We are living in an era of dramatic “sea change” in our society. As Seymour Papert wrote in 1993 in the preface to his book, “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School In The Age of The Computer,” two primary trends continue to challenge patterns of behavior and thinking in education. The technological revolution around us, as well as an epistemological revolution (“a revolution in thinking about knowledge”) affect the ways we think about learning and our respective roles in different learning systems: both formally and informally. Nowhere is this changing environment and the challenges it poses to traditional paradigms of education more apparent than in the social networking technologies now connecting people around the globe.

California teacher Marco Torres observed in his keynote address for the MACE conference in March 2007 that historically, teachers have been very geographically limited in their opportunities to be mentored by others. Marco challenged his audience to think about the people who are “Yodas” for their own professional and personal learning growth. While in the past, a teacher had to be blessed to have an educational “Yoda” working next door or across the hall in school, today thanks to interactive technologies it is possible to be mentored and serve as a mentor by and for teachers literally all over our planet. Teachers need to become more aware of these opportunities for positive, constructive social networking with other educators around the world, and join the conversations taking place in multiple virtual venues. The scale of the “sea changes” we face can appear staggering, but challenges can appear less formidible if you have supportive mentors at your side (both literally and virtually) in the 21st century classroom.

Understanding New Tools Of Conversation

Dr. Michael Wesch’s 2006 video, “The Machine is Us/ing Us,” dramatically portrays the dynamic ways in which information is being shared today via increasingly common Internet connections and read/write web technologies.1When all of today’s teachers grew up in the 20th century, their access and the access of their peers as well as teachers to the “means of publication” were sharply limited. Karl Marx wrote famously in the 1800s about the “means of production” and the importance of workers gaining access to and power over those means of production to forge what he envisioned to be a better society. Today, the “means of publication” are literally at the fingertips of every person using a computer and connected to the Internet. We have entered the age of “publication at will,” when people can share their thoughts via text, images, and videos with a global audience with the click of a few buttons.

Putting this type of ideological power in the hands of “the masses” is understandably disruptive, and perceived by many as a negative, threatening development. Standford law professor Dr. Lawrence Lessig pointed out, however, in his September 2005 keynote titled “The Read/Write Society” for the Wizards of OS4 Conference in Germany, that the emergence of citizen participation in the creation of culture is not entirely novel. Instead, it can be seen in some ways as a return to the pre-industrial revolution behaviors of people who tended to create and remix their own culture, on porches and in public venues, rather than turning on the television or radio and passively consuming culture created by someone else. Dr. Lessig observed that in many ways, the 20th century was defined by the read-only nature of predominant communication technologies: The radio and the television. Interactive technologies, like the phone, were “one to one” communication modalities in contrast to the broadcast technologies, which were “one to many.”

We live today in the 21st century, which is characterized by new “read-only” sources of information and culture often more narrowly defined as niche “channels” on television but also available via the Internet. In addition to what Dr. Lessig calls “the new read-only” media of our day, we also see an emerging “read-write” culture which is strongly participatory and very democratic in the access “wired people” enjoy to and within these conversations. Blogs, podcasts and websites like TeacherTube.com are examples of read/write web technologies which permit “one to many” communication at zero opporunity cost, once someone is connected to the Internet using a computer. In the past, communication to a wide audience required thousands of dollars in both equipment, real estate, and spectrum licensing. Today, literally anyone can be a global information publisher.

It is natural for teachers and administrators, who grew up in and lived most of their lives in the “read-only” communications culture of the 20th century, to be fearful and uncomfortable in the rapidly changing information landscape of the 21st century. It is important to take time, in formal as well as informal settings to discuss these changes and the implications they should have for teaching and learning. The Swedish television comedy skit “Introducing the Book” (available on YouTube) humorously depicts the difficult time a literate monk familiar with an older communication technology (the scroll) had with a new communciation technology, a book! Like the patient help desk worker in that video skit, we need to sit down beside our co-workers in education and help them process the changes we see happening all around us in our culture. In our present age of rapid, discontinuous change, it is more important than ever that we take time for sustained CONVERSATIONS about learning, technologies, and the blending of these to meet student needs on a regular basis.

Thankfully, those conversations no longer need to be restricted to brief moments in the teacher’s lounge, quick conversations in the hallway during passing periods, or during the 3:15 to 4:00 pm window after students have left the school building and some teachers remain working in their classrooms. Information technologies and specifically, read/write web communication tools, are enabling conversations to take place around the clock and around the world. Traditional boundaries of space and time are breaking down as educators around the world serve as mentors (virtual “Yodas”) to each other on a volunteer, ongoing basis. These conversations ARE changing the teaching practices of educators, and it is important we extend continuing invitations to more teachers to join these conversations online.

