Category Archives: Education

A Child Died

I first learned about Nex Benedict’s horrific story from V Spehar of Under the Desk News, one of my main source for news these days. If you haven’t heard the story, Nex, a non-binary 16-year-old student at Owasso High School, who was following state law in Oklahoma and using the bathroom associated with their gender at birth, was assaulted on February 7 in the high school bathroom by three older girls. Early reports suggested Benedict could not walk on their own and was taken to the emergency room by the family. The next day, they were back in the ER, where they died on February 8. The story was reported by local news at the time.

The story has been covered by LGBTQ+ news outlets and organizations in the past couple days and is just now unfolding in the mainstream press (remember, they died February 8!); the police and school district have issued statements with the latter directly contradicting the stories about Benedict’s injuries. Public Radio Tulsa seems to have the most complete story so far and shows respect for Nex’s non-binary orientation, something their own family admits to struggling with as they come under fire for using her deadname as part of a Go Fund Me. The initial report of the detath described Nex as a teenage girl without naming them, but subsequent coverage has leaned towards using they/them pronouns with KJHR directly addressing the issue.

This story will continue to unfold, and there will be further investigations, allegations and denials. But, here’s the essence of the story as I see it:

A child died. That death was at least helped along by other children. And those children may have felt empowered in their actions by the hateful rhetoric of Oklahoma’s leaders. A child, trying to live their best life as they understood it, died, potentially because adults used their power to dehumanize and degrade them. A child died.

Grumpy Old Lady – Part 1

I reviewed several draft blog posts, and they definitely fall under the category of Grumpy Old Lady rants. Some are of them are of the “you didn’t think of that you young whippersnapper” variety. Others, however, are more serious as they take on inaccurate ideas or practices that have become embedded in the culture of edtech and seem impossible to shake. That makes me grumpy because I feel like people doing the work of ed tech should know better and do better.

Case in point: using the term digital native as a factual concept and the basis for using technology with them in the classroom (“the kids are all using it and love it so teachers have to use it to appeal to them”). I was a little surprised to hear it being bandied about during a recent webinar on AI in K-12 education having thought the community retired it some time ago. I tried a little pushback via a question about equity and access, but the bandwagon had already left for the parade, so the commentator badly paraphrased my question and the speakers mostly dismissed it.

In case you missed it, digital natives, in contrast to digital immigrants, was a thought experiment from 2001 proposed by Marc Prensky, who famously, or rather infamously, suggested that young people were not only naturally better with technology but their exposure from an early age had changed them into fundamentally different human beings. The rest of us were digital immigrants who might learn to eventually speak the language but would always have an accent. The article was pretty quickly debunked and continues to be questioned. But, despite that, the concept evidently lingers.

Admittedly, part of the reason it does so, is because it resonated in 2001 as we were making the big shift from analog to digital technologies. It did seem like young people were more comfortable with digital technologies, with the kids often being the ones to program the VCR or set up the printer. In fact, the first Internet provider in Middlesex County where I was teaching built on a bulletin board network set up by two brothers, both in high school. When I asked them to give a presentation during my technology class, they were in front of their old middle school teachers. Prensky’s article in the flesh just a year or two before it was published.

Then, however, I remember the fourth grader who was on a panel with me and some of her classmates in 2012 or so at a regional conference. We wanted to hear from these “digital natives” and talk with them about how they used technology both in and out of school. One young woman, when asked about her use of tech at home, smiled and said, “I don’t use technology when I’m not in school. I like to be doing things outside.”

I also picture my 89-year-old dad editing digital video for his church and using Bard, Google’s AI bot, to write song introductions to use for the parties he leads at the retirement community. He is also teaching others how to use it, excited about this new frontier.

That neat dichotomy starts to get blurier, doesn’t it?

And then there’s me: a denizen of the analog world who seems able to navigate digital technologies with no problem, often in the position of teaching those much younger than I how to use tech professionally and personally to be more effective and efficient. How did I get where I did considering my frighteningly advanced age?

Support and access:

  • a scientist for a father who encouraged exploration and education with gifts of a chemistry set, a model airplane and an early Atari;
  • friends in college willing to show this English major how to access the mainframe computer to type her papers;
  • a quick transition from a typewriter to a desktop computer during my first job out of college; and
  • early access to a personal computer via my prized Tandy 1000.

