Developing Authority

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

“Why reinvent the wheel?” This common phrase heard throughout the education field holds within it the antiquated educational values of a misunderstood notion of lazy educators. It is a reflection of the way education had been approached in the past. As long as teachers shared resources that is all the education system needed to continue. Remember this was also contingent on whether the ‘good’ teachers were the ones sharing resources. Teachers believed that mentorship and following the established learning theories was the most appropriate means by which to advance the system rather than delving into how to achieve learning and growth in their classrooms in a progressive manner. Perhaps it is time to reinvent the hub rather than just the exterior wheel. One means by which to achieve desired growth is through the implementation of technology or web 2.0 tools in our classrooms. However, the use of technology opens student research to a much larger and more complex set of resources, which require a specific set of skills in order to survive the onslaught of information. Also students and teachers need to become viable members of the perspective educational community in order for growth to happen. The big ideas I am going to explore throughout this paper are; who’s opinion, thoughts, theories and lesson ideas should you trust? How can we as teachers become trusted authorities within the communities so that we can progress education? I will begin my exploration of these educational issues through the examination of current computer use in schools.

Gary Stager’s examinations of the computers use in today’s classroom finds the education system becoming somewhat stagnate in its technology progression. Schools were once champions of technological reform and students were being exposed to cutting edge technologies. Unfortunately Stager and others like Alan November see the opposite happening as educational computing has become degraded to office task preparation and presentation. Educators have lost focus and purpose as to the real value of using computers in education. I believe we can go further than menial office based tasks like those mentioned. Stager believes there is no need for better or faster computers or a need for massive amounts of bandwidth in order for teachers to have creative outcome with students using computers. (Stager, 2006) Too much of the educational system has been side tracked by these conversations and the community needs to regroup and rekindle the lost vision and exuberance once felt for educational technologies.

Our student populations are dynamic systems in a state of evolution and our purpose for being in the class is changing. Historically classrooms were places where information was delivered, memorized and skills were developed through assembly line style work in hopes of creating a viable contributor to society. A schools main goal was to develop someone able to secure a job, add to the wealth of the general society and follow prescribed notions of the unspoken and rarely discussed caste system, which still permeates all levels of education. Those students lucky enough to attend well-funded schools and have academically focused teachers were able to achieve that which society expected of them and were then able to perpetuate the wants of the educational system as a whole and in doing so help the system to continue unchanged. On the reverse side of education are those individuals who are unable to achieve in a school setting due to a variety of reason. Social issues within cities, communities, and neighborhoods as well as in homes have far-reaching impact into our classrooms. Under funding of school districts and the migration of frustrated teachers also compound the issues connected to failure at school. The loss in educational assessments and the push to apply a business model to education has resulted in a reduction of teacher creativity and in some instances the loss of intellectual debate among colleagues. Along with the furthering of standardized measurement of student growth and allocated monies connected to their achievement the education system has either become lost or has been mislead in preparing students to be viable members of an intellectually aware society. The debate over the art of teaching verse the science of teaching is ever present. There are various approaches to educating students and assessing both the acquisition of student knowledge and the value of the activity as a teaching practice. Data driven decisions are believed to be a means of removing the subjectivity of educational pedagogy decisions and create an even playing field for all students. The U.S. Department of Education claims data can work to align educational research with the best teaching practices and the U.S Department of Education views data as a way to manage teacher’s content delivery. (US Dept. of Education, 2010)

If teachers are to aid in the creation of a society where education is valued and valuable education is delivered, educators and the education system need to look at various and innovative ways to engage students. “The central task of education is to implant a will and facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people. The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together.”  (Eric Hoffer, 1979)

There is and has always been a community aspect to education and with the emergence of social media sites dedicated to educational resources and professional development a new professional learning community has emerged. Teachers are no longer bound to their media center or district resources and are seeking out current and engaging ways to work with students. Innovative teachers are finding ways of collaborating with teachers from around the world made possible through edmondo, linkedIn, Technorati, twitter, wiki’s, professional blogs and a host of other social media networking sites. Teachers can access sites and contribute as well as pull content from the sites to be used in the classroom. “Digital learning communities extending beyond the four walls of the physical classroom may offer students access to expertise unavailable in school.” (Stager, 2008)

