Monday, January 21, 2008

When is the time for digital education?

I have been thinking a lot about the following post from Bit by Bit. It is a little longer than my usual post, but well worth the read:

The Time is Now

January 17th, 2008 · 4 Comments

(cross-posted at

Let’s try something fun. Look at the image below and try to guess what I’m trying to express with this “icon”:


Can you tell what it is, what I’m trying to communicate?

Ok. Now, click on this LINK to see the same icon with modifications. Then come on back to finish reading!

Can you now tell what I was trying to communicate? Of course you can. Those two little lines made all the difference in the world, didn’t they? Without them, we’re looking at a shape that has no meaning. With them, we’re looking at a TV.

Now, go find a kid. Ask him or her to draw a television. Chances are, you’re going to see a drawing that includes the antennas. Over my 11 years of teaching, I’ve seen a lot of TVs drawn by children, and guess what? They all have included the antennas.

What’s interesting about this is that we’re talking about children who have never seen a TV in real life that has donned the “Rabbit Ears”. The children I’m talking about are those born into the world of Cable or Satellite dishes. What does this mean? Surely these children have seen the iconic representation of a television with antennas attached. These representations of boxes with lines have been passed down by those of us who know the reality and purpose of TV antennas. A plain box means nothing to us. Add two lines, and we understand: TV. This begs the question: which part of the drawing is most important: the box or the two lines placed on top?

This antiquated icon has not only survived, but is the more successful model to communicate the “idea” of television. According to the Nielson Company, “Rabbit Ears” are still used by 14.3 million households to receive television signals over the air. But for most of us, TV antennas are now just a memory. So, in a sense, we are using a type of fiction to express a truth. Drawing just a box —even though it is closer to the reality of what a TV looks like— is less effective than adding the fiction of antennas, which in reality do not exist. This is like needing to draw unicorns to represent real horses.

On February 17, 2009, full power television stations will switch off their analog signals forever, leaving only digital signals. My understanding is that those of us who have TVs that are analog, and yet receive cable or satellite, at the most will need to purchase a $40 converter box. It will however, completely make the “Rabbit Ears” useless. Extinct.olddaily.jpg

After the “switch-over” I wonder how much longer kids will be drawing TVs with antennas. Perhaps this will be what changes our expression of what TVs look like, how we communicate the idea of TV. Once TV antennas have been completely obliterated, perhaps it will finally seem silly to include those two little lines. Perhaps we will finally surrender our belief that we need their “fiction” to communicate what we mean.

Last week, David Jakes posted an incredible article here at TechLearning which examines reasons why technology has yet to “alter the learning landscape”. The article has haunted me with the truth all week, and one point keeps rising to the top of my thoughts:

“Too many are too comfortable with doing what they’ve always done.”

David ends the article with the call for schools to:

“Get a vision, and get an expectation that having a digital component to student learning is absolutely necessary. Make it part of your culture, and support it relentlessly.”

I completely agree. Until we make it an absolute necessity, it will not be adopted systemically… much like hanging onto analog TV signals while digital has proven to be the more successful approach.

Perhaps we need to set a date for our education to switch entirely over from analog. By this I’m not really talking about the technology. Instead, I refer to the fact that the digital components (or more specifically, 21st Century tools and skills) is treated as add-ons, as optional, as preparation for the future, rather than implemented as necessary for now.

In David’s TechLearning article, he points us to an earlier blog post that he wrote on his own site about the difference between “integration” and “being integral”. His point is that we are still treating technology as something that has to be integrated rather than as an intrinsic part of the curriculum:

“To imply that technology needs to be integrated strongly suggests that it is outside of what the standard skill set is for educators. It’s not. The use of technology in a lesson is no different than the use of a lecture, of structuring the lesson so that students learn collaboratively, or preparing an assessment to gauge understanding. Whether or not to use technology tools in the learning process is a curriculum design question, pure and simple.”

It’s very much like the fiction of placing those two lines on top of the drawing of the box and saying, “There… Now it’s a TV,” when it’s been a TV all along. If we continue to view technology as an extra or outside of the core curriculum, or even as something that should be paid attention to if only because it will be needed for our students’ futures, then we continue to view it as optional. Instead, we need to make it an essential component and that without it, the lesson just can’t happen. That will force us to stop using technology to do “what we’ve always done” but now with a new tool (for example, using PowerPoint to complete a book report), and move up to the higher levels (i.e., Bloom’s Taxonomy) where technology is transforming our experiences, understanding, interactions.

You want to watch TV on February 18, 2009? You better give up those “Rabbit Ears.” You want to teach in the 21st Century? You better give up those 20th century schools.

Ok… see this picture below? It’s a TV.


Get used to it.


UPDATE: (11:58 1/17/08) Tom Fletcher sets me straight on what I got wrong about analog.