All this access made me comfortable and ready to tackle the computer in the English department office when I began teaching high school in late 1980s. There were also a few desktops available in the library for student use. We were able to do basic work processing and early desktop publishing via The Print Shop software. In a first attempt at technology integration, I helped my students make reading schedule bookmarks to guide them as we read Romeo and Juliet and Great Expectations together. In 1988, I did my first technology workshop when I taught my colleagues to use FrEDWriter.

But, there needed one final step: I married a computer scientist who had early access to this new thing called the Internet. (That’s only one of the reasons I married him.) I was able to leverage the knowledge I gained via his connections to get a grant to provide access to my middle school students in 1996, just as the World Wide Web as we know it was taking off. Many of my students, living in a rural, lower to middle class community did not have gaming systems much less computers and, of course, not the Internet. It was about five years before Prensky described digital natives with this very age group in mind. Perhaps their children would fit the description, but for now, their lack of access kept them from the digital transformations he imagines.

I am neither native nor immigrant, but someone who was fortunate to have support and access to technology, which allowed me to explore and gain comfort and experience with it, leading to my lifelong pursuit of and passion for learning and teaching about educational technology.

Sadly, what Prensky was really describing was the birth of the digital divide. Students living near Cambridge and Palo Alto were able to get the kind of early access that I had that they could leverage to their benefit. Meanwhile their counterparts in less affluent areas often had to wait until they left home for college or jobs to get similar access, playing catch up in this new digital world.

Digital natives has its appeal as do most such generalizations. They are shorthand for larger concepts, glossing over any complexity or potentially varied perspectives. In the webinar, the speaker did not define or explain the term, using it in a way that assumed not only a shared understanding of the concept but, and this is more important and potentially dangerous, a shared belief in the rightness of the concept. Decisions about everything from curriculum design to technology purchases to professional development are being made based on an inaccurate concept. It is an idea that, in the end, can further widen the digital gap by masking inequities.

Not Everyone is Excited About AI, IBM

I am a tennis fan and have been watching the US Open. IBM is a major sponsor and has several commercials about AI on rotation, including one that begins by stating that people are excited at what AI can do for them. Are they? That Pew data I wrote about last week would suggest otherwise: a lot of people don’t know anything about it and those that do are concerned.

Today, I attended my second university-sponsored AI workshop. It was an interesting conversation with very smart people, but at the end of the day, we simply don’t know what the impact of AI is going to be on teaching, learning as well as life and work in general. And, while IBM and today’s panelists expressed optimism, audience questions during today’s Q & A showed real skepticism about this technology. The biggest concern seemed to echo Jonathan Zimmerman’s recent Washington Post editorial: struggling with assignments is what learning is all about. The bot doesn’t just create your product; it does your thinking for you.

From the panelists, there was talk of transforming the curriculum to take advantage of AI and creating AI-aware assignments. Meanwhile, an audience member who was an arts professor expressed fear at what will be lost as AI moves into the fields of visual and musical arts. The answer–that different kinds of jobs will be created for those that are lost–was not reassuring.

Bottom line message: AI is here and, unlike previous technologies, cannot be banned or ignored.

Back to Building the Plane

In a recent email, a colleague at the university where I teach called Artificial Intelligence the wild west. It reminds me of the early days of the Internet in schools, something I was fortunate to participate in as both teacher and professional developer.

Tonight, as I begin my ninth year teaching a graduate-level school technology course for budding administrators, I will be showing a video that I used to show in workshops during the early years of the Internet but haven’t shown for a long time. After nearly three decades, we have gotten comfortable with the Internet as a part of our lives in the classroom. In fact, these younger educators may have little or no memory of a time when they, both as students and now teachers, didn’t start the day by logging on.

But, AI is challenging that comfortable complacency, with schools scrambling to develop policies around what I think really may be the technology the forces educators to reconsider how they teach. The Walla Walla Public Schools are a good example of how schools often approach new technologies. They blocked ChatGPT last spring but are now embracing it for both teachers and students. The article is worth a read as it covers the issues related to cheating and bias The school district ultimately believes it is their responsibility to help their students grapple what is quickly becoming a ubiquitous technology:

“We’re fostering 21st century learners and we’d be doing them an injustice if we didn’t educate ourselves to therefore educate them on how to use it responsibly,” LaRoy said. “This is the world they’re going to go into. We really felt like there was no other option than to jump on this and embrace it.”

Walla Walla Union Bulletin, Loren Kykendall, April 15, 2023

It feels like the early days of the Internet but with a larger sense of urgency. We’re building that plane while we are flying it.*

*The commercial was for a company called Electronic Data Systems. I was surprised to discover that it was founded the year I was born by none other than Ross Perot! Thanks, Wikipedia.