Justin Reich, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, and a research scientist in the MIT Office of Digital Learning. Justin is also an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a lecturer in the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program, and the author of iPads in the Classroom: From Consumption and Curation to Creation. His background gives him a particularly good platform from which to prognosticate the future of education technology and its use among learners. According to Justin, the best technology is invisibly effective, triggering conversations about learning and not about technology.
I had the opportunity to speak with Justin about technology in schools and the rise of professional (and not so professional) learning networks. This rise, says Justin, is going to be organic and completely unstoppable.
Rod Berger: Justin, it’s nice to speak with you today. You’ve obviously done a lot to help identify and support innovation in the field of education through your research and EdTechTeacher. But let’s go back a little bit. Tell me how this path started for you. Did you ever envision, when you were a high school student, that this would be the direction of your career?
Justin Reich, Ph.D: Actually, when I was a high school student, I knew I wanted to be a teacher of some kind. I can remember telling a scholarship committee in 1995 that that’s what I planned on doing. The intersection with technology came about because of my very first teaching position. I was trying to get a job as a world history teacher, and the department head said, “Can you teach world history?” I said, “Well, I’ve never done it before, but if you give me the job, I’ll figure it out, and I’ll do a good job.”
The department head also said, “There’s a cart of laptops in the corner, and we want you to use them everyday.” And I said, “You know, you can have a cart of bananas in the corner, and I’ll use them everyday. I just really want this job.” I was lucky that he said, “All right.” So I started teaching, and I had the good fortune of having a one-to-one classroom early on. I was really inspired by the ways that the computers allowed me to take the responsibility for learning off my shoulders and the shoulders of my students. It empowered them to research widely, to communicate with each other, and to communicate with the outside world, and I’ve been working on those ideas ever since.
RB: I know you’re interested in a networked world, and that’s a significant role in your work at MIT. How do you look at an environment and say, “This is a successfully networked educational environment?” What are some of the hallmark variables for you that say that we’re not just slapping technology on top of something that’s already there and taking a legacy approach to education?
JR: I think the best scenarios for technology integration are when investments in technology are helping to trigger new conversations about what teaching and learning should look like in the Information Age in a rapidly changing world. I don’t think there’s any particular formula. In fact, I think there are a lot of right answers to the question because I think there are lots of school models and instructional approaches that can be really powerful.
What I get most excited about is when I visit schools and they’re not talking about technology, but they’re talking about the kinds of new teaching and learning environments they want to create. And teachers aren’t talking about these changes individually, but they’re talking about the same kinds of changes. You get a sense that people are pulling oars in the same direction.
So there are a lot of approaches out there around project-based learning and competency-based learning and other kinds of great ways of thinking about readying students for their own futures. The key is that ultimately, even if a conversation starts with technology, it moves quickly to what we think really great teaching and learning looks like and how technology can help us bring those learning environments about.
RB: Are we doing a better job of understanding how to solve problems in education from a leadership and practitioner perspective, where we know that the way in which we have solved problems in the past cannot be used today in a world that is much more connected or networked, to your point?
JR: We have some good research going in that direction. There are no silver bullets, and there are no magic answers or formulas, but there are a lot of organizations out there trying to figure out what it’s going to look like in the decades ahead to support learning in schools, not just for students, but for teachers and adults as well.
I think one of the things we have recognized is that a huge part of our work needs to be around building teacher capacity. We need to make sure that everyone in the school environment — students, teachers, school leaders, administrators — has opportunities to learn together with one another. That’s one of the powerful things about teaching and learning in the Networked Age. You might be the only advanced placement physics teacher in your school district, but you can still be connected to a lot of other advanced placement physics teachers around the world. You can still be thinking about how those connections help you improve your practice, and then you can think about how you can help your students develop the networks of people and resources they need to be successful in learning in their lives ahead.
