James Bosco on Using Digital Media to Bring Change to Schools

 
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Photo/Kathy Cassidy.

10.1.13 | James Bosco is a professor emeritus at Western Michigan University. Recently he was the principal investigator of a Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) Project supported by the MacArthur Foundation titled, “Participatory Learning in Schools: Policy and Leadership.”

This post is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning (DML) has changed over time, and where it’s headed.

Spotlight: You’ve been involved in digital technology and education forever. Do you see anything different happening now than when you were first trying to get computers in schools?

James Bosco: I was involved with the earliest efforts to bring computers and the internet into our schools in Michigan. In the early ‘80s there was lots of talk about how the microcomputer revolution was going to transform schools. Then it was going to be the web, then one-to-one laptops. The story was fairly similar in each of these iterations, in that there were more promises made than kept.

Are you saying nothing has changed?

There were changes, but computers were not generally “game changers.” They weren’t transformative for our K-12 schools. The idea was that if we put the devices in schools, they would be a catalyst and good things would happen because the computers were there. With some notable exceptions, what happened was that we put the technology in schools and schools continued doing fundamentally the same things, but using computers to do it.

That must have been frustrating.

The big rallying cry of the computer advocates was “We have to integrate computers—digital media—into schools!” And I would say, “No, that is exactly what we don’t want to do. We don’t want to integrate computers into schools.” If I’m a computer salesman that’s what my pitch would be, because my job is to sell computers. I’d say, “Here, use this new thing and go on doing what you’ve been doing before. I’m not going to challenge you.” But then the only change is instead of using a broom, you’re using vacuum cleaner. Either way, you’re still just cleaning the floor.

Of integrating computers in schools: the only change is instead of using a broom, you’re using vacuum cleaner. Either way, you’re still just cleaning the floor.

– James Bosco

How did that go over?

Well I did irritate lots of people, but I just kept saying, “No, we want fundamental change in how we think about teaching.” It is not going from version 1.0 to 1.1. It is going from version 1.0 to 2.0. That has been the essence of my work from the early ‘80s to the present.

A lot of work in DML has been focused on learning that happens outside of schools. Did you ever think about just giving up on formal schooling?

I didn’t want to give up on schools. There were times when the devil would say to me, “Jim, it ain’t gonna happen in schools. Look elsewhere.” Yet, there seems to me something profoundly wrong with that idea that digital media is going to make an impact on kids’ lives everywhere except the place where society has formally charged an institution with providing education. Also, for substantial numbers of kids, school is still the most likely place where they can achieve the full measure of benefit from digital media and learning.

In the project you just finished, do you feel you have identified some people who really do mean what they say?

None of the 13 school districts we worked with would claim they’ve gotten to the place where everything is taken care of—but the school personnel we worked with from those districts ‘get it.’ They are at the place where they are making serious efforts to keep the promise of what smart use of digital media can do to help us provide productive and engaging learning environments for our kids. They are committed—not to incremental change, but to quantum-leap change

Isn’t quantum-leap change dangerous?

You know, I’ve always wanted to be famous for something, and I think it’s going to be Jim Bosco’s Law, which says “Big change is fast change.” Everybody is always saying, particularly in schools, that change has to be incremental, or “evolutionary.” You know, slow steps. When we look at many of the most significant changes that have happened in our world they typically happened fast. And there is another problem with being patient. A parent says, “I have a kid in the fourth grade. So fine, you say that in three years you’ll have figured out how to do fourth grade right. Do I get to bring my kid back when fourth grade is where it should be?”

Does anything feel different about this go-around with digital technology?

What’s happened recently—very recently—is that I have begun to see instances of things happening in schools that tell me having stayed committed to helping them move forward makes sense not only for philosophical reasons but also for functional reasons. I’ve seen instances of a really different climate, and I have to say it really surprised me.

That must be heartening.

Yes indeed. It is wonderful to be working with people who are taking on the challenge of rethinking and redesigning learning and teaching in our schools. This feels much better than devoting much of my energy, as I have in the past, to trying to convince people that change is needed. At this point it is more important that the lion’s share of efforts be devoted not to missionary proselytizing but to providing support to those trying to get the job done. My sense is that what we did in the CoSN project was on the mark, which was to establish communities of practice so those deeply engaged in making significant progress could learn from one another.

Is it hard for these institutions—the ones that are making real changes—to get parents on board?

Bringing the communities along with them is terribly challenging. The concern parents have about change is understandable. It makes sense. Parents are nervous about experiments being done with their kids. Anytime you have something that is honest to goodness new, you may not get it right the first time. And that’s a real problem. Unfortunately we can’t put monkeys in the classroom, try our stuff with them, and then bring in the real kids. The real kids are already in the classroom. So it is critical that we establish good two-way communication with partners and community when we are making significant—and perhaps somewhat scary—changes.

That change you said you’ve seen from people in the school system—was there an ah-ha moment?

I’m not generally an ah-ha person, but yes, there was such a moment. It happened like this: We brought together in D.C. a key group of people we were working with from the districts in our MacArthur project. We’d selected 13 applicants who wanted to work with us from a pool of 50 or so. At the end of the meeting I said to my CoSN colleagues, “Wow, we’ve either been really smart or really lucky, because we had a cadre of people here who really were embodying what needs to be done.” These people are not just about pretty words, but really about moving. It was an ah-ha moment. I thought, This is real.

So are you feeling somewhat optimistic looking forward?

Optimistic. Well, I do believe something is happening now which is different than anything I have experienced in the past. My belief is that we will never have a situation where every school district in the US is providing the best practice use of digital media for their students. Nevertheless, I am convinced that in the next few years we will see positive developments in schools that I would have never predicated even five years ago.

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