Changing Teaching with Learning.com

| July 21, 2010

Are teachers emerging as DJs?

“You are innovators” is the message to the teachers at Learning.com‘s second annual professional development workshop in Portland, Oregon. I’m attending the workshop to learn more about their really interesting new software, Sky. I’m also interested to learn if their message to teachers is accurate, a wishful prediction, a hyperbolic marketing strategy, or something else. Working alongside teachers who are learning to use Sky, I begin to hope, will lead me to an answer.

Sky is the name of Learning.com’s recently-launched digital learning environment – which means, among other things, that it’s a platform for teachers and students to access instructional modules (what used to be called curriculum). Using Sky, teachers can create and assign modules (games, animations, links to online resources) to individual students, groups, or a whole class. Each student can go at their own pace or skip around, leaving a trail of data about their learning experiences.

Seeing a group of 50 teachers, librarians, administrators, and other educators learning to use this tool brought to mind a salient issue looming over the education sector: the transformation of the work of teaching from a classroom-based activity to a community-based activity. By this I mean to suggest that the horizon of a teacher’s work is expanding in two senses –  both spatially (i.e., a teacher can interact with people in a distant location in a way that is perhaps easier than stepping out of the classroom and walking down the hallway to speak to a colleague) and socially (i.e., a teacher expected to interact with more people than ever).

To anyone who’s interested in education these days, this is not exactly new news. But watching teachers learn to use Sky, a metaphor floated into mind: teachers are being asked to abandon their role as performers. Software like Sky demands that teachers become increasingly like DJs. In short,

Teachers are being asked to jockey media (of all kinds) in the way that DJs jockey music.

Consider this description of a “Club DJ”:

Club DJs are very well versed in mixing music to motivate the club goers to dance and drink. Very successful Club DJs can amass real fan followings. Club DJs have historically been on the leading edge innovation when it comes to leveraging the equipment they have for the best new sounds and memorable effects.

Putting aside the goal of dancing and drinking for the moment, the part of this description that strikes me as apt is the effect DJs have on their audience: they are recognized for leveraging the equipment they have for the best new sounds and memorable effects. As companies like Learning.com put innovative software into teachers’ hands, and when these tools further extend the reach of teachers to more and more content (note: I am using “content” and “media” interchangeably, where media puts the emphasis on the diversity of available content), it seems that their role as purveyors of knowledge – and, therefore, as critics and curators of media – is made more pronounced.

Great teaching has, of course, always been about being knowledgeable about, and delivering, content (with bonus points for delivering the right content at the right time). But a significant change that software can make possible is the amount of media that a teacher has access to, and therefore, has the possibility of being knowledgeable about. And this goes beyond mere facts and static content – even beyond dynamic content, methodology, and analysis –  and into the area of the learning tools that students can use in conjunction with that content and those processes.

So what are some of the new tricks that Teacher-DJs will have to learn, refine, and become known for? The following come to mind:

  • delivering simple, efficient, and multi-modal learning activities to students
  • directing students to great, fresh, and relevant resources
  • providing a directed (but not inauthentic) way to experience the Internet
  • sharing responsiblity for student work (and related actions) on school-suported publishing platforms

A related way these changes will likely play out is that authorship will increasingly become an important aspect of teaching. Whether a teacher is authoring content for students, describing and/or reviewing content for fellow teachers, or describing and/or reviewing content for a wider audience (including parents, administrators, and communities), the immediacy (and sheer reach) of the Internet will amplify the importance and potential of this work.

For example, Learning.com has ventured into the realm of positioning teachers within a network powered by sophisticated social software. Using Sky, teachers can create and share lesson plans – lesson plans they may have always had, but perhaps never before in a form that was so ready for sharing so widely. Software features that support searching for, selecting, and rating others’ lesson plans raise the significance of formerly merely digital tools (e.g., putting lesson plans online) to a new level.

An interesting effect of this kind of social software will be that there may be (will be?) increasingly more social pressure on teachers to create and share their work with other teachers. So teachers will be authors not only in the sense that students will use their multimedia assemblages (which seems like a good way to describe their products in software like Sky), but in the sense that other teachers will be able to access their work. By sharing work in this way, and as a community of teachers becomes interested in the depth and quality of a fellow teacher’s work, each teacher may subsequently be judged by it. And though this may have been the case previously on a more local level (e.g., interactions between a teacher and his/her department or administrators), social software is fundamentally changing the professional landscape of teaching by transforming social interactions between teachers.

Understood in this way, it seems that social software is becoming intertwined in what some consider the history of the de-professionalization of teaching. Though, as we see in the comparison to the work of DJs, it is also creating new possibilities of professionalism through a kind of grassroots process – where the day to day work of teachers (lesson-planning) becomes a new kind of lingua franca in valuing a teacher’s abilities and achievements. This is promising stuff. But where there can be little doubt that software like Sky will change teaching, how long it will take for the policies and realities that regulate the day to day activities of students under the watch of lumbering bureaucracies is less clear. And so,

It is still unclear if social software can be a vehicle that gives teachers more power to directly transform the education sector.

Looking into the heart of software like Sky, one sees how teachers are being asked to change the way they work in both obvious and subtle ways. Making a comparison to the work of DJs is, after all, probably not fair. But I think it’s a helpful metaphor. DJs take a lot of pride in their work, and are recognized for their unique contributions to spaces, events, and communities. Rather than evaluating a cultural shift in teaching as a good or bad thing, this kind of lens helps me better understand the kind of work teachers are being asked to do.

Are teachers innovators? Software like Sky gives them an opportunity to innovate. Not all will, but those who do will participate in an interesting transformation – and potentially a watershed period – in the history of the education sector.