The Britannica blog is hosting a conversation about Web 2.0 in education, and Steve Hargadon argues that the technologies will make a huge impact on the future or learning while Daniel Willingham says not so fast. Both posts are very well done and provide a measured starting point for the discussion. What I found really interesting though was Willingham’s take on the potential for project based learning in these environments compared to the potentials that we’ve been trying to realize in traditional classrooms. Importantly, I think, he says:

Hargadon is clear-eyed in his list of challenges to making Web 2.0 an important part of K-12 education, but I think he underestimates the seriousness of his third point, “Teachers will need time and training to use these tools in the classroom.”

There has been an enormous push to leverage technology in K-12 education in the last decade. The costs in infrastructure, personnel, training, and ongoing access are difficult to pin down, but conservative estimates are in the billions each year.

Why has technology not revolutionized teaching, but rather been a series of “computer fads,” in Hargadon’s term, and an all-around disappointment?

At least part of the reason is that, despite expenditures, support has been inadequate. For example, support personnel tend not to be specialized, although the technology needs of the English teacher are different than those of the Science teacher. If still more money were spent, would that alleviate the problem? It might solve the technology problem, but the inherent difficulty of executing project-based learning well would remain.

Especially when attempting to infuse project-based learning using Web 2.0 tools. As Willingham points out, project based pedagogies are more complex, require more planning, and aren’t as easily aligned to standards as more traditional teaching methods. Throw in some transformative technologies and…

Unless of course you have teachers who “get” the potentials of the technologies and can draw on their own practice to guide their pedagogy, which I still think is the most important answer we need to find in this conversation. How do we help teachers get to that point where using project-based pedagogies (when appropriate and when more effective than other pedagogies) in Web rich environments is as natural as picking up a piece of chalk?

On that note, I have to agree with one of the commentors on the Willingham post, David Zuckerman:

Proceeding from Shirky’s dictum that, “Social tools don’t create collective action – they merely remove the obstacles to it,” I would argue that Ed2.0 needs to concentrate now on the teachers, not the students, and among the corpus of teachers, focus ONLY on those who want to try to make some change, the “early adapters” if you will. The others, some of them, will follow along in due course or they will not; but the enterprise moves forward on the energy of its best players, not on continued, and boring, Soviet-like efforts to lift everyone at once by dint of big meetings where All Teachers are obligated to come so they can receive some hours of poor teaching practice (being talked at, mostly) in the evident expectation (still!?) that somehow, this experience, the lead, will be transmuted into gold.

A bit harsh, maybe, but to the point. Inherent in that statement and in Willingham’s post is the idea that we have to think differently about how we do professional development. The drive by trainings for every teacher are not the answer. We should be investing in those who do show an appetite for learning, for risk-taking, for reflective practice.

Lots more in those posts to mull over…