"Technology in schools should be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible"
AKA Chris Lehmann
Principal, Science Leadership Academy (Philadelphia)
These words were part of the last presentation that all 18,000 or so of us at ISTE 2011 attended, the final keynote. Judging from the amount of tweeting Chris' keynote (and this line in particular) generated, the presentation was very impactful. For me personally, I think it was a really great way to conceptualize a framework for all that I had learned over the last 4 days, and really all that I have learned in the area of EdTech over the last couple of years.
At ISTE, a conference devoted to technology in education, the technology did, ironically enough, feel invisible. Ideas were flying hard and fast, in both sessions and in the hallways. I heard over and over, as someone would take out their iPad (which apparently EVERYONE has!), "here, let me show you…"
It wasn’t a big deal.
It wasn’t like "oohhh, look at the whiz bang effects!"
Rather, it was with the understanding that this is a tool like anything else, with the goal being to advance the level of learning.
As I walked through the cavernous Philadelphia Convention Center, I was struck by the fact that networks were being developed and strengthened in real time, right before my eyes. And again, the technology that helped enhance those networks wasn’t being touted as the main thing here. It was, like the wifi, invisible. One of the most powerful experiences for me at this conference was meeting members of my PLN (Personal Learning Network) in person. These are educators from around the world that I have connected with over the last 15 months or so, primarily via Twitter. My PLN is another example of technology being invisible while having the power to create connections in ways that would be impossible before. While it was a little intimidating to walk over to some of these EdTech "Rock Stars" with their thousands of twitter followers, I found them to be exceedingly humble, and genuinely interested in sharing and learning. These were not online "personalities" using social media to promote a brand, these were first class educators who have recognized how vital the process of sharing is to improving education. As Joan Young wrote on her blog
"My most favorite part of the conference has been meeting people that I have learned with, collaborated with, shared deep conversations with through Twitter, blogging, online conferences and Skype sessions."
See this post by Tom Whitby for another take on this new element of connection that social media has added to conferences like ISTE.
While my connections with members of my PLN have admittedly not been as deep as Joan's, meeting people like George Couros, Michelle Baldwin, Lynn Hilt, Tom Whitby, Kyle Pace, Beth Still, Adam Bellows, Mary Beth Hertz, Eric Sheninger, Scott Newcomb, and Josh Stumpenhorst, in person, has given me the resolve to communicate and share on a closer level in the future. Meeting these people and seeing their genuine desire to grow firsthand has also given me the confidence to share more with them, and not just simply benefit from the incredible array of resources they tweet out and blog about on a daily basis. On the Jewish Ed side of the coin, it was great to see Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, Eliezer Jones, Caren Levine, Eli Kannai, and to meet Adam Simon, Dave Weinberg, Rivky Krestt, Debbie Harris, and others.
Looking at the tweets of others from the conference, I can see that many people have come away inspired by meeting up in person with members of their PLN, but I think as a Jewish educator, I have a bit of a unique perspective that I can share. Within the world of Jewish day schools, educators tend to form networks based on shared affiliations, which is a wonderful thing. My sense, however (and I may be wrong), is that we Jewish educators tend to turn to others within our affiliate network to the exclusion of those educators in different settings. If you are a consumer of the "Mainstream Media," you would get the impression that many if not all public school are abject failures, and that the system is broken beyond repair. Perhaps this bad rap has been the reason that many of us in the world of Jewish education have not reached out to those in public school world. Or perhaps we simply did not have a vehicle to make such connections, or it could be something as simple as the very human tendency to associate with those who we are already comfortable with and know. I think that having colleagues that work at schools similar to ours is vitally important. After all, we share many of the same issues and challenges. However, I also think that we miss out on something very important when we turn inward exclusively. There is a tendency to share the same old ideas - if it worked in Day School A, let's try it in Day School B. Or if there is an issue that needs to be addressed, we may feel the need to reinvent the wheel because none of our fellow schools have dealt with this before, and we may overlook the fact that solutions exist.
In my mind, the power of the PLN for Jewish educators is that it opens up our network in a huge way, allowing us to interact with really excellent, thoughtful educators doing great things around the world. I have connected with, primarily through Twitter (and subsequently reading their blog posts), educators in public schools, independent schools, and all types of Jewish schools. I have learned so many new things just by seeing resources that get shared, and my PLN is a reliable source of support and advice when I have questions. I cannot encourage your enough to get on Twitter and start exploring the world of educators that are on there. The names that I listed above are some great people to start with (here is a link to my PLN Starter Kit, a list with all of their twitter names ). On the Jewish Education front, search for #JED21 on twitter, and you will see many amazing educators tweeting their ideas and visions for the future of Jewish Education, or check out this list, my JED21 PLN Starter Kit. And of course, please say hello to me so we can connect and share: twitter.com/dovemerson.
A final thought in the realm of expanding our networks: I really have to commend Avi Chai for understanding the importance of this concept. I consider myself a pretty tech/EdTech savvy guy, but I have to admit, before about 3 months ago, I didn't even know that there was such a thing as an ISTE conference. Avi Chai got the word out, and sponsored a group of 10 Jewish Educators from North America to attend ISTE. I am grateful to them not only for selecting me to attend, but moreover, for recognizing the power of what can happen when you bring Jewish educators from different backgrounds, schools, and communities together. Many of the fellow Avi Chai attendees were people I would probably not encounter in my usual local network of Jewish educators from similar types of schools. Going to the conference with this group, especially sitting in evening sessions with them and reflecting on what we learned that day, added an entirely new and very powerful layer to this conference. In the summer of 2008 I had the privilege of attending the Harvard Graduate School of Education program for principals, with a group also sponsored by Avi Chai, and I had a similar experience of engaging Jewish educators from outside my 'traditional' network. I sincerely thank Avi Chai for having the wisdom to bring Jewish educators together, and especially for following this model of assembling a Jewish Educator "team" to attend a larger conference like ISTE together.