Thursday, May 10, 2012

If I Were the Valedictorian

 A Message to the Class of 2012

The time of year is upon us. A time where we celebrate academic success and identify our future leaders of the world. The time for our next generation that signifies they have accomplished something of worth and value. The end of an era and the beginning of a new world: Graduation.

With graduation comes caps, gowns, teary-eyed parents, pomp & circumstance (never really knew what that meant), and speeches that will enlighten. As we graduate another set of young men from BA, I can't help but remember my own graduation experiences and my missed opportunities to deliver the valedictorian speech. In High School, I wasn't even close to that position (graduating in the bottom half of my class). In college, I was too focused on social life to worry about being able to spell GPA. Through the marvels of technology and a moment of vanity for me, you will now hear what my message would be if I were a valedictorian of the Class of 2012. Lucky you! ..... Bueller? ...... Bueller?

Deep thought #1 - Your worth in life is not based upon your pedigree.
It is not a question of where you come from, where you went to school or how much information you remember that is important. It is what you do from today on that will make you successful.

I spend most of my day with a group of young men that are sometimes so focused on gaining admission to "good schools" that they lose sight of the skills they acquired over the course of the year. They look for that athletic or academic acceptance as a sign of success because it is granted by what Seth Godin would term the "famous school". Keep in mind: famous does not mean good. Charles Manson became famous and most of us know where he ended up.

Success will not be defined by where you have been, but by where you can go. A place of employment, or a business venture does not immediately become successful by hiring a Harvard grad. It becomes successful by what that individual can accomplish in the years that follow. All that coming from a guy who spent some time in public schools, went to a Maine state university and received his Master's in an online environment. Did I mention I was never the valedictorian in any of those schools either?

Deep thought #2 - People skills are more important now than ever.
In a connected economy, environment or web, who are we connecting to? .... Other people - that's who!

If you have read any of my other blog posts, you know that I believe technology is a powerful tool. It is a tool that can be used for both good and evil. It is also a tool that our graduates need to understand to be successful in the future. The use of social media has opened up the world of communication at a rapid pace and our kids depend on it for many different reasons. We just need to make sure the same lessons we taught in kindergarten about how to treat people are not lost. Whether you are talking to somebody face to face or posting on a Facebook wall, people are interacting and the successful interactions are based on people skills.

Although written in 1936, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People continues to be one of my favorite books. Amazon has it as a digital download. I bet there might even be a few online Carnegie courses that still discuss the principles in that book. I would encourage any graduate looking to get ahead in life in the Information Age to read that book. Sounds crazy but I think Carnegie's message is even more important today. I don't blame the car / vehicle (technology), I would like to think that I help make the driver better (people).

Good luck to the class of 2012 and may you realize that it is a new world you are about to enter. A world that, although dominated by change and technical advancement, continues to be human centered. ..... Live long and prosper ..... (I always wanted to say that...)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Badges... We Don't Need No Stinking Badges"

The classic clip from Treasure of the Sierra Madre has been rehashed many times including one in Blazing Saddles. you can check out the YouTube movie clip here for a laugh:

Well - I have news for you... In the future, you might need some stinking badges in order to get the job or credentials you want. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education sheds some light on the controversy of job force skills and the acquisition of credentials to get those future jobs.
The article entitled "A Future Full of Badges" by Kevin Carey discusses a UC Davis initiative to give credentials to students in a sustainable agriculture and food systems major. Not that anything here sounds new except everything is new, including the major. The program focuses on giving the students more than just the content of the major, it focuses on giving the students much needed experience within the subject matter. Experiential learning is something that students have always defined as meaningful learning. The problem has always been that most schools struggle with the experiential piece and the assessment of that experience. Carey ascertains that digital badges may be the wave of the future to accredit students with respect to skills learned in a field of study.

The current higher education track places our youth in a direction to acquire the almighty degree. Employers have always been focused on the degree as well as if to say that if you don't have a degree then you cannot possibly accomplish the tasks that the job requires. Degrees have become the currency of success for some. Some degrees are worth more than others. Some jobs require higher degrees. Some employers are just looking for people with a degree period.

