Now that was interesting–the Big Ideas Fest 2009. I came away from this confluence of conversations more convinced than ever that the work of education is ripe for change. Brewster Kahle set a bold tone from the beginning by calling for “universal access to all knowledge.” Using the work of the Internet Archive as a frame for the discussion, he challenged the preconceptions that we technically or logistically can’t make this vision real. His dream of a digitally fueled, open, and mobile-device-accessible version of the Library of Alexandria was a grand stretch of the mind. Why not? Seeing the progress of the Open Library project in particular gives us hope. Alan Kay pushed forward, challenging participants—all of whom were working through an education innovation design process made up of identifying, designing, prototyping, and scaling action collabs—to move beyond just big ideas. He argued that all big ideas challenge common sense, but they are only meaningful when they transform into powerful ideas. He used the example of the common sense notion of not too long ago that “kings are natural and normal.” The big idea that challenged this conventional wisdom came from folks like Thomas Paine, who maintained it is not the King that is the law, it is the law that is king. But such a big idea in and of itself is impotent until it is put into action. It became a powerful idea in practice through documents like the United States Constitution. He argued that while most would point to technology as a big idea with powerful potential, unfortunately, it was mostly used to dress up conventional approaches. Most uses of technology in education have been to imitate or animate paper, or to automate or expedite existing processes and techniques. Can we leverage technology tools in a way that is really supporting a big idea and leading toward a powerful idea? The rapid-fire, TED-like, action collab-framing discussions pushed the boundaries further, exploring extra-institutional learning, connecting gangster rap to ancient literature, dynamic digital learning communities driven by students, student perceptions of our change initiatives, hands-on experiential learning models, gaming, global competencies, interdisciplinary interaction, entrepreneurial learning outreach, making teachers rock stars, and more. These 15-minute bursts of energy kept the momentum and stirred the conversation among a broad set of education professionals, advocates, and change agents. But wrapping the four days into a bow for me was the thread of conversation from the fabric of student experience. For example, students from Road Trip Nation participated in the fest, sharing their stories and interviewing the on-site educators. They wove in an important personal connection to this convocation: “I didn’t drop out, I was pushed out—and no one came looking.” Adding to this chorus was Sandy Shugart’s poetry and song-filled, after-dinner dialogue on our ability to truly connect with the rising post-modern student. Are we ready to hear their stories, accept their voices, and truly care about their condition? Or will they simply be reduced to data points in a customized, technology-infused, newly-minted learning infrastructure? Can we create authentic and meaningful connections with students? If so, could it be that these connections will count most in a post-industrial creative economy? Could both of these be true: All high touch with no high tech is unnecessarily restrictive and regressive while all high tech with no high touch is necessarily impersonal and impotent? Of course, as with any stimulating event, more questions were raised than were answered. But that’s what made it satisfying. And working to answer these questions using tools like the innovation design process with the passion proposed by Yvonne Chan—“proceed until apprehended!”—seems like a great idea.
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