Mike Wesch’s presentation about how the individual has become the hub of information helps to legitimize the change as he is seen as an expert in this field. Prior to social media networking emerging the mass delivery system for content was the one way current of the television, radio and textbook. There was limited to no conversation among teachers and the ability to check source or resource materials required an extended interest in paper shuffling sometimes leading no further than the start. We were to trust whole heatedly the content we were being fed was legitimate. Truths became suited to the select few authors and critics who produced the media and the rest of the consumers where just that, consumers of the content. More than anywhere else the nightly news propagated the notion of a limited delivery system of content. Stories could be told and news items delivered. Thus emerged the trusted news anchor, our storyteller. Most people may have believed there was little choice as to who narrated their content so they choose the least annoying coupling of personalities amongst the choices. At least that’s how I had approached the choice of my own news delivery.

The choice I made was not due to any evaluation of the content being delivered, as the message was the same on all of the channels. One needs only to surf the evening news time slot and there will be no doubt to this fact. Coupled with this is the inability for an individual to critically evaluate the reliability of the news content unless they were to grab a newspaper. Perhaps an eager information seeker may pursue further information at a library or other reference source. What effort! It seems natural then when someone is presented with the opportunity to gather multi-format content from a single device this would be a natural evolution in the expression and attainment of knowledge especially in education.

The Mad Prophet rant from the 1976 movie “Network” holds significant influence in progressing my exuberance with education especially when its message is applied to educational perspectives connected to technology. I see the Mad Prophet clip as a push for new voices to be heard. For those people who perpetuate the status quo to step out of the comfort zone and try something new. The milieu surrounding the speech being given is that an unsuccessful television network is trying to stay on the air due to low ratings and a news anchor is being fired to help cut some cost. The anchor decides to announce he is going to kill himself during one of his last shows. Ratings begin to soar and amidst several other annoyances the anchor unleashes a rant on the evening news. Surprisingly the rant captivates the audience and the network executives further the anchors ability to rant as they give him a weekly spot to spew his rhetoric. During one such rant he speaks to the audience about how they are being misled by the information coming from the ‘tube’. He tells them the ‘tube’ tells them what to wear, what to eat and how to think. He rants about the power and influence the ‘tube’ can have in all aspects of people’s lives. He then turns the focus to the people in the audience and expounds upon them the notion that they are the truth. It is the people who hold the answers and the people need to take back the desire to examine, think and act with purpose in their lives. My thoughts went immediately to educational reform, curricular development and content delivery. I have confidence in his diatribe capturing the irritation some people may feel towards mainstream media sources including the web. A lot of the anchors rants do lean to subtle hints of conspiracy surround by corporate muck but captures a change in perception. A change focused on the encouragement and subsequent emergence of intellectual critique by the masses. It is time for educators to apply the same purposeful focus to what we do in our classrooms. Our classrooms need to be full of truth, wonder and critically thinking individuals. Nevertheless, with the onslaught of online resources and materials how do we foster this type of environment? Perhaps educators need to connect and share their viewpoints.

A larger perspective is needed when examining educational content. As with each variance in personality the educational approach can change as well. When teachers are able to utilize peer review critical analysis of material and see how others break down educational approaches to their subsequent parts they will have a better view by which to evaluate the resources impact as a whole.

The choice is now ours as to who filters the content of our educational growth. This is not to say I am naive to think there is not censorship on Internet content but I believe there is access to more purposeful content via the web than from traditional sources. We now have a choice in who delivers the content and especially how it is delivered. By approaching educational resources in this framework teachers get to develop their own more personal level of trust within themselves, their online professional learning networks and their critical thinking and problem solving skills. Teachers become the ultimate filters of their our content and can make truth accurate. Searches for authenticity and sources to back up content have become easier to find and access. As a teacher I believe it is important to provide the most current and accurate findings I am able to. As I see it these are purposeful reasons to immigrate to a digital interaction with information.