Online learning modules are responsible for flipping the classroom and now those same models are looking to flip the degree philosophy as well. If a student now can acquire the needed knowledge and skills from various sources and not just one singular institution, how will the degree program continue to work? And... even though a student has a degree in a body of knowledge, do they necessarily have the skill base or experience to effectively do the job? Who is going to vouch for the competency level of these new hybrid employees since the institution can no longer hand out degrees?

Carey's solution is the digital badge. A digital badge is a representation of mastery of either a skill or body of knowledge that is bestowed to a student upon exhibition of that mastery. They tend to be more granular and could be how we merit the abilities of all within a profession. Badges can be given by institutions upon completion of courses or by individuals upon example of mastery of a certain skill.

I can't help but relate it to a popular reality TV show called Hell's Kitchen. Although one winner gets to work for Gordon Ramsey in a brand new restaurant, what happens to all the other participants after the show? If you owned a restaurant and needed a chef, would you think twice about hiring the 45-year-old breakfast line cook who comes in second on the show? After all the impossible situations that show puts those contestants in, you can't help but think they are gaining valuable experience every day at a rapid pace. Ginny Fredrickson of Brockton, Mass shows up in your restaurant with a Hell's Kitchen badge and says "I was the runner up and Gordon Ramsey gave me this badge indicating that I was the second best cook there." I think I would probably hire her on the spot, having no idea what her background was. She didn't need a degree - she proved it in experience and someone who is respected in the field gave her the badge of approval.

This concept is a new one but it does shed light on what we as human beings choose to put weight on. The badge gives all of us a way to prove that our life experiences say something about us and will also give our future employers the chance to see what we have accomplished. Credibility is gained in the court of public approval similar to the way in which most of us shop online. We look for an item and then read the reviews of what other people think before we buy. If a potential employee came in with digital badges signifying expertise in all skill sets of a job and was able to identify who awarded the badges to him / her, would it help in determining whether the candidate is suitable for the position? Instead, we look to where they attended school, ask for a copy of their degree and decide whether or not they should be hired. What does a B+ in MAT101 mean anyway?

The higher education world will look drastically different in a few years for the majority of the population getting ready to enter it. Digital badges offer a way to identify qualified and motivated individuals who wish to see the educational process as a learning process instead of a ticket for admission to a good job. What does it say to us when transcripts from one accredited school are not accepted for transfer at another accredited school? It says that there is great ambiguity and vagueness in terms of real skills associated with degree programs. The reality is: it's not what you say you know that is important, it's what you can do that will propel you to success. To have a system that both accurately reflects your accomplishments and provides credible sources of reference, look out Harvard, here comes the hybrid employee. One who has had experience in a multitude of educational environments and can prove that they can handle the job requirements.

Although I never was a Boy Scout, maybe someday I can get my Eagle Scout badge for blogging.....

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Still the Sage - On a Different Stage

I recently watched a 60 Minutes piece on Sal Khan and Khan Academy. The piece portrays Khan as a hedge fund coordinator who falls into an idea that is "revolutionizing" education. He started his non-profit site by initially trying to give his niece some help in math. Khan creates teaching videos by recording his voice and capturing his ideas on a tablet connected to a computer. Teaching, but using a different delivery method. Although the news piece portrays him as an exceptionally good teacher, he downplays his ability to relay a concept to his audience. If you have ever viewed a Kahn lesson, you would agree that he is engaging in his own way and his voice is distinct.
Strong terms like "revolutionary" and "game-changing" are lightning rods when it comes to education. If you profess to have the next best way to educate our youths' - look out because you are going to get some criticism coming your way from the traditional classroom teacher. The teacher that will tell you that it has been tried before and it is just another fad that will go away. They believe that the only way to teach our students is to present information in an engaging way in a classroom, with the teacher in front of some type of presentation medium. The term "sage on the stage" is now commonplace in the world of educational jargon.

In the last few years, technology has changed every traditional business model that we can think of. Education, on the other hand, has been slow to jump in. You might think that a technology professional in education is just there to show off the bells and whistles and what could be accomplished using technology. I find myself trying to battle fear more than anything else.

Everybody has an opinion about what Sal Khan is trying to accomplish. The negative opinions focus on his inability to teach and the discussion surrounding what makes a good teacher. His delivery methods are traditional and his style is straight forward but Khan has found a way to deliver information to a digital audience that is consuming it at a surprising rate. He really does nothing special in terms of his delivery, he is just one of the first ones to convert to a new digital delivery system. Khan is someone who has hit upon an idea that may work and his value is that he was one of the first ones to do it. He is still a Sage but on a different Stage.