RB: One of the bigger problems in education globally is recruiting talent and marketing the message of what a career in education could look like and be for an individual. Are you finding that we are researching some of these challenges in ways so we can find the next Justin out there who says, “Look, you can give me a cart of bananas or whatever you want, but I need this job”? We don’t often hear the narrative surrounding the rhetoric of global education, and I’m curious about the research and how we apply that to a larger message of opportunity, flexibility, creativity, and innovation.
JR: I do think there are folks who are really thinking about how we get the very best people in our classrooms, and in particular, how we get our very best teachers in the classrooms of our most vulnerable students. There are lots of places around the word that have paved the way for this. Usually their strategies involve having fewer rather than more institutions that do teacher training and teacher certification, having higher entrance exams and requirements, and thinking of the work of a teacher as professional work. The distinguishing characteristic of professional work is that there is autonomy in judgment in how that work is conducted in the context of professional standards and community standards to say that, generally speaking, we try to do things this way.
So there are certainly systemic factors to be considered in terms of who we let train teachers, how many of those institutions we have, what the requirements for getting into the profession are, and how we reward and pay teachers. But that piece about professionalism is really important. We want to make sure that we’re creating environments where we give teachers a lot of support to be able to keep learning and figure out the best possible ways to help their students while also giving them a lot of autonomy in the moment to decide how best to support student learning.
RB: Is that possible in a world of evaluation?
JR: Yes. It has to be possible. There’s no school system in the world that doesn’t have assessment at some point. There are high-stakes tests, college admissions, evaluations, and things like that. In a lot of places teachers feel like assessment has been weaponized against them, that it’s a way to push back on them or control them. And what assessment really needs to be is part of the toolkit for helping teachers and school leaders get better. How do we create conditions in schools where we can take measures of how we’re doing and look at that evidence and say, “What does the next level of work look like, and how do we get there?”
RB: One area that a lot of people have focused on and I know you’ve done a lot of work in is social media and the use of it in K-12. Where are we with that, and how can we do a better job of accessing the information and talent that is out there through social media? Are we doing a good job? The other day I was conducting an interview, and an individual said to me, “Look, it’s great that the community of librarians in K-12 are very strong at utilizing social media, but we’re a group that’s very insular. We’re not communicating that out.” So are we finding that we are developing communities and then not sharing best practices outside of our communities?
JR: First of all, I recognize that almost all of us are members of online learning communities of one form or another. I don’t know if you remember, but in 2013 the hit toy of the Christmas season was Rainbow Loom, that little plastic pegboard you use to knit rubber bands together into bracelets. This was a fad, like the hula hoop, that instantaneously took over the world. There were millions of these little kits that were shipped all over the world.
RB: You have two on your bookshelf there, don’t you?
JR: I might have some there. But one of the things that happened at the same time with no coordination or centralized effort was that a community of people got together online to figure out how to make bracelets together. If you read the newspapers that came out during that period, all the articles about Rainbow Loom basically had a subtext like, “Oh, we finally got kids off their phones” or “Finally, they’re playing with computers in the real world.”
But if you do a Google search for something like “How to make a Rainbow Loom starburst bracelet,” you’ll come across a video made by two girls, Ashley and Steph, that has 36 million views. No one was playing with Rainbow Loom by themselves, and they didn’t turn their phones off. They had their pegboard, and they had their phone next to them, and they were watching videos because no one’s immediate community had the capacity to learn and develop expertise with Rainbow Loom anywhere near as efficiently or joyfully or efficaciously as people who would network with lots of other folks around the world who were trying to learn how to do awesome stuff with Rainbow Loom. So at the same time that this physical product was being developed and shipped around the world, there was a totally unorganized, decentralized learning network that had leaders like Ashley and Steph, these two girls in the middle of Pennsylvania, and all kinds of other folks participating in different ways.