Jakes, David. “The Strength of Weak Ties: To Integrate or to be Integral?.” The Strength of Weak Ties. 15 Oct. 2007. 16 Jan. 2008 .

Jakes, David. “Under Construction (Techlearning blog).” | Technology & Learning - The Resource for Education Technology Leaders. 10 Jan. 2008. 16 Jan. 2008 .

“The Associated Press: Retailers Anxious Over Analog TV Cut-Off.” Google. 8 Jan. 2008. 16 Jan. 2008 .


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My first reaction centred on the question of When? I even posted a comment to that effect:

I am intrigued by the idea of setting a date for analog education to be phased out. Wouldn’t that be powerful!

What date would you suggest? 2010? 2015? When American troops withdraw from Iraq? When there is a $200 Mobile Internet Device for Education widely available?

Unfortunately, no one has fashioned a response to this yet. I am wondering what you think. Vicki Davis talked about comments being the lifeblood of her passion for blogging this week. I would love to read your comment about this or the following questions.

Next, I saw that Bob Sprankle edited his post to indicate that he received a comment indicating that he got some of the details a little wrong. However, I think the important point was that most students do not have an antenna on their TVs and yet when asked to create a simple icon for one, would include them.

Finally, my thoughts have turned to the question of What? Specifically, what is digital education? Is it just a construct for those in the "know" about certain technologies? Together with the Why? and How? questions, this is what the so-called edubloggosphere is concerned with.

There is a part of me that rejects the notion of digital education. That education is about thinking, communicating, formulating questions, resolving dissonance, etc. and that this is not changing. Maybe "digital schooling" would be a better moniker. We seem to be in a very unsettling time when web technologies are exploding that could have a positive effect on schools while at the same time, schools have less access, more controls and an unhealthy affection for an anachronistic view of literacy. I spoke with a technology leader in a school board yesterday who thinks that she will not be able to read this blog due to the board's filtering software.

I am thinking about the What? question in these terms, but could use your help.

Digital Education

  • uses digital tools - digital video, digital audio, digital publishing, digital imagery, digital communications, digital maps, etc. (I am thinking about the power of YouTube, Audacity, GoogleDocs, Flickr, Skype, Google Maps Streetview, etc. to allow students to find information, analyze it, and communicate their learning)
  • finds "knowledgeable others" to work with from around the globe. The teacher is but "the first among many" who brings encouragement, feedback, questions, concern etc. to the students
  • helps students develop a personal learning network (PLN). Incidently, PLN is an abbreviation that I am starting to see a lot, but has not yet made it into Wikipedia - there is a good assignment for some students or teachers: create an entry for Personal Learning Networks linked to the entry for PLN to describe this concept as David Warlick and others see it.
  • is provided by teachers who are learners who use digital tools for their professional development, helped by knowledgeable others in their personal learning networks. This is why I think that getting teachers onto RSS is vital and why the work of folks like Will Richardson is so transformative.
All of this is bound up with a frustration that comes from seeing students look to schools less and less as places to learn and more and more as a minimum-security prisons where they put their interests, passions and relevant education "on-hold". What is the date that we are going to set to reverse that trend?


Ross Isenegger said...

From the cross-posting at

A perspective or two:

- when print came into being there is evidence to suggest that it took a generation to be truly accepted - based on computers starting in the early 80s that will mean by 2015+ they will be accepted - can we accelerate that maybe?

- anything technological has always been downplayed/sidelined in academia - it seems to be the nature of academia to discount the effects of technology as "less than education" - I once saw it referred to as "the arrogant rift".

- even though in 1968 McLuhan in one of his more obscure books (Counterblast) wrote the following there are still many who choose to ignore the "traditional heritage" for whatever reason or are seeing it suspiciously maybe?

"The children of technological man respond with untaught delight to the poetry of trains, ships, planes, and to the beauty of machine products.

In the school room officialdom suppresses all their natural experience; children are divorced from their culture. They are not permitted to approach the traditional heritage of mankind through the door of technological awareness; this only possible door for them is slammed in their faces."

- there is a new structure of working being formed due to the web - those who can think outside the box traditional structure are in for a fun time and they are even working for free!

I see computers and the Internet as part of the creativity movement and as a major tipping point in Renaisaance 2.0! I sincerely believe we are going to see real changes and the OLPC project could well turn out to be a key lever for those changes. It has provided a shot in the arm and maybe a wakeup call for those of us who believe in a different view of learning IMHO.

We do live in exciting times!

Geoff Day on Monday, 21 January 2008, 21:06 EST

Anonymous said...

I found an excellent site; it had all the info about the Digital Transition and requesting the $40 coupon. I ordered my 2 coupons from it.

Ross Isenegger said...

For information about the August 31st, 2011 switchover for Canada, see this Canadian government page.

What if we decided to switch education over on the same date?