Learning in networks involves each participate becoming a source of material and content. They may also take on the role of critical thinker and analyze the material presented in order to ensure the best product is provided. In a traditional classroom teachers are bound to the textbooks and course materials bought by the school system and feel an obligation to use the workbooks and consumables. Some teachers may find utilizing prescribed materials more efficient for their style of teaching. I have had the opportunity to experience the excessive waste traditional schools generate when they continue the antiquated notion that textbooks hold the answers. I had 120 seventh grade students during one of my teaching assignments and was provided 2 new textbooks per student. One textbook was for the student to take home and another textbook for the classroom. I inquired as to the cost of one set of books and was blown away by the 80 to 130 dollar response for a resource that will be replaced within four years. I then went to the head custodian and inquired as to how many boxes of unopened or unused textbooks he either threw away or had to send back once a new textbook was adopted. Again the answer confounded me. The custodian told me about having to send back 12 unopened boxes containing an average of 10-15 textbooks each with the majority of the boxes totally full. Such a waste when the money spent on the textbooks could have been put into technologies and online resources for open education content and connecting teachers and students to educational networks where they could find engaging and better suited materials and activities for the classrooms of today. It is the networked teachers who will progress education.

Learning networks seem to be more interconnected with participants playing a variety of rolls, as a classroom seems more static and roll defined. Industry professionals bring a level of expertise and interest to the networks and are often eager to provide feedback to the community in their areas of expertise. Middle school students are a bit more hesitant to participate and be active participants in the classroom but I am finding them to be a bit more in their element online and therefore engaging with the content with a different level of interest. In these types of communities students are able to generate blog posts and further the discussion even outside of the classroom. A student who needs some time to think about what was discussed in class may find a very well suited article or other media form to post helping to further the conversation. Of course tons of encouragement and modeling this higher level of content interest helps to create an inviting classroom environment and consequently more engaging discussions can take place face to face. However, it can only go so far in a traditional setting at this point. Students are so molded into procedures and routines that when presented with a more open learning experience they some times use technology in the only way they have experienced, for play and social connections. One of our priorities should be to establish a new set of guidelines, which allow students to utilize social media in an educational application. The students will then become the designers of their experience in their pursuit of knowledge. Students will learn how to interact with knowledge rather than just being vessels of memorized facts.

I also believe that transparent learning throughout the professional social media sites will further the incorporation of technology paralleling curriculum standards along with guidelines to help ease the further use of technology by educators. When teachers can have genuine conversations with students who feel as comfortable online, some perhaps even more comfortable as they do in the classrooms, students led conversations will progress education in a positive direction. Active participation by way of critical review of current educational trends and examination of cognitive research studies can guide this progression.

Participation in online communities and networks can be very difficult to foster at first and it can be even more difficult to sustain users interest. Social media users can be placed into three categories: lurker, intermittent contributor, and heavy contributor. Within the online community the major contributors are a disproportionately smaller group than the lurkers. Jakob Neilson applies his 90-9-1 rule of participation on social media sites.

Participation pyramid

Neilson states that 90% of social media users are lurkers or people who observe but do not contribute as there are about 9% of the community members who will contribute sometimes but due to other life priorities consuming most of their time their role is limited. The last and most influential groups on social media sites are the 1% of those contributors who add the majority of the content on a daily basis. (Neilson, 2006)

There is inequality throughout the web as there are an estimated 1.1 billion Internet users with only 55 million of the users who have blogs with only 1.6 million contributing which translates to about 0.1% of users posting daily. Blogs tend to have the worst participation inequality where the web rule is more like 95-5-0.1 (95% lurkers, 5% sometime contributors and 0.1% active daily contributors). Contributing to socially networked sites like Wikipedia highlight the inequality best. About 32 million people in the USA visit Wikipedia where 99% of its users are lurkers and about 0.2% actually contributes content. The overall problem is that we always see posts from the same 1% of the contributors and this fact is in opposition of social medias attempt at generating community knowledge.