Most of us, if we think back over the last year or two, can think of learning communities that we’re a part of. There were gazillions of people who joined Pokémon Go learning communities to play that game. This summer I was interested in growing raspberries, and extension agencies around the U.S. teach people, mostly farmers and gardeners who are better than me, how to grow raspberries. All of us probably can think back on the last year when we needed to fix the toilet or figure out how to do something else online.
Participating in these networked learning environments is going to be a central part of how we learn as human beings in a networked world in the decades ahead. One consequence of that is that students and teachers are going to be able to participate in those learning environments as well and should be forming those learning environments. They should be creating them with one another, and they are to various extents. Librarians are one group of people who are really well-networked. There’s a group of math teachers online who get together under the hashtag #MTBoS, the MathTwitterBlogosphere, who are sharing and learning and supporting one another all the time.
I think as teachers model what good lifelong learning practices look like online, it’ll be a natural evolution for students to adopt those kinds of practices as well. And it will be different for people in different age groups. Hopefully there aren’t going to be kindergarteners who are spending a lot of time tweeting what they’re learning, although there are some great kindergarten classrooms that are doing neat things like sharing a single classroom account and recognizing that there are folks in Canada or folks in Japan who would be interested in what they’re doing and that they might get to learn from them as well.
All of these things will happen. There’s going to be no cataclysmic reversal of what’s happening in schools. There’s not going to be dramatic immediate transformation, but I think there are lots of ways that we could take the teacher learning networks that have started and continue to grow and strengthen them and continue to find ways for students to share what they’re learning online.
RB: Are a lot of raspberries growing for you this year?
JR: You know, I did the best I can. I have some that don’t do as well, and I have a lot of birds. I think what I’m supposed to be doing is putting netting over the fields, but I –
RB: There’s a video for that, I’m sure.
JR: There is, yes. Obviously there’s learning how to do something, and there’s actual follow-through.
RB: Let’s close with this. I know you do a lot of writing in education. What are some of the topics that are of interest to you right now that maybe we’re not aware of that you think we should be?
JR: One of the things I’m most excited about right now is initiatives that are challenging teachers in schools to engage in more ambitious teaching and learning practices. Those efforts need to be paired with equally ambitious investments in supporting teacher and school leader learning. If we’re trying to make change and we make big investments in technology or big investments in curriculum but we don’t make similar investments in the people who are really making this possible, they’re just not going to be successful.
I’ve been working on two free online courses for school leaders that are coming out this winter on edX. One is called “Launching Innovation in Schools.” That’s a course that I developed with Peter Senge, who’s a well-known management theorist. The second course is called “Design Thinking for Leading and Learning.” Both of those courses are about building the capacity of school leaders to be able to support ambitious instruction and ambitious learning in their schools. That’s what I’m particularly interested in right now.
RB: Where can people go to learn more about those courses?
JR: If you go to edX.org, there are all kinds of free courses on a million different topics. You can do a search for my name to find those two courses.
RB: Wonderful. Well, I really appreciate your time. You’re doing some amazing things at MIT and beyond, and you’re a great voice in this space to bridge the gap between those that are in research and those that are practicing in the classroom. Thanks so much, Justin.
JR: You bet. Thank you, Rod.
Justin Reich is an educational researcher interested in the future of learning in a networked world. He is the executive director of the Teaching Systems Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a research scientist in the MIT Office of Digital Learning, and a lecturer in the Scheller Teacher Education Program. He co-founder of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning consultancy devoted to helping teachers leverage technology to create student-centered, inquiry-based learning environments.
He was previously the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow, where he led the initiative to study large-scale open online learning through the HarvardX Initiative, and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Justin is an alumni of the Fellows program at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. He earned his doctorate from Harvard University, where he created the Distributed Collaborative Learning Communities project, a Hewlett Foundation funded initiative to examine how social media are used in K-12 classrooms.
He writes the EdTechResearcher blog for Education Week, and his writings have appeared in Science, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Educational Researcher, the Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. Justin started his career teaching wilderness medicine, and later taught high school world history and history electives, and coached wrestling and outdoor activities.
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