I relate this transition to the birth of the motion picture industry as compared to the theatre culture in the late 1800's. The birth of a new idea that will kill another cultural phenomenon. Last I looked, Broadway was still doing fine and the motion picture industry seemed to be doing pretty well also. Why? Because no matter what the delivery method, people who are successful at their craft will continue to engage the masses.

Khan's new digital delivery system will make good teachers better teachers. Your crowd just went from the 15 - 20 kids in your class to a mass market of students. What if, as a teacher, you could capture the feeling of the best class you ever taught? That day when you were "on" and every student in your class seemed to be clicking and learning. The ideas you were trying to present seemed insanely clear and concise. All the right words came to you and every student was engaged. You capture that moment in time and share it with more students than you can possibly imagine.

The new delivery system is just a new stage, a new platform, a new vehicle by which good teachers can excel at what they do. Don't look at what Sal Kahn is doing as threatening the nature of how teachers teach. As far as I can tell, he has no background in education and has never taught in an actual classroom setting, yet he is seen as a very good teacher. What happens when we take trained professionals who are adept at helping kids learn and give them a better, more engaging and wide-reaching vehicle? A vehicle that Khan has proved will work.

We are now ready to see the other side of educational creativity. We have long been witness to the theatre style of teaching where you had to be there to experience. Technology advancement has allowed us to change stages and create experiences with many students with a medium not too dissimilar to the motion picture camera. We can plan, create storyboards, add engaging content, film and film again if need be - all with the goal of making the best educational experience.

These two methods are not mutually exclusive. If I wish to see a Broadway show - I still have the ability to do that. I can continue to experience very talented individuals at their craft entertaining people in a live setting. If I wish to see a movie, I can experience that as well - once again, taking witness in talented artists doing what they do best. If Sal Kahn is the Charlie Chaplin of the new medium, who will be the next Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese?

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Death of Memorization

There have been countless movies in the past few years where the idea of instant knowledge has been given super human status. Films like The Matrix and Limitless toy with the ability for a normal human to be instantaneously given the ability to carry out a task or have some level of knowledge about a subject.

For example, your car breaks down on the freeway and you have never fixed a car in your life and possibly have never even opened up the hood to see what an engine looks like. At this point in time, you summon your special abilities ( push on a charm or pound fists with your friend and say something about wonder twin powers activating) and batta bing! You now realize that your spark plug cable is loose. You know exactly what cylinder of your car is the problem. You identify the correct area of the engine, push on the cable, the car starts and you are on your way.

Sounds crazy, I know but quite honestly, I sometimes think that people do not realize how close we are to that scenario. Welcome to the age of mobile computing, where we do have the ability to acquire knowledge about a subject no matter where you are. If you are fortunate enough to have access to a smart phone, you already carry the ability to acquire knowledge at a rapid rate. That is, if you know where the information is.

I recently was approached by a student of mine asking if I could give him a definition from a study guide for a mid term. Being the empowering teacher that I am, I quickly informed him that I would not give him the definition and he needed to find it himself. I also asked him if he had tried to look it up on Google, because that is where I usually go to find information about a topic. He looked at me as he was having his "A HA" moment and quickly pulled out his smart phone only to find the same definition that I gave him in class.

So the $25 question is..... If we have the ability to summon any piece of information we need at any given time, why as teachers do we still think our students need to memorize content? In Math class, the discussion focuses on the use of a calculator vs. memorizing multiplication facts. Most third grade students will ask this very question as they get tired looking at flash cards.

Traditionalists would tell you that a memorized body of knowledge shows intelligence. I do not disagree but I also think since vast amounts of information is now readily available at the touch of a button, we also have to enable our students to think about those possibilities as well. Do they really have to memorize who Abraham Lincoln's first wife is when they can push a button on their iPhone and ask Siri?

Most times that I have needed to know something in my professional career, I have not been required to have answers off the top of my head. I have been required, though, to know where to get those answers in a timely fashion and to evaluate if that answer is the correct one. Fortunately, I have been able to hone the art of Googling for some time now and it has served me well.

By the way... Siri told me Abraham Lincoln's first wife's name was Mary Todd.

Thank you Siri...