Is there a way to overcome this participation inequality? Unfortunately we cannot overcome having people contribute more than others as we see this in classrooms all the time. If online communities are to break away from the 90-9-1 model of participation and reach a more balanced user content contribution to the likes of 85-10-5 where 85% are lurkers, 15% contribute some and 5% contribute the most there are some changes site designers can make. One of easiest and important changes within social media is to make contributing to the site easy. Provide smaller text boxes that may not intimidate new users who assume to provide worthy content they must fill the blank text box, as this is quite intimidating for some users. Also site designers can implement an easy star rating system or multiple-choice question at the end of sections as a way to ease user participation. Allow students to provide feedback in a quick and non-intrusive manner and not only will they help to keep the site current but geared towards the right audience. Teachers and site administrators can also offer rewards for a contribution as an excellent way to motivate contributors. However, even in rewarding users one must be careful as the elite 1% of the major contributors may overtake others and claim the majority of the rewards for themselves effectively driving other users away. The best approach is to treat all entries as equal participants. Sometimes voices can be lost amidst the torrent of entries and some contributions can be lost. In order to have all voices heard you could apply the expertise algorithm mentioned later in this paper as a way to level the playing field. (Neilson, 2006) This approach would help to balance heavy contributors with light contributors who may offer very accurate and valid information. It is not all about the number of times a person posts but whether the content is accurate, researched and can lead to student growth. The conversations taking place within these social networked communities are not only content based but also deal with changing pedagogy.

Communication amongst a larger researched based peer to peer network works to self generate guidelines and standards based on the needs and functions in interactions much like real world social interactions. One of the most difficult aspects of online community sharing is assessing the validity and value of the posted resources. As networking sites gather resources there needs to be ways in which to ensure not only quality but also educational value.

There are numerous ways to fact check paper document sources and ensure the information is valid. The majority of adults today grew up in a paper filled education system and were taught how to check the paper trail of documents by means of footnotes, index’s and title page citations. However, with online resources this proves a bit more difficult. One way to ensure author expertise is to utilize a new algorithm created by a team of European researchers that ranks expertise of users. An algorithm is an effective method for solving a problem using a finite sequence of instructions. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and many other fields of data interpretation (Wikipedia, 2010). The program works as a reputation engine, which not only evaluates users but also has the capability to classify a user as a discoverer or a follower. An individual who posts content that is new to the site are marked as leaders and users who repost or revise the material are seen as supporting the leaders. The system is based on evaluating users on networking sites like Delicious that allow users to tag information and thereby adding content value to the tagged site or bookmark. Most sites geared towards sharing focus on the frequency of additions rather than the quality of the submissions placing too much focus on quantity rather than quality. With the use of the new algorithm called Spamming-resistant Analysis and Ranking or SPEAR it allows mutual reinforcement by users within the site. “The algorithm evaluates popular users and popular content and declares expert users to be the ones who identify the most important content, while important content is that which is identified by the most expert users. The result is a way of identifying both expert users and high-quality content.” (Sausar, 2009) Another important part of the algorithm focuses on users who contribute content before others and act as trendsetters within the network. This part of the analysis is based on the notion that people who discover a resources effectiveness prior to the community is a builder of knowledge and as it holds true in face to face academic circles those are the individuals who build academic reputations in real world setting as well as in networked communities. Although the algorithm was intended to reduce the amount of spam generated within online communities its creator says, “…the algorithm can be adjusted for any online community.” (Sausar, 2009) If programs like this algorithm can be used to establish expertise by examining the content being posted and the subsequent discussions and revisions that take place with the content this would prove to be a valuable resource for scholars in all discipline areas. The data generated from the analysis can help to establish trust in networks and the people behind the content. Teachers could also use the data gathered from the algorithm in conjunction with other assessment materials to help evaluate concept attainment and student growth. Most educators would express concern about a resource gained from a fellow teacher just as they may express a heightened awareness of the potential ineffectual nature of a resource found online. Since parents have entrusted teachers to provide accurate and balanced viewpoints as well as curriculum connected content from reliable, expert and authoritative resource providers, I believe the algorithm has the capability to provide a framework in which to make decisions about content and author dependability as well as being used to measure student growth.

