Empowering Students

Empowering Students

I am writing this blog focusing on leadership in distance learning for several reasons. First, I am teaching a class in which I ask my students to create a blog. This creates in me a sense of obligation to do so as well. Second, I served as inaugural Director of Distance Learning at a regional university in Texas for seven years experiencing some success, and I feel proud regarding my choices in building that office. Third, I feel passionately about the administration of online instruction such that it does indeed serve the moral purpose of education. And, fourth, most of my teaching and research interests have focused on the power of distance learning for improving people’s learning experiences; I was an early adopter of both online-course delivery at a large research university and of distance learning integration in elementary and secondary schools.

I begin with one of my favorite poems.

So much depends

On a red wheelbarrow

Glazed with rain water

Standing beside

The white chickens

                                                                                             William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams drew a beautiful image with this poem. What I see in the image is the value of human technology, a wheelbarrow, amid natural beauty orchestrated by humans. There is elegance in how human beings over the ages have applied technology to facilitate precious activities.  Some technologies provide us with tools for doing physical activity more easily. Other technologies, such as the Internet, provide us with what David Jonassen (2008) called “mind tools.” I will paraphrase William Carlos Williams with –

So much depends

On a computer and smart phone

Loaded with bookmarks and apps

In the hands of a seeker

With time to spend

In the context of human history, the web’s power as a disseminator of information, activities, and tools for learning is unprecedented. The web can be used to facilitate what John Dewey (1899) called “The Four -Fold Interests of the Child”:  finding things out, making things, communicating, and expressing. I add here that as lifelong learners these interests apply not just to children, but to all people. Web tools abound that support inquiry, construction, communication, and expression. In addition, a seemingly endless array of digital tools support teaching.

As we educators commit to the moral purpose of making a positive difference in the lives of learners, we commit to the broad moral purpose of education: to better the lives of individuals such that each will work for the common good. In today’s age of connection (Siemens, 2005), all individuals need mind tools to fulfill their purpose of contributing to the common good.

The call to educate begs the questions; what technology tools can enhance student learning and how can we best implement them in the context of course goals and objectives, diverse needs of learners, assessment and documentation of competence, and limits to technology access? In Technopoly (1992) Neil Postman, media theorist and cultural critic, objected to the blind attitude that “we must use technology because it is there. We will become the kind of people the technology requires us to be; and, whether we like it or not, we will remake our institutions to accommodate the technology.” In many ways, Internet technologies drive current practices in higher education. We can see this trend as the tail wagging the dog, or we can take the challenge of ensuring that technologies are used to serve the common good.

Dewey, J. (1899). The school and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jonassen, D. (1996). Computers in the classroom: Mindtools for critical thinking.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jonassen, D. (2008). Meaningful learning with technology (3rdEd.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-679-74540-2.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1). Available online at: www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm

Williams, W. C. (1923). Spring and All. New York: Contact Editions / Dijon: Maurice Darantière.

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