Information Age Education Blog
Attacking “Big” Problems Part 2: Bottom-up Approaches
The previous IAE Blog entry explored top-down approaches to attacking big problems. It illustrated this with the Apollo moon project and the War on Cancer. Both involved large amounts of funding distributed through a central source and coordinated in a top-down manner.
This blog entry considers the use of technology to attack some big problems by using a bottom-up or combined bottom-up and top-down approach. It focuses on improving education.
Technology that Empowers Individual People
The Industrial Revolution was built through the use of technology that enhances and/or supplements the physical capabilities of people and animals. Consider a 150-horsepower car. This car is driven by an engine that is approximately 1,000 “people power.” Petroleum-powered engines—together with supportive infrastructure—empowered individual people, and changed our world.
The Information Age is built on technology that enhances and/or supplements the mental capabilities of people. The Internet and Smart Phones empower individuals. Of course, a huge infrastructure is needed to support this modern technology. A similar statement holds for robots, a technology that enhances and/or supplements both our physical and mental capabilities.
Computers were initially envisioned as tools to rapidly and accurately perform arithmetic calculations. My desktop computer, which is several years old, can do a billion multi-digit calculations per second. Compared to my paper-and-pencil skills, this machine is well over 10 billion times as fast as I am. So, suppose that one of the really big problems facing the world could be solved by an arithmetic calculation requiring a trillion operations, and we needed to solve this problem every day, with no calculation errors. Such a task cannot be accomplished using paper-and-pencil calculation. And yet, this is a routine task in today’s weather forecasting.
Access to Information
The Library of Alexandria was a marvel 2,200 years ago. It contained perhaps 40,000 to 400,000 scrolls. Scrolls vary in length from perhaps one to a hundred modern book pages. The U.S. Library of Congress contains nearly 25 million books.
Consider the educational problem of providing every student easy and quick access to the print, photo, audio recordings, and video recordings stored in the Library of Congress. This would have been impossible even 50 years ago. In 1945, Vannevar Bush proposed the development of a microfiche storage and retrieval machine he called the memex. We did not yet have appropriate (computer-based) technology to provide an adequate solution to the information storage and access problem he posed.
Eventually technology developed to a level that made the Web feasible. As they say, “and the rest is history.” The Internet and the Web exist because of a combination of bottom-up and top-down activities and funding. They empower each individual user—including hundreds of millions of students throughout the world.
The telephone system developed in the 1870s empowered individuals by allowing them to exchange voice information over great distances. Our current system and its easily portable handheld Smart Phones now provides routine communication services, access to the Web, and a number of other tools to individuals. More than a billion smart phones were produced and sold in 2013, and a similar number in 2014.
Big, Important Problems Amenable to Bottom-up Solutions
Here are two important questions:
- What really important “big” problems can be solved in a bottom-up manner by the billions of people who now have good access to the communication, information retrieval, and calculation capabilities provided by Information and Communication Technology?
- What do we want our educational systems to do to prepare students to be responsible, informed, and empowered adult citizens in a world with its steady improvements in technology?
I like to think about the question of “big” problems in terms of who can and should do something about them. Should “they” (governments, large corporations, the world’s most wealthy people) take responsibility for doing something about such problems? Can “we” (ordinary individuals empowered by technology) do something about such problems?
The following subsections provide examples of “big” but quite manageable bottom-up educational problems.
No matter what you teach, some of the tools that empower the bodies and minds of your students are relevant to the content you teach. You, an individual teacher, become the place where “the rubber hits the road” for your students. No matter what the top-down system prescribes and tries to enforce, you have the power to help your students understand the capabilities and limitations of modern technology in learning, understanding, and making effective use of the content that you are teaching.
A good starting point is to ask your students what they know about the combination of the modern technology they personally routinely use and the subject matter you are teaching. This is a good start for you personally to role-model appropriate uses of technology as a teacher. Every day of teaching provides you with opportunities to show how the technology that your students have been learning on their own is important and relevant to what they are learning from you in school.
Take history, for example. Name any important era of history that your students are studying. What roles did technology play in that period of time or those events in history? How might things have been different if our modern communication system had been available at that time? Over the time of recorded history, how have advances in technology empowered some countries, companies, or people more than others? How accurate is the content you are teaching, and how can you and your students make use of the Web to do some fact checking?
When you communicate with your fellow teachers, do you routinely share you personal insights and experiences with technology as an aid to student learning and using what they are learning? Do you routinely work to “keep up” with technological progress that is relevant to you, your students, and your subject matter.
Small Groups of Teachers
“A single conversation across the table with a wise man is worth a month's study of books.” (Chinese proverb.)