Nonetheless not all educators and students will have access to algorithms to help balance their decisions so teachers must focus on building essential problem solving and evaluation skills within themselves and their students. The trend in assessing educational computing has for too long been placed on pedagogy and product rather than using computers to further critical thinking skills. Stager proposes educators look beyond the number of computers in the classroom and how often they are used and begin to focus on how teachers can use technology to develop analytical skills. As technology begins to merge more and more with learning the natural tendency is to integrate technology into existing curriculum. “Efforts at integration assume the relevance and value of the existing curriculum while curriculum by its very nature is a map used to steer teaching practice.”(Stager, 2008) Our focus should then be on the curriculum itself and how to surround technology with content. Web 2.0 tools are a way to bridge the gap. Having students able to share and make public their work via social networks adds authenticity to the curriculum and utilizes real world skills. Papert warns educators to avoid becoming caught up in Technocentrism. “Technocentrism is the fallacy of referring all questions to the technology.” (Papert Technocentrism) An example of this approach would be having students use various office-based programs in product completion. Unfortunately this approach is counter-productive to the development of skill sets and reduces the value of the technology.

Our focus should then shift to the content itself. In our hopes of delivering a modern education we sometimes over load content areas, as we believe the old skills are required in order to develop modern understanding. Most often this results in content overload. We then must ask what do educators do with computers? Much like teachers use projects to develop understanding so to should computers be used in applications of knowledge and the construction of new understanding. It is unfortunate that many of the educational interactions with knowledge were not designed with the learner’s inspiration as a primary or even secondary focus. We are neglecting the learning needs of our students by following this model and sometimes the content just needs to be dropped. “Abandoning content, after careful reflection, is not an admission of failure. It may be an act of liberation—opening the door to new learning adventures.” (Stager, 2008)

Stager approaches the rethinking of curriculum by placing the focus on the content and helps to add focus through the creation of a matrix, which can help educators evaluate the usefulness of using technology to help push students concept attainment to a higher level of interacting with knowledge. Stager acknowledges with varying viewpoints the creation of a widely applicable algorithm is nearly impossible however he is able to provide a guide in thought to highlight how teachers can further the students experience and use technology to generate personal connections to the content.

Traditional Activity       To     Novel Activity

No Computer Use        To     The Computer is Integral

Teacher Agency            To     Learner Agency

Instructionism               To     Constructionism

Replication                    To     Invention

Routine Activity            To     Transformational Activity

Stager also subdivided the matrix continuum into five pairs or ten units based on the movement of student interaction with content as listed above. Level’s one and two is teacher directed and no computer use is needed. As in level two the computer may make the activity more fun but does nothing to improve understanding. Levels three and four explore the use of digital manipulates and although at a cursory glance the activity may seem to have a higher value it is only a false complexity. The use of computers increases as levels five and six are utilized. Technology is used to teach concepts and at level six students reach a point where as a part of the project real knowledge construction takes place. Student progression is furthered as the activities connected to levels seven and eight as students begin to engage in more personally meaningful activities that require the use of computers. “Invention, ingenuity and intrinsic motivation are critical aspects of levels 8–10.” (Stager, 2008) Student learning throughout al levels is connected to curriculum however in levels nine and ten the sophisticated aspect of the tasks allows students to be creative and apply critical thinking skills and they form new connections to the knowledge and construct their personal understanding. Finally when learners are able to solve real world problems and participate in communities of interest with other experts they have attained real world skills. At this level Stager believes, “It is quite possible for level 10 students to make genuine contributions to knowledge.” (Stager, 2008)

Stager’s attempt at developing a suitable matrix for comparing complex learning theories along with the value of activities is a start at changing the focal point of educational discussions surrounding the value of activities in classrooms. Stager provides us with a starting point to take a look at the current curriculum and examining how we can expand content legitimacy through our approach. When students begin learning how to evaluate content by applying critical analysis skills there is definitely a building process. Stager’s pathway to develop the skills needed is only one of many approaches to develop real world sense of knowledge.

