Open your eyes, old teacher! — Meg Ormiston's keynote at the Concordia Univ. Chicago

I was privileged to hear new-literacies proseletyzer Meg Ormiston this morning at the 34th annual Concordia University Chicago Reading Conference, “Lighting the way with multiliteracies.” Her keynote message was admirably simple:  “Reading and writing have changed. We must change with them.” She reiterated it for the elderly:  “Hey–old people in the room–we have to change!” She told amusing, touching stories of how information technology has altered the medium of inputs and outputs for literacy, yet too many educators do not realize, or are denying it as the foundation under them shifts. 

To emphasize how thoroughly technology has permeated students’ lives [and –my aside–how much it has “mediated” their life-experiences], Ormiston used a cooking metaphor: “Kids today are marinated in technology.”  We must therefore deal with them differently than we have. She chided schools for making students “power down” and put away tools that can be used (in fact already are) enhance literacy skills.  “They don’t know about life B.G. (before Google).” She pointed out, as I have, that in their cell phones and their video games, students are coming to school with learning tools literally in their little hands. And we are making them put them “off and away till the end of the day.” Administrators, awake!

If educators were wise, said Ormiston, they would acknowledge and embrace the tools they currently keep out of class, exploiting them as the communication tools they are.  The students are already there [“digital natives”]. Teachers need to get there with them [become successful “digital migrants”] or risk obsolescence. In order to work within the new media environment, Ormiston adviced that all educators be able to pass a “new methods” class. [They could do so online if they were already there.] 
Ormiston cited one example of such adaptation to modern times:  an English teacher who will accept first drafts of papers in txt spk. This makes sense, since [and as an English teacher I know this] the biggest hurdle to getting kids practicing literacy is just getting them to express anything, to come up with any content. To insist overmuch on form, spelling, and conventions of usage can kill a student’s nascent literacy.  

She imagines the opponents to smartphones in the classroom: teachers and principals crying, “but they’ll cheat!” [to which I could add, But they’ll “sext,” “cyber-bully” and “hang out”].  To them, Ormiston points out that pens,pencils, and notebooks–as older people know–have been used in cheating, racy note-passing, and bullying as well, yet no one wants to ban them from the classroom since they are such great visualizing thinking tools.Well, then…?

Ormiston also had several cool Web 2.0 takeaways, including a couple of sites that allow teachers to incorporate (with administrative approval) texting into the classroom. Two sites that Meg said would allow a teacher to post instant online quiz results via cellphones (without expensive clickers) were: 
  • polleverywhere.com and 
  • textethemob.com

She had the sensible idea of grouping the kids around the several in the class who have “unlimited texting” so that none is disadvantaged. Each of these device holders would transmit the votes of the individuals in the group. The result is instant feedback for the learning group, which holds the potential for making wise curricular decisions–Has this content been mastered? What opinions do we have about X right now? Which of these interests you most?, etc.

A teacher tip Ormiston offered is based on related cognitive research that says the student brain processes information best in ten minute chunks. So, no teacher talk should talk for more than ten minutes at a stretch. Anything after that risks sounding to learners like “Charlie Brown’s teacher.” To her credit, Ormiston broke up her keynote with collaborative discussion questions that ensured added audience engagement and probably reinforced its effectiveness. [It’s good when one practices what one preaches.]

I was also glad when she spoke up for the use of video gaming as global learning vehicles. She pointed to today’s gamer who, when s/he has a problem, acts like the networked information worker of tomorrow’s global economy:   s/he gets on the headphones and globally collaborates solutions that require reading, writing, and critical decision making. As Gladwell’s review of Steven Johnson‘s book points out, video games are not time-wasters but  little learning machines: 
    Players have to explore and sort through hypotheses in order to make sense of the game’s environment, which is why a modern video game can take forty hours to complete. Far from being engines of instant gratification, as they are often described, video games are actually, Johnson writes, “all about delayed gratification—sometimes so long delayed that you wonder if the gratification is ever going to show.
To those teachers who freak when seeing their students looking for game “cheats,” fear not. Far from being a little reprobate, the young gamer searching  for “cheats” is actually an autonomous learner,  taking control by altering his experience to his particular needs and preferences. In other words, the “cheater” has customizing his learning, devising his own IEP as it were, and allowing him to excel. 

Finally, I liked her seeing what we do in material terms: Traditional paper handouts, Ormiston claims, have turned teachers into unwitting accomplices in the destruction of the planet. “We stand at the xerox machine,” she said, “killing tree after tree after tree.” The new literacy modes, in addition to being more effective learning devices, are relatively ecological, too.

One response to “Open your eyes, old teacher! — Meg Ormiston's keynote at the Concordia Univ. Chicago”

  1. Wow, I will say it is strange to read about your own keynote, yet with that said, thanks for the detailed summary. In reflection it is helpful for me to look at what you wrote and see what “ten minute chunks” stuck. I know there were some people in the audience that were not ready for the change message, I was making people uncomfortable I could feel it. I believe everyone that is in education today should feel uncomfortable, it is time for a major change in so many ways.Funny that I found this post through Twitter. I was offline fighting the Illinois weather for a few days and when I finally slid into Springfield, IL I had a minute to reconnect with my Twitter network to catch up on my personal professional growth. This networked learning is not just for techies, every educator should be in charge of their own personal professional development, and these tools help us do just that. I look forward to following your reflection through your writing. Maybe it will be on your blog or on Twitter in 140 characters or less!Thanks!Meg

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