Reflecting on Technology’s Promise to the Classroom

It was a glittering, mind-blowing moment.  In many ways, it symbolized what was to follow: connections, commitment, and wild energy.  There, in a massive room, in the center of a broad stage, lit like a Greek statue, rested a large golden cylinder, jammed with thousands of handwritten pieces of paper.  Thousands of folks had delayed their departure home from Philadelphia to see if their piece of paper would be pulled.  Somewhere in the dark, far from the stage, Coni Rechner sat.  She had managed to pull this thing together.  

RedEyeDENparentsIt was the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), June 2005, the official launch of the DEN. I stood by the cylinder handle. It was time to crank that handle—almost.  ‘Almost’ because co-director Scott Kinney remained mysteriously at the rear of the room.  When the moment could not be put off and longer, the man who famously says, “this is a marathon not a sprint” made a pretty good impression of a sprint to the stage. There, wearing our black Discovery Education polo shirts, we drew the two names of educators who, with their spouses, would be taken to Paris where Discovery Communications was a sponsor of the Tour de France, then at the apex of its popularity.  The first name was a teacher from New Jersey. The second was a North Carolina educator named Brad Fountain. No kidding. That’s how we met Brad Fountain.

But the DEN had already been brewing in the nights and days before, when fantastic teachers from across the country helped cement the foundation of the teacher network for Discovery Education.  It was a remarkable indication that the large media company parent was about to make a huge difference by moving into education.

BattlingKeynotesV2What Coni and others believed was that when mission-driven teachers find great tools they become evangelists. The model network before the DEN was Apple’s distinguished educator program (ADE), but it was very different, highly restricted.  Few were chosen.  For the DEN, the criteria was ‘are you willing to share what you know with other teachers.’   That would become a crucial difference for educators in the midst of the digital transformation.

For me, the real promise the network fulfilled was sharing the power of technology’s tools. It was the reason I made my own transformation to the DEN after 30 years in public education.  Back then, before the fabulous techbooks were born and the DLC modeled great PD, Discovery Education was fundamentally a media resource. It was a prodigious one, embodying ‘media’ in the truest sense of the word–the plural of ‘medium’. So much was in there, usable in so many different ways. People needed to know about it.

IMG_0556That had always been the problem. I knew media worked for teaching and learning because it had worked for me. I was terrible at decoding instructions but media taught me mathematics (the Golden Mean!), plate tectonics, history, and social responsibility.  An awesome tool for a mighty number of learners.  Back in the day, media had meant filling out a form, which went on a truck to the media center, and– much later– having it arrive in the main office in a big blue bag.  That’s if you were lucky. Experienced teachers nailed down resources early so for newbies, the Presidents Day resources might be available in June. Then the technology intervened: The VCR! California sent one (and a blank tape) to every public school in the state.  As part of a passionate out-of-the-classroom media specialist team, we secured overnight feeds on the local PBS station. If a school set their VCRs, in six months their school would have a media library greater than some whole districts. No blue bags! But nobody knew how to use their machines.  They weren’t that hard. The problem was getting the word out. There were four of us passionate media specialists for a district with more than 600,000 students. When we brought teachers and librarians together and showed them this technology’s power (a pause button!) they would catch fire and their practice would change. But there just weren’t enough of us to make it happen. Not enough to deliver tech’s promise to classroom.  There never would be– until the DEN.

Hall Scott Lance'sThe brilliant idea of the DEN worked.  That famous study a few years back showed we touched more than a million teachers—and I’ll wager it’s more than two million by now if we did a recount (editors note: it’s more than 2.5 million now).  That means many tens of millions of students—tens of millions that now learn in ways that work for them because one passionate teacher shared with another. If those students wrote thank you notes to the DEN, they would fill a golden cylinder as big as Coni’s beloved Wrigley Field.  

So this post is my thank you for the golden cylinder.  I have learned immeasurably from the members of the DEN. It has charted my life’s professional course. The DEN began in 2005. Since then, there have been huge increases in information production, vast changes in some subject area content, and seismic shifts in learner experience and in the way learners expect to learn.  But, despite that, schools are better now than ever before, with greater numbers of students engaged in greater ways. The passion of the DEN has made measurable impact.

I was lucky and proud to be part of the early chemistry that evolved the DEN, along with those other fantastic folks who have blogged about its history in this space. It remains a thrill to be part of it as grows, transforms, and energizes itself in this envigorating, transformative time.


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