In an attempt to develop a guide for educators and students trying to decide on the expertise of a producer of online material I have developed the following checklist to critical analysis of educational resources:

  1. What has the information provider posted the information or resource on the web? It the site trying to sell services and or products?
  2. Does the site promote only one point of view and does it seem like the site is trying to convince you to believe a similar point of view?
  3. Who is the author? Complete a background check using a search engine like Google Scholor to find any other source materials the author created. Does the author have the expertise or credentials to write about the content? Has there been any peer reviews done on the author?
  4. Examine the URL for the site. A quick reference guideline for URL addresses includes .org,, .gov, .edu as some of the more trusted however if you want to see who applied for the URL you can visit With this site you can see the actual owner (as the person who applied for the address) for the site.
  5. Are the opinions and content within the site in agreement with other sources of information in this subject area? Is the content easily backed up with established norms from theories supporting the resource?

There is no one easy way to determine expertise especially when examining online resources and authors. Although we are offered more ways in which we can fact check the onus is still on the consumers of the information to make sure it aligns with curriculum standards and of course your personal standards should always be at the forefront of choosing any materials be it from the web or from the local school district library.

Working with content and evaluating its use is only part of the task. Through my research I was fortunate to come across many excellent resources and have connected with the authors in some circumstances. The more conversations and readings I explored about developing authority online an authority skill set became evident. As online authoritative behaviors have emerged I put together a short list of attributes that may help guide newcomers as they develop critical thinking skills and work towards expertise in their educational disciplines.

1. An authority has a very comprehensive understanding of the possibilities and potential gains social media networking tools can offer to educational practices. They would have to be aware of trends and the emerging pedagogy accompanying such advances.

2. Authorities are proactive in sharing their knowledge with others and are not just takers but also provide content just as much as they gain from using material from others.

3. Authorities also need to acquire a vast amount of individual resources and be aware of the possible uses in various contexts. They can provide realistic examples of what can and can’t be done with it.

4. Authorities continually learn and apply new content in their field of study and challenge not only the beliefs of others in the community, but are willing to reflect and change personal viewpoints as new information emerges. An expert is not static in knowledge.

5. Authorities teach teachers good assignment design when teaching with technology and push for a global voice that people all around the world can hear.

6. Authorities remember paper stays in the classroom as a blog can be read form anywhere.

7.  Authorities know if filtering web content by blocking is the only strategy for protecting students then you’re setting them up for failure in the real world. It’s a scheming world out there and educators have to teach how to navigate it.

Even after it’s all said and done we are left with exhaustion coupled with the anxiety of still having to choose resources to use in the classroom. Stephan Downes helps educators develop a critical eye of information found by way of technology sources. He believes there are no authorities online as there are just too many variables in play for any expert to be fully trusted. As educators we are the end authority as we gather materials. As Stephan says, “This is the most important principle of reading on the internet. You must determine for yourself whether or not something is true.” (Downes, 2005) In order to be a critical evaluator of educational content teachers need to rely on their experience as an educator and have more faith in their own opinion. Educational experience does matter. Whether the out come was positive or negative a lesson can be learned and applied to the next experience. Once we are comfortable with our personal knowledge base then we can expand into trusting others. A lot of trust is built on consistency and accuracy of information. The more consistent a sources is with accuracy it can then become a trusted source. “The main thing is, find the facts. You can check facts. And just ignore the appearances.” (Downes, 2005) Also go and check the source material for further information. Still an individual may need to complete another search to gain further understanding or add to a philosophical background in pedagogy but the information will be verified and the educational approach will carry substance.

There is no sure fire way to ensure the content you choose will be authentic and meet all your needs, nor should it. If there was one resource site that provided a utopian plethora of materials I would be critical of its content and probably not use their resources, unless I found them to be useful, then I might. Ultimately each teacher has to make the final decision as to what materials and resources end up being used. Trust your ability to judge and always check the source. When you take action with critical thinking as your guide you will find valuable resources and your opinion will hold expertise in application. “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” (Eric Hoffer, date unknown)

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