The study I am writing up was titled, “Seeds of Possibility: Mentoring K-7 Educators’ ICT Ecology of Cognition”. When I started the research, I assumed my work as an ICT mentor would be focused on helping a teacher candidate learn to use iMovie to teach a lesson on the environment, art, and social justice. Instead, I am finding my research is devoted to mentoring the formation of learning networks, learning networks focused on fostering new cognitive, cultural, and technological dimensions of learning through social interactivity. To be clear, there has been a fundamental conceptual issue at the centre of efforts to bring ICT into education, and, in so doing, transforming education from 19th century curriculum delivery and social stratification, to 21st century knowledge generation through learning networks.
Conventional thinking as been based on a, “Build it, they will come” assumption: if you provide digital resources and infrastructure, teachers will automatically start using these resources in their teaching practice. Once they start using these resources and infrastructure as an integral part of their teaching, they will abandon curriculum- or teacher-centered pedagogy and foster the kinds of emergent, issue-oriented inquiry style of learning (‘authentic’ learning) that is naturally occurring outside the confines of formal educational institutions. This approach grossly misunderstood the complexity of teaching and learning in educational institutions, and the added layer of complexity that is introduced when digital technologies are used in these contexts.
Conceptions of ICT professional development for educators have also missed the real needs of teachers for support to make sense of what it means to use ICT in their professional practice. Conventional ICT professional development has focused on introducing new devices, software applications or infrastructure with an inventory of functionalities divorced from real-world conditions or day to day realities of teaching. How many of us have sat through a presenter working their way methodically across a menu bar, pulling down drop down menus and clicking on buttons and icons? Maybe they even gave us hard-copy print outs of step by step instructions. However, the moment the step by step instructions did not match what we were seeing on our screens we were lost and did not know what to do. I liken the experience to the difference between being able to use Google maps to see where I am on a map and figure out my route by looking at the network of streets available to me, or having the print out of specific directions to get from A to B. In the first case I am able to orient myself, find my position, figure out where I want to go, and make a plan to get there. If I encounter a barrier or difficulty along the way, I can re-group, re-orient, and set off again. In the second case, if I miss an exit, I have no way to know what to do next because my instructions specifically assumed I would not miss that exit.
I am realizing that this problem is not confined to the field of education. Despite massive expenditures and investments to digitize information management systems in government, non-government, business, medical, and educational systems, there has not been a concerted investment in ensuring those who will use these digital technologies are adequately prepared. We know now that the software instruction manual (hard copy) is as good as a doorstop within months of purchasing because a new version of the software has been issued. We know that the ability to problem solve using online help systems also requires cognitive, cultural, and technological skills to simply name, search, and access information. We know that most of our ongoing learning and evolving with digital technologies is actually accomplished through informal learning networks, where leadership and expertise are transitory, distributed to those who know mission-critical information at a given point in time, knowing this expertise is transitory and going to shift to the next most knowledgeable person, as conditions, situations, and purposes change.
My research and scholarship is focused on mentoring the formation of social learning networks, the relational connections that allow us to immediately put out a call for information or help, even when we don’t necessarily know what to call the problem, or the issue, to turn it into a searchable term. In education, my focus is on mentoring the formation of educators’ social learning networks for incorporating ICT into educational practice. Incorporating ICT into educational practice is not limited to learning to use smartphones on field trips for data collection, it also includes teachers using smartphones to build professional learning networks to address the pressing needs of education in an age of standardized tests, 21st century competencies, and notions of generalizable ‘best practices’ in complex learning conditions.
My job is to mentor the formation of learning relationships among learning professionals, professionals whose preparation for digital technologies, participatory learning cultures, network media, and 21st century educational policy have been sorely inadequate.