I treasure the weekly lunches I have with a small group of my retired College of Education colleagues. Each meeting brings me up-to-date on some local and national gossip and sports, and each meeting also allows me to probe their minds and share my insights into some of the current problems in education. The Chinese proverb quoted above tells the story.
Each teacher is a gold mine of experience and knowledge. It is well within your capabilities to create and maintain a small professional learning community. My guess is that four or five people is an optimal size, as they can sit around a table and carry on a face-to-face conversation in which all can readily participate. If your small community happens to have run out of good ideas to discuss, select one of the IAE blogs that appeals to you and use it for a conversation starter. And, of course, there is nothing wrong with supplementing face-to-face meetings with some online communication.
A Small, Local Unit of Change
Think of a problem that is “big” with respect to a school or part of a school, and that satisfies the four conditions discussed in the previous IAE Blog entry:
• Political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem;
• institutions must support its solution;
• it must really be a technological problem; and
• we must understand it [the problem] (Pontin, 10/4/2014).
Here we have the conditions for approaching a large top-down problem, but we have now scaled the problem down to a manageable local size. I routinely encounter stories about a school that has been “turned around” by small number of concerned people.
Often this can be accomplished with little or no “extra” funding. You have heard the expression, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Pair this with a quote:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead; American cultural anthropologist; 1901-1978.)
A small, local group can now use the Web to draw on the collected experiences of thousands of individual schools that tell the stories of what they have done and what they are doing to turn themselves around. They can involve their members through a combination of traditional small group and large group face-to-face meetings, and through the use of electronic aids to communication. Moreover, a successful project can be shared with the world through use of the Web. Isn’t the Web wonderful?
Technology empowers its users. We now have technologies that allow an individual or a small group of individuals to accomplish tasks that used to require very large groups of workers in a hieratically-structured organization. Our educational system can and should help students to learn to use and make effective use of these new tools.
What You Can Do
Be an experimenter and leader in working with your students to help them get a modern education and in improving your school. Share your ideas and progress through our modern tools for communication.
If you are feeling really feisty, you might try out an idea that I used with students in my freshman Computer Literacy course about 40 years ago. I assigned my students to select one of the courses they were taking and wait until the faculty member asked, “Are there any questions?” At that moment, ask an appropriate version of the question: “How are computers affecting what you have been telling us?” The remainder of the assignment was to write a paragraph on the faculty member’s response. I was quite surprised by the results. One student reported that her faculty member provided an “off the top of his head” response that was 40 minutes in length!
You and you students might be surprised by the Information and Communication technology knowledge and skills that teachers have, but are not integrating into the content of their courses.
Pontin, J. (10/4/2014). Jason Pontin: Can technology solve our big problems? TED Talks. Retrieved 2/6/2015 from http://www.ted.com/talks/jason_pontin_can_technology_solve_our_big_problems?language=en
Suggested Readings from IAE Publications
Moursund, D. (2015). Crowdsourcing to improve education. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/6/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Crowdsourcing_to_Improve_Education.
Moursund, D. (2014). Two brains are better than one. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/6/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One.
Moursund, D. (9/6/2014). Assessing and teaching creative problem solving. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/6/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/creative-problem-solving.html.
Moursund, D. (7/30/2014). A successful community project for improving science education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/6/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/a-successful-community-project-for-improving-science-education.html.
Moursund, D. (7/22/2014). Using Grand Challenges in project-based learning. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/6/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/using-grand-challenges-in-project-based-learning.html.
See the ASCD article:
Chenoweth, K. (2/2/2015). How to do everything right in schools. ASCD In Service. Retrieved 2/7/2015 from http://inservice.ascd.org/how-to-do-everything-right-in-schools/. Quoting from the article:
Contrast this with what Meridith Bang of Mississippi's Pass Christian School district said while principal of the district's high school. With two-thirds of its students on free and reduced lunch, Pass Christian High has had a much higher graduation rate than the state average (89% compared to 76%) . Its impoverished students of color achieve and graduate at the same rate as its white and middle-class students.…
'We are never satisfied with where we are.…We share accolades for our success in one breath and present our plans for improvement in the next breath.'
The following article raises the issue of children's right in the Information Age. I recommend it to people working to effectively integrate routine use of Information and Communication Technology into informal and formal education.
Livingston, S. (2014). Sonia Livingstone: Children's rights in the digital age. Media Policy Project Blog. Retrieved 2/7/2015 from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mediapolicyproject/2015/02/04/sonia-livingstone-childrens-rights-in-the-digital-age/.
Quoting from the article: