing, although technology itself is sticky, hardware is not. We find ourselves chasing the hardware, not unlike a heroin addict chases the dragon. The last hit is never enough and this is one of the reasons we have not seen an Ed Tech tipping point. When we focus on hardware acquisition, what we end up doing is moving the tipping point further and further away. If this continues, a Gladwellian tipping point will never occur.

Law of the Few

This is the idea that there is a small group of people who start, champion and spread a social epidemic to the masses. Gladwell refers to these people as Mavens, Connectors and Salespeople. Any one of these types of people can act as a tipping point but these types of people frequently act in more than just one of these roles. For example, many well-connected people are also good sales people, like Chris Kennedy (my superintendent). He has taken on the role of consummate Ed Tech ambassador. Myself, I am more of a grunt or as Gladwell calls it, “a Maven”. I don’t do a very good job of connecting with others or selling the idea of Ed Tech but if anyone asks for information or help with Ed Tech, I am your man.

Believe it or not, Gladwell’s law of the few is alive and well in education. These types of people are littered about the education profession and they have done a very good job selling the idea of Education Technology to their colleagues. New converts are joining the Ed Tech epidemic daily but just like the social epidemics Gladwell uses in the Tipping Point, it doesn’t infect everyone. Not everyone in Gladwell’s social epidemics bought Hush Puppies, got syphilis or committed suicide and just like a Gladwellian epidemic, not everyone in the teaching profession has bought into the epidemic of Education Technology.

Championing, Connecting and convincing others to join or become a part of a social epidemic is a difficult task and there is no reason to expect that everyone in the teaching profession will buy into the Ed Tech Revolution. Does this mean these are bad teachers? No… By Gladwell’s measure, it simply means they didn’t need, connect or were sold on the value of Education Technology.

Context

The third element of a Gladwellian epidemic is context, or the place where the would-be epidemic lives. This element can involve social, geographic, economic and other factors both big and small. It is here, I believe, that the most significant Ed Tech’s tipping point is hiding. The two most significant being, access too and pedagogical value of, Educational Technology.

Access to Educational Technology comes in many forms. As I described in the stickiness section, the school I work in is not starved for hardware. It is readily available but we still struggle with access to what we need to run a technology rich classroom environment. We have become victims of our own success and as such, we have significant difficulties assessing resources on the web because we frequently exceed the bandwidth capabilities of our network. (insert eye roll here and say… “Rich people problems!”) As ridiculous as it sounds however, if our digital tools don’t work, there isn’t much point in using them and teachers tend not to use things that don’t work.

If we want teachers to use all the latest gadgets, we need to give them access to not just the gadgets but the information sources they are built to use. I have done workshops where staff want to use iPads in the classroom but they have no wifi. This immediately relegates the iPad to nothing more than a high-tech paper weight. There are other school districts in this world that can’t afford to maintain their existing hardwired networks, never mind creating a learning environment that delivers ubiquitous access to all staff and students.

Without dependable and equitable access to the digital landscape for all stakeholders, we will not be seeing an Ed Tech Tipping point anytime soon, never mind in 2013.

As for the value of Educational Technology, It has to be said… The jury is still out. Proponents see wonderful things just waiting to be unleashed on our children’s learning spaces, yet the stalwart traditionalists have yet to be sold on its value. Kids who function well in the absence digital tools or perhaps I should say are not dependant on digital tools, still seem to out perform those who are immersed in the digital world. My own children are a case in point, they excel because they have strong reading, writing and numeracy skills, learned the old-fashioned way. In my household, digital skills are an adjunct to these old school skills not the means by which these skills are acquired.

The fear amongst many however, is that we are trying to replace the tried and true with the flashy and new. In doing so we are moving in a direction that puts engagement before good old-school foundational skills. A colleague said to me the other day.

“Our push to adopt digital learning environments seems to be an effort to engage the academically weak kids at the expense of the academically strong kids”

It is this kind of thinking on which Educational Technology has become hung up. Does technology really improve learning outcomes and who are we sacrificing in the process? Some feel the solution is to simply “unload the dinosaurs” then you will be rid of this kind of fear mongering but it has been my experience that this question resonates within the teaching profession, from newbie to retiree.

It is here that I believe the most significant Ed Tech tipping point lies. Prove to the world that technology improves learning outcomes for everyone. Make people understand that Ed Tech is not a replacement but an addition to a child’s foundational skills. Show people that old-school and new-school can coexist, that a learner who uses technology to amplify their foundational skills, will out perform those who don’t. If we do this, you might have a Gladwellian epidemic on our hands.

To conclude

As I said early on in this post, in some respects, the Education Technology Tipping point has already happened. Thousands of teachers have bought in and are using technology in their classroom on a daily basis but people like me, seem to look at EdTech integration as an all or nothing proposition. It is almost like we are in a bad episode of Star Trek – The next Generation and the Ed Techies have taken on the roll of the Borg and Old-School Teachers must be assimilated into the continuum but this is not how Gladwell’s epidemics work.

Not everyone is a part of a social epidemic. Technology has its place in education and it is becoming more significant as the years go by but an en masse adoption of technology in the classroom will not happen because epidemics don’t infect everyone, nor should they. As with any population that is exposed to an infectious agent, you don’t want everyone to get the plague. You need a portion of the population to survive and carry on.

I am glad there are people in our education system that stop and say “What the hell are we doing?” “Is this right?” and “Is this what is best for everyone?” Our education system doesn’t need lemmings, it needs thoughtful practitioners who challenge social or technological epidemics.

My final word… There will be no Ed Tech Tipping Point in 2013.