Realising I am now teaching students born in the year 2000 (or the year of Eminem Vs Bob the Builder Christmas no.1 battle as I remember it), was one of those moments where the generation gap was thrown into sharp relief. After I read an article on New York's iZone, an initiative to combat High School overcrowding and poor attainment in one digital swoop, I found myself having a 'through the looking glass' moment regarding my role as a teacher of the "digital natives" and how technology is shaping the 21st century teacher identity.
As teachers, we are part of a system undergoing an epochal change at all levels. As we reconsider what education should offer the next generation and how this should be delivered, technology is determining the whole infrastructure of education.
The iZone is an example of what a 21st century education could look like and meets the challenge of fusing the narrative of pedagogy and digitalisation of the 21st century pupils' social and learning experiences. Part of the NYC Lab School Project, it is currently being piloted across 160 schools and will expand to 400 schools by 2014. Unlike other technocratic policies, the iZone is considered to have great potential in personalising learning, having been developed in collaboration with curriculum experts in Israel. Instead of students experiencing a traditional school day, in fixed blocks of lessons, they are offered customised programmes, based on individual needs and abilities, which they can access remotely across the city.
So what does this mean for teachers and how will we define our role in education? Although I am often amazed by the way in which any device with a silicon chip embedded within it can instantly harness the attention of my pupils, social interactions still define the learning experience. After all it is often only through sheer force of personality (the school's discipline for learning system can only take you so far) that the 30 students in my company end up on their own path of understanding for 60 minutes.
In an age of accelerated technological leaps and bounds, we were initially able to leverage the tools available to deliver what we thought an education should offer. Now we are not merely experiencing a technological revolution, but are in the midst of a wholesale social reorganisation. The very core of human knowledge, the modes of its production, validation, and dissemination have undergone a paradigm shift. Information is now accessible by the individual at his or her own discretion; shifting the locus of knowledge production from institutions to individuals. After all, most digital natives use the internet socially. Is it not time to realise the full potential of an online learning experience and offer a more relevant curriculum that appeals to the sensibilities of the generation growing up in today's unpredictable, information rich virtual age?
However, perhaps the iZone marks another epochal change in education, reformatting the very nature of our roles as teachers.
I am not suggesting that technology will replace teachers, not for the foreseeable future anyway. Technology cannot do the significant things teachers can: lesson planning, counseling, preparing materials or evaluation of process and product. There will always be a place for teachers, but increasingly our role is that of the 'facilitator' rather than the 'font' of an intergenerational transaction of knowledge. As technology demands new student-teacher relations, students must become more autonomous, active learners. As a consequence, teachers must relinquish some of their power and authority to the students themselves. The effect of the digital revolution on teaching and learning will be enormous, and the teaching profession must prepare now for the changes ahead of it.
Aside from teacher identity, technology is being fully embraced across the world to minimise the 'achievement gap'. An inspiring example includes the m4Lit (mobiles for literacy) project, launched in South Africa in August 2009. The project aims to take advantage of South Africa's excellent mobile infrastructure to explore mobile novels (m-novels) as a complement and alternative to printed literature and has 15 million users registered.
Technology is reshaping how education is delivered, it's purpose, value and inevitably our identity as teachers. Teaching in challenging schools is intrinsically pastoral and I do not believe that the key to closing the "achievement gap" in education lies in a silicon chip education. An infrastructure to revolutionise education already exists, in the palm of every student. Instead of waiting until we have hit the bottom of the rabbit hole, we should already be answering the question: where should education in a digital age lead us?
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