Monday, November 15, 2010

Transformative Technology: Lessons from Africa

I recently had the privilege of attending TEDx Flint at Kettering University. This event was led by Kevin Simpson, a 1994 graduate of Carmen-Ainsworth High School. Thanks to Kevin, an educational consultant, and many other visionaries from the Flint area, this event proved to be both relevant and exciting. The theme F.L.I.N.T. (Focus, Learn, Innovate, Nurture, Transform) was threaded into every speaker's message.

Sixteen speakers took the stage at the McKinnon Theater on the Kettering campus and had 18 minutes to inspire us through pictures, videos, demonstrations, and most of all their words. One speaker that stood out was Dr. Steve Livingston, head professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. Dr. Livingston is originally from Flint and talked about transformative technology. His message focused on how his work across the globe with mobile technology and how it has transformed remote villages in Africa. He discussed how mobile technology allows them to warn one another of active volcanoes, order more mosquito nets if their stock is running low, and share stories of dangerous animals prowling inside their villages. Technology, according to Dr. Livingston, is not just another cool piece of equipment for the villagers. The mobile phones are transforming how people live, but most importantly, helping them live longer.

The technology has a purpose!

What amazed me about this presentation wasn't so much the pictures of villagers dressed in paint and head dresses holding mobile phones in the air, though the pictures did grab my attention, what amazed me was the fact that the villagers welcomed Dr. Livingston into their remote community, had the mindset to accept new technology, and have found ways of using it that are purposeful.

After hearing this astonishing presentation, I am challenging all educational leaders across the state, including myself, and asking, if tribes in Africa can transform and adapt to today's challenges, why can't we?

The villagers took three steps towards a transformation that we can all learn from.

Listen to positive deviants:
Positive deviance is often times frowned upon from organizations and is many times taboo in public education. A positive deviant can be described as a person that holds an idea or a belief that may not match the organizations or may go against what has always been status quo. The villagers allowed a man that looked different from them to enter their villages and listened to what he had to offer. By using the mobile phones and taking a risk, they opened their eyes and ultimately opened their minds to something new and innovative. Educators are often guilty of keeping the positive deviant out of decision making opportunities and often times will try to portray the positive deviant as the "crazy" employee. If we are going to transform our schools to match the rigor and relevance that our global society has to offer, we must let the positive deviants into the village.

Accept the new technology and put it in the hands of the end user:
The villagers could have easily shunned Dr. Livingston and sent him packing with his mobile phones. What they did, however, is exactly what any teacher or student would do if given the opportunity. They played with the new gadget, were curious about its applications, and showed others how to use it. Dr. Livingston showed a number of pictures but what stuck out for me was the fact that the tools were in the villagers' hands, not his. Too often our classrooms are equipped with the newest and greatest tool but it never reaches the end user, our students. The first step is getting these new tools in the classrooms, the most important step,however, is to allow the very people that are expected to do the learning have the opportunity to use the learning tool. A lecture using Powerpoint is still a lecture and a math problem written on an interactive whiteboard is a very expensive piece of chalk. If we are going to transform our schools into environments where kids own their learning, then place the tools in the villagers' hands.

Make learning purposeful:
Once positive deviants are heard and the tools are in the hands of the learner, make the learning purposeful. The key to Dr. Livingston's work is how the villagers themselves defined the purpose of the new tools. If Dr. Livingston brought the mobile phones into the villages and limited their use by setting policies on how and when they can use them, then true transformation would not have taken place. It was the villagers' creativity that allowed for true transformation to take place, not Dr. Livingston's experience and knowledge of mobile technology. While his training and knowledge helped, it was his ability to stand back and allow the villagers themselves figure out what purpose do the new tools serve within their community. Education is often prescribed by adults and delivered in one stagnate way. Allowing students to connect a purpose to their learning often serves as a natural motivator for them to be creative and to learn. If we are going to transform our schools into villages with a purpose, then we must allow the villagers to ask, "why are we using these tools and how can they better our education."
These questions should not be answered by teachers or administrators, but rather answered by the students themselves as they experiment with technology and are allowed to define their own purpose.

Three steps - Encourage positive deviance, place the tools in the students' hands, and make learning purposeful. If a remote village in Africa can do it...

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