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March 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 6
What Students Need to Learn
William M. Ferriter
One of the first lessons I try to teach colleagues interested in using digital tools in their teaching and learning is to be persistent. "Don't give up at the first sign of trouble," I say, "because the first sign of trouble definitely won't be the last!" The best 21st century teachers are what I call digitally resilient.
Digital resilience means determination in the face of blocked websites, failing services, antiquated tools, and technology decisions that aren't aligned with a new vision of teaching and learning. This concept played an important role in my professional life this winter, when a digital communications tool called Drop.io that my learning team relied on suddenly disappeared in the middle of the school year.
Drop.io allowed users to easily create customized websites and use those sites to share content with a group. My colleagues and I had used Drop.io to post important messages, descriptions of assignments, and resources related to class projects to a team website right from our e-mail inboxes. This made communication with parents more efficient, which freed up time for other duties. But in December, Drop.io packed up shop, instantly erasing my team's primary forum for communicating with the parents of 120 students.
Losing this resource was frustrating for everyone. My colleagues had grown comfortable with the service primarily because it didn't require mastering any new digital skills. Our parents had grown comfortable because they received, right in their e-mail inboxes, immediate notification of new content related to their children's learning, such as changes in due dates for homework assignments. And I'd grown comfortable using Drop.io to store resources related to tasks that my students had to complete during the year.
To make matters worse, Drop.io gave users very little notice that the service was ending. Despite having 10 different Drop.io sites, I never received any direct notice from the company. By the time I found out about the early-December shutdown—by chance in an online forum—I had three weeks to find a comparable tool that my colleagues and I could use to continue communicating with the parents served by our academic team.
Three weeks turned out to be plenty of time. In fact, I had a new site up and running in about 30 minutes. My first step was to turn to my Twitter network. "Guys, I need a free service that allows users to post content—messages, documents, weblinks, video—from their e-mail inboxes," I tweeted one Sunday morning. "Suggestions?" By the time I finished my first cup of Coke—I've never been much of a coffee guy—I had three different services to explore, including Posterous (www.posterous.com).
After poking around the site for a few minutes, I realized that Posterous, which is free, works just like Drop.io. A user can create a new website in three mouse clicks and can then post content to that site simply by sending an e-mail to a unique address generated by the service. Users, such as parents, can sign up to have notices of new content on the site e-mailed to their inboxes.
So I signed up and immediately started making posts to our new team website—http://fightingnomes.posterous.com. Then I e-mailed my colleagues with details of how to post content to our new site. Finally, I e-mailed parents to explain our new plan for keeping them up to date on school happenings.
All in all, the transition has gone exceptionally smoothly. Because Posterous works in much the same way as Drop.io, my colleagues haven't had to learn any new skills. Although a few parents were upset that we were moving to a new site early in the school year, the majority took the change in stride. We've even discovered several advantages—such as the ability to see lists of the parents who've subscribed to our updates.
So what does this experience show about digital resilience? Perhaps the most important lesson is that it's important never to get too attached to any product—especially a free one. Although it's possible that the service you've fallen in love with will be around forever, it's also possible that it will go out of business next week. The good news is that there's almost always another free service out there that enables the same kind of digital interactions. Instead of focusing on specific digital brands, effective teachers think about the essential behaviors that those products enable—in my case, being able to post content to a website quickly and easily.
Another lesson is that digital resilience is just plain easier for those of us who are willing to share what we know—and what we need—with groups of like-minded peers. When I needed a replacement for Drop.io, I started with my Twitter network. Instead of poking through randomly generated search results, I turned to a group of networked colleagues who I knew were wrestling with the same digital hiccups I was. The end result was a quick resolution to a problem that might have been slightly overwhelming to any teacher working alone.
The moral of the story: The minute you decide to dip your feet into the digital waters, you've got to be ready to deal with the waves.
William M. Ferriter (@plugusin on Twitter) teaches 6th grade science in Raleigh, North Carolina, and blogs about the teaching life at The Tempered Radical (http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/the_tempered_radical). He is the coauthor of Teaching the iGeneration: Five Easy Ways to Introduce Essential Skills with Web 2.0 Tools (Solution Tree, 2010). His latest book, Essentials for Principals: Communicating and Connecting with Social Media, is due to be published by Solution Tree in Spring 2011; 919-363-1870; firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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