Online Communities Of Practice

The K-12 Online Conference (www.k12onlineconference.org) provides a unique opportunity for educators around the world to engage in a variety of conversations each fall focused on the appropriate use of read/write web (also called web 2.0) tools to inspire learning and facilitate the development of needed literacy skills among learners of many ages. The conference takes place online and is entirely free. Forty presentations as well as a pre-conference keynote address are published to the web for teachers to download and view when convenient. Participants are encouraged to actively comment on the blog of the conference, write and reflect on their own blogs or other read/write web learning spaces, and engage in conversations with other participants as well as presenters in several live events. The 2007 K-12 Online conference is scheduled to be held over two weeks, October 15-19 and October 22-26 of 2007, and will include a preconference keynote during the week of October 8.

An increasing number of online opportunities similar to K-12 Online are now available to teachers, focusing on different topics but all based on the premise that virtual connections to ideas and people can increase access, deepen opportunities for meaningful conversations, and provide for the ongoing development of “professional learning networks” which can support (in a differentiated and “just in time” manner) the learning needs and interests of diverse educators.

The social bookmarking website delicious (http://delicious.com) is a simple but yet remarkably powerful way of forging ideological connections with other educators around the planet. There is inherent value in saving one’s website favorites (or bookmarks) on an Internet server instead of a local computer’s hard drive, since the former condition allows people to access, add to and edit those favories from ANY computer connected to the Internet. The benefits of using a social bookmarking website like del.icio.us extend much further, hower.

The biggest power of social bookmarking is the ability of users to “tag” websites and link to the saved bookmarks of others. “Tagging” is the process of categorizing digital content with different keywords which make sense to the user, and is dramatized well in the previously mentioned video, “The Machine is Us/ing Us.” Traditionally, information and ideas have been organized by “experts” or “elites” who create taxonomies followed and used by “the masses.” The organizational system used by school libraries is an example, as is the scientific classificiation system created by Carl Linnaeus and many others. (The July 2007 issue of National Geographic magazine has a superb article about Linnaeus and his taxonmy ideas.) Instead of categorizing ideas and links with a formal taxonomy, del.icio.us and many other read/write web technologies permit users to dynamically create “folksonomies.” Read more about the term “folksonomy” on the WikiPedia article for this subject (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folksonomy). The dynamic website showing current, popular tags on del.icio.us (http://delicious.com/tag/) is an example of a folksonomy.

Another way to locate the voices of possible “digital Yodas” for your own professional development is to use the free website HitchHikr (www.hitchhikr.com) created by David Warlick. HitchHikr aggregates (collects) blog posts and Flickr images taken by educators (and others) around the world attending conferences and remixing the content they consume there with different read/write web tools. Even if someone is able to travel to a large number of educational conferences around the world, the number of conferences taking place throughout the year is eye opening. No one can attend all these conferences, but in order to glean new ideas from the presenters AND the attendees of these conferences, people do NOT have to attend in person! It is great to attend a conference in person, because the dynamics of the face to face networking as well as the ideas communicated in formal and informal learning settings are qualitatively different when they are in person. That said, however, the fact is MOST educators do not have an opportunity to attend many educational conferences during the year. By accessing the blog reflections of edcuational conference attendees around the world, teachers as well as administrators can continue their professional learning year round irrespective of their local school’s budget for professional development.


The sea changes taking place in our society, economy, and information landscape are amazing to witness. Because we are living in the midst of such sweeping change, it is often challenging to appreciate the actual scope of them. As I have continued to work with educators in the southwestern United States and elsewhere, I have been increasingly convicted that it is CONVERSATIONS which change us. In a short article, in a short conference presentation, or in a short professional development workshop, there are sharp limits to the ideas one can share and consider. In contrast to those limited contexts, the online environment offers relatively unbounded opportunities for conversations and discussions. If you haven’t already, join the conversations taking place online about learning in the 21stcentury. As my friend Karen Montgomery has said in workshops, the message of the character Jack Sparrow in the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” can be applied to teachers as well as pirates. “Those who fall behind, stay behind!” We may not be able to entirely “catch up” to the kids we teach when it comes to digital technologies, but if we engage in regular conversations with each other via read/write web technologies, our changes of not falling TOO FAR behind are a lot better!

Image Citation and Article History

Featured image licensed CC-BY. Faria, R. (2009, May 14). Rss para blog do Rafa feito por mim. Welcome to Flickr – Photo Sharing. Retrieved May 24, 2012, from http://www.flickr.com/photos/rafaelrf/3531293278/

This article was originally published on http://www.wtvi.com/teks/06_07_articles/global-education-conversation.html