It's possible that there is no time in the history of education when our systems of educating have been so out of touch with the communities. Growing populations, shifting communities, and increasingly inwardly-focused schools all play a role. In light of the access of modern technology, social media, and new learning models that reconfigure the time and place in which learning happens, it doesn't have to be that way. Schools can evolve while simultaneously growing closer to the people they serve.
First, for the purpose of this post, let's think of technology and social media as distinct.
Technology has many forms, but it is most visible in education by way of computing hardware and software. The hardware is pretty obvious -- personal computers, Macs, tablets, Chromebooks, smartphones, graphing calculators, and the like.
The software is a bit more inconspicuous because it's embedded in the hardware. Here we have fundamental PC software like Microsoft Windows or Mac OS; we have productivity suites like Microsoft Office; we have Web browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox; and we have niche programs like reading assessment tools or educational games, which function like what we'd now consider computer-based apps.
There are also less visible forms of technology that make teaching and learning with technology possible, including electricity (you take it for granted until it doesn't work), WiFi (imagine your classroom looking like it does behind your television -- wires everywhere), the cloud (which enables mobile learning, hardware sharing, flipped classrooms, and other advances), and more. Each of these technology tools is critical in its own way, and they work together to make whatever we'd define as a "modern classroom" work.
But hidden within this list is one bit of seemingly dated software that can be concept-mapped on its own in a million other directions of possibility. No one finds it very exciting any more, but it still makes the Internet go. It's the Web browser.
Technology Gift #1: Social Media
Although itself just a program that translates HTML code into visual information, the modern Web browser has become a vessel that everything else attaches to. For schools looking to connect with communities, the browser also actuates social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, and allows for the blogging or site updates that keep parents informed.
None of this is new, really. The technology has been there for years. Parents have always been "informed" -- but informed of what? That's where there's potential: what we're communicating as educators, when, and why.
So what can social media do?
Solicit Mentoring Relationships
Whether organized by a district, school, teacher, family, or the students themselves, connecting with potential mentors through social media is compelling because:
- It's public, transparent and safer than the phrase "social media" sounds.
- The fact that it's public can encourage companies to respond in ways that they might not respond in private.
Connecting students to the artists, architects, engineers, makers, writers, farmers, cooks, and other "roles" for the purpose of mentoring and apprenticeship is one way to begin repairing the disconnect between schools and communities.
Connect with Community Leaders
This one is closely related to the idea of "mentoring" in the sense that it connects students with people from their community, outside of the classroom. But rather than mentoring, this type of connection could be less involved. It could be topical but authentic communication between those leading the community and those living in it. Social media is the perfect way to make that happen.
Anonymously (or Non-Anonymously) Share Schoolwork
Want student work to leave the classroom? Use social media to publish it for the world. Worried about privacy? Assign students anonymous codes or avatars to publish under. Use closed communities (Google+ communities, for example) that, while not fully open, are still school-wide. There are ways.
Curate Cultural Artifacts and "Local Memory"
Today, museums do the work of "curating," but that's a crude way to preserve the cultural artifacts that matter. Why can't schools do this? And why can't technology be used to streamline and crowdsource it?
Technology Gift #2: Learning Models
In addition to connecting with the worlds students live and breathe in, new learning models afforded by technology are also useful in reconnecting with families, neighborhoods, and native places that students love.
The flipped classroom is one way to exchange the places where learning happens, or at least what kind of learning happens there. In this model, the roles are reversed -- students are exposed to content at home, and they practice it at school.
Mobile learning is a brilliant way to immerse students in native places and landscapes. The challenge here is that education isn't quite ready for it, but if you can make this work, look out! This model promises deep integration of learning, place, and people.
As in mobile learning, this model of education is based on place and not an indexed set of nationalized curriculum. It's authentic, familiar, and personal.
Project-based learning can incorporate all of the above -- flipped classrooms, place-based learning, mobile learning, and so on. The idea is that teaching and learning are anchored through the process of authentic projects constructed over time. The "reason" or "need to know" for these projects will ideally both start and finish in communities.
Experiential or Scenario-Based Learning
Treat the school like a think tank. Explore and address local community issues. Use social media to connect with families, neighborhoods, businesses, and organizations, and then use problem-based or scenario-based learning to go deeper.
Technology, so far, hasn't healed the disconnect between schools and communities, but that could be because we're selling it short for what it can do -- which might start with not fully seeing its potential. Whether you're talking about hardware, software, social media, or something in between, more than anything else, technology connects. As educators, we just need to be intentional about what we're connecting, and why.