Curriculum 21: Another Look at 5 Socio-Technology Trends

File Jul 05, 10 05 18 AMCurriculum 21 by Heidi Hayes Jacobs is now six years old, but I am reading it now for my Curriculum Design and Analysis graduate course at GSU. Despite my reservations about using this dated text from an author who herself states, “every textbook in every school that’s in paper is dated,” the book does still offer some good points worth revisiting even now.

In chapter five, “Five Socio-Technology Trends That Change Everything in Learning and Teaching,” Stephen Wilmarth argues that rapid communication and information technology create a more intimate and more connected world. In 2016, this is old news. In the face of this, educators should ask, “What does it mean to be educated in 21st century?”  Although he doesn’t address the question fully, he shares five technology trends that impact how one is educated in the 21st century. The trends are

  • Social Production
  • Social Networks
  • Sematic Web
  • Media Grids
  • The New Zoo of Nonlinear Learning

By Brooke, John Warwick (Lieutenant) (Photographer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Brooke, John Warwick (Lieutenant) (Photographer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The list is an odd mix, and for most teachers in 2010, the last three trends would have been mostly invisible. In 2010, I was a classroom teacher in the trenches, and when in the trenches, it is difficult to find the time to get one’s head above ground, view the battlefield, and strategize. Perhaps this is why only social production and social networks are familiar whereas the last three seem obscure. Six years later, it’s still a good time to crawl out and see the horizon.

So what did Wilmarth say in 2010, and where do we stand now?

Social Production

Here, he argues that because the price to publish content is cheap, there is a rise of amateur producers, writers, and artists. Not only is this still true, but companies are now identifying and marketing successful amateurs. Supporting this is a participatory culture that is comfortable sharing, remixing, and commenting on content. Then and now, amateurs learn by doing. What’s changed is inexperienced producers can join networks to ask questions and receive guidance from professionals. For instance, the New York Times’ article on Minecraft noted how young students frequently receive help on FAQ boards. These connections between amateurs and professionals flow into the next trend:

Social Networks

In 2010, Wilmarth wrote, “The power of social media and networking technologies to teach is perhaps the least leveraged technology in formal education systems today” (85). Although individual teachers and schools are changing this, his statement is largely true today.

Social networks emphasize relationships over specific technologies, and six years later, the reverse is unfortunately more common. Teachers promote and share the specific software or hardware more frequently than the relationships it builds and supports. For evidence, check Twitter to see how many teachers post using a hashtag promoted by the ed-tech company. Or, consider the numerous company-endorsed certifications teachers can collect: Google Certified Teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator, Remind Connected Educator, TackkEDU Advocate, Plickers Ambassador, Nearpod Pioneer, Amazon Education Teacher Innovator, Edmodo Certified Trainer…

21 - tech cert

These certifications inherently are not bad, and they recognize teachers’ expertise and effort. The problem is that these brand-specific recognitions create affiliations between teachers and technology companies and not among teachers themselves.

Furthermore, learning management systems close networks, and and individual apps require registration. Student submit behind these walls, so even if students are building electronic portfolios, their work is not open. When the student leaves the LMS, the work stays within the system and not with the student. Maybe MicrosoftEDU will use its recently acquired LinkedIn network to change this, but that alternative still relies on corporations.  Wilmarth asserts larger and more complex networks result in more learning. Closed systems and allegiances to specific software and hardware simply networks.

File Jul 05, 10 14 36 AM

Both social production and social networks are easily understood, but “Semantic Web” may prevent some from reading on.

Please do, read on. The first two trends discuss how technology changes how we learn and how we should teach. These last three show how our relationship to knowledge is changing because of technology and uses a seemingly futuristic example to challenge us to answer what students need to know in the 21st century.

A Semantic Web

By Arbeck (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Wilmarth never quite defines what “a semantic Web” is in the same level of specificity as the previous two trends. It “will become the model for learning to know” and “the protocols of which are just emerging” (88). And whatever it is, it “will dramatically transform our relationship to new knowledge… Indeed, a semantic Web will be unlike anything we have experienced before” (88).

Perhaps we will know it when we see it.

But maybe not, as he continues

A semantic Web means many things to different people, because it has lots of pieces. To some, a sematic Web is the web of data…. Others think that a sematic Web is about Web services – applications…. For many others, it is about artificial intelligence….(90).

Despite never actually identifying what exactly this Web is, he touches on three trends very much in our minds in 2016: data analytics, the Internet of Things, and AI. Each of these creates a product or service that is greater than the sum of its parts. In 2010, Wilmarth used Photosynth to make this argument: “the ability to reconstruct a scene or an object from a bunch of two-dimensional photographs”(90). This technology should force educators to rethink how we value individual facts.

Wilmarth ends the section by putting the burden to define the semantic Web on teachers: “Educators will redefine this potential in terms of student value – whatever the sematic Web is, it needs to have simple and tangible applications for learning and teaching” (90).

