Tools for Learning

There are lots (LOTS!) of educator tool roundups.  Here is a great slide deck with the top 100 tools of 2014:

Interestingly, Twitter retained it’s rank at #1 from last year, and Google Docs kept up at #2. Although I am fully aware that there are many people who get more out of Twitter than I do, it seems to me that, when compared to the impact that Google has had on teaching and learning, Twitter pales in comparison.  Google Docs have become the way that I take notes, collaborate with colleagues and friends, publish to the web, manage forms, calculate spreadsheets, store database information, and write custon scripts.  More and more schools turn to Google Apps because they are free tools that also happen to be the most effective at what they do. It’s as if someone offered you the choice between a free, new BMW and a old beat up Honda station wagon that will cost you $1000.  It’s not much of a choice.  Unless you live in China, you take the BMW, hit the gas, and then realize that you have a powerful car that you need to learn to drive properly.

But although I may sound like a Google fanboy, I think Twitter is a game changer as well.  On the surface, it doesn’t seem that significant: a space where people can send 140 character messages and follow hashtags.  Although counterfactuals are impossible to prove, my hunch is that if Twitter appeared on the scene right now it wouldn’t make a huge spash.  What makes Twitter powerful is the community behind it.  Twitter is not a great tool for old politicians who embarrass themselves with it, but it is fantastic for tech-savy teachers and young political activists who are able to decentralize information sharing. One of the best documentary films I’ve seen recently was The Green Wave, a film that documented the 2009 uprising in Iran when thousands of young people demanded the departure of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The film itself followed the story of the protesters through their tweets and photos posted.

Overall, though, I think that modern digital tools broadly fall into a few groups. First, you have the tools that have allowed unparalleled creation of content.  Second, you have platforms that allow interested people to browse, search, find and share that content.  Finally, you have spaces online that allow people to come together, share, network, socialize, and learn from one another.  For the sake of brevity in this blog post, I’m going to stick to the first category.

For most of human history, technology has been used to empower the few; now it is rapidly reaching a majority of humankind.  Even though, as COETAILer Merilyn notes, the majority of the world still does not have access to internet, this number is rapidly diminishing.  What’s more, as Thomas Friedman notes, the world is flatter today than it has at any time in history (perhaps with the exception of the equality of Neolithic technology).  Today, there are free or cheap tools to create virtually any sort of content:

  • Diaries – It’s a little bizarre to think about, but the pre-internet equivalent of Social Media sites were simple diaries.  That was it.  Suddenly the ability of tools like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, MySpace and Friendster (remember Friendster?) to share diary entries easily with others took an activity that used to be the purview of kids with crushes and folks who loved writing and turned it into one of the most common international pastimes.
  • News – Although many of us feel saddened by the continuing decline of print journalism, it’s hard not to be excited about the ability of people all over the world to contribute to a spectacular moment of amateur journalism.  The technology that made it possible was the CMS, or Content Management System.  When tools like WordPress, Blogger, SquareSpace, Wix, Weebly, Google Sites and others hit the scene it allowed users to focus much more on content creation rather than technical details.  Suddenly the challenge was not to get accepted into a major news publisher but to get the attention of people around you.  In an era where information and news is cheap and ubiquitous, time and attention are the scarce commodities.
  • Books – Less talked about by educators, but also significant, is the revolution rippling through the book publishing world.  Led by Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and iTunes, it is now easier than ever to publish a book (whether electronically or in print).  My aunt and uncle are retired and go on trips around the world a few times a year; every trip they take their pictures and compile them into a hardcover book that they have printed and give to their friends.  Authors around the world have started selling their first books for $1 or so to get people reading their work, then increasing the price for their sequel. Although I haven’t seen it yet, hopefully schools will soon join the party and have students producing original books, short stories or otherwise, that can be distributed or sold on Amazon and iTunes.
  • Music – Although most decent audio tools are still (relatively) expensive, I know many young musicians who have a home studio that consists of a MacBook, some microphones, amps, and a mixing board.  What’s more, these studios can often rival the power of professional studios from 30 years ago.  One of the effects of the increase in music recording is the increase in music free for distribution, either on band websites or on shared spaces like jamendo. In many ways, this is returning music back to it’s state 100 years ago when recorded music and radio served more to promote a band’s live performances than to make money on their own.
  • Video – The main difference in the creation and distribution of videos is, in a word, YouTube.  As the largest repository of videos in the world, YouTube has changed how people socialize, learn, create, and play.  A few years ago, friends and I would crowd together around a laptop to poach the unprotected wireless signal of our neighbors and watch a funny new video on YouTube.  While most people who watch YouTube videos do not upload their own, I think that is changing.  I would be surprised if the majority of students who graduate in the next few years did NOT have any videos posted to YouTube or Vimeo. As Larry Lessig pointed out in 2007, YouTube and the participatory culture that it fosters may be our best hope for returning to a more dynamic, participatory culture that John Phillip Souza yearned for.