Good luck, right?

But the implications for teaching may not be so foreign. Essentially the semantic Web is a system of information that is “tagged, described, and defined,” and students use this information to build scenarios and systems (88).

Media Grids

Screenshot showing graphics from PlayStation Home for the PlayStation 3

Media Grids are “three-dimensional representations of space using computing power and the Internet” (90). His argument from 2010 is that these connected, digital spaces provide alternative environments in which learning can happen. The text focuses on three specific applications: massive-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG, like World of Warcraft), virtual words (Second Life), and virtual reality. The future of Media Grids, he posits, is that virtual social interactions will become nearly indistinguishable from real social interactions (93). Unfortunately, in 2010, this was precisely what many feared.

Yet to focus on Wilmarth’s hyperbolic (and probably true) statement is to miss an opportunity. Media Grids can offer scenarios for students to play and to practice: “Game scenarios can branch, so content is no longer confined to linear structures….experiential learning engages the mind and teaches learners to do and to be” (91).

In 2016, virtual reality is now a reality and will soon become a tool for classrooms. Two years old, Google Cardboard invites students into distant places, and teachers use these digital field trips to spark interest and engagement. But the potential must not stop with mere exposure.

Instead, we should consider how to use these digital spaces and immersive environments to create scenarios that build global awareness and empathy. Game designers are already building games that help players understand how others live, from games that explore depression, being homeless, or recently, living with cancer.

Within the realm of virtual reality, Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has several projects using VR to build empathy: “Previous studies, including our own work using virtual reality to teach empathy toward those with disabilities, with different skin color, with different economic goals, and from different age groups.” The studies have shortcomings, but the potential is there.

In 2010, the question was how do Media Grids change what it means to be educated in the 21 century?

The question in 2016 is three-fold:

  • What kinds of scenarios can and should students experience?
  • How can teachers guide students through the process of exploring, questioning, and analyzing these scenarios to apply them to their lives?
  • What skills must students have to build their own scenarios?

The New Zoo of Nonlinear Learning

This trend should make you hum the Sesame Street song “One of These Things…” and for good reason. In 2016 when learning to code in different programming languages is so ubiquitous it makes Presidential Candidate Hilary Clinton’s technology initiative, it is almost jarring to read Wilmarth here

And out of this understanding comes a new code that we are just learning to work with: the four letters representing the base elements of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) – A, C, T, and G.

And when he says, “This new science will change everything about our understanding of knowledge creation” it sounds hyperbolic (93).

In 2010, biotechnology was – okay, it still is – exciting and promising. In 2008, Japanese scientists created the first DNA molecule made almost entirely of artificial parts. In 2009, the U.S. Congress freed up federal funding for broader embryonic stem cell research. And in 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute create the first synthetic cell. No wonder Wilmarth is thinking back to science rock-star Freeman Dyson’s 2005 article from the MIT Technology Review “The Darwinian Interlude.”

Wilmarth shares just enough of Dyson’s article to “send shivers down the spines of Luddites and futurists alike” only to conclude that this technology “should give all those concerned with the direction of learning and teaching pause for thought. Deep thought, and deeper questions” (94).

In 2010, Wilmarth seems to use this trend more symbolically than pragmatically as if to say, “Here is one reason educators need to rethink learning.” Biotechnology was the vehicle and not the message itself.

However, in 2016, we should reconsider the importance of biotechnology and not just because July 5 will mark the 20th anniversary of Dolly the Sheep.

Last week’s episode of On the Media featured two stories on biotechnology: the gene-altering technology CRISPR and cloning, via BBC America’s science fiction show Orphan Black. While the topic was science, the issues were of openness within the science community, transparency in research and labs, ethics of cloning, and patenting genes.  In the interview with CRISPR innovator Kevin Esvelt, host Brooke Gladstone asks about the delicate balance between an educated and engaged public and the fear that the more people know about CRISPR and tinker with it, the greater the risk. Esvelt acknowledge some risk but still values opening research up to criticism: “It would be foolish to dismiss concerns simply because one does not have a degree.” Yet, there’s a difference between not having a degree and lacking the basic information to understand the science. To return to Wilmarth, now is the time to not just learn the language of A, C, T, and G, but to think deeply about science and the ethical, political, and social implications of the choices we make and allow scientists to make for us.

Where to go from here?

Wilmarth ends the chapter emphasizing the need to move from hierarchical relationships between students and teachers and linear curriculum models to more horizontal relationships and nonlinear learning. He states, “As educators, we have a responsibility and a role to play in determining how we respond to the technology trends and social adaptations underway” (95).

But this is a plan to be reactionary.

Educators must influence how communication and information technology and social networks are developed and used.

We must not only acknowledge the existence of these technology trends but we must influence them so that they sustain an ethical, equal, and responsible society.

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