Nanodegree Nation

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Maury County Public Schools is in the midst of massive change. A once stagnant district now has a new innovative Director of Schools, a global partner in Discovery Education and a quickly crystallizing plan to become middle Tennessee’s first 1:1 school system. MCPS’ 1:1 push serves a plethora of functions, the most noble of which seeks to help eliminate the digital divide perpetuating student achievement gaps across racial and socio-demographics. The second function addresses not only how students learn but WHERE they’re doing it. As a veteran educator with more than a decade’s worth of experience in both urban and rural settings, I’ve listened as more and more students share with me their passions, purposes and pursuits of learning. A growing number of our students have turned to the internet as their classroom of choice, picking and choosing their learning times while leveraging the infinite resources at their fingertips to become micro-credentialed in just about anything.

Introducing Nanodegree Nation.

Self-help gets a digital makeover

Anyone unfamiliar with the live-streaming video platform Twitch let me school you on what 100 million people already know: Globally people of all ages – with Centennials serving as the bedrock – connect via Twitch to, well, learn how to play video games. If I rock at playing video games (call me a “Gamer”), I broadcast my skills through Twitch while other would-be Gamers tune-in and learn from an expert. Simple, right? There’s no video game school. No video game principal. No video game 7:05AM start time! Just various learners of different skill-levels seeking differentiated instruction from countless experts. I know, I know, we’re talking about video games, how silly – except there’s nothing silly about 2020’s $115Billion gaming software revenue projection but that’s another blog post.

The point is, like YouTube and Twitch the web’s digital classroom is eviscerating all notions of what contemporary school looks and feels like. Any educator willing to face reality will tell you students are rejecting education’s current paradigm and they have good reason to. The tip of the spear is and always will be teachers, as their effect-size carries the greatest impact. Some of us educators have adopted the digital settlers mindset, bravely, boldly trekking the #edtech frontier in search of a way to strike gold with our wayward students. Yet, we’re still too few and far between and the reality is we’re still serving within systems that are afraid of this type of thinking. The greater atrocity is the teacher-next-door who thinks smartphones are the Devil and insists on continuing the Vulcan mind meld method of torturous pontification and recall. To help quell these fears and practices, MCPS superintendent Dr. Chris Marczak repeats the mantra, “Technology isn’t replacing teaching; it’s enhancing it!” The looming fear, however, is that without a paradigm shift from educators at-large technology will replace teaching, whether we like it or not.

coder loveUnless you’ve been living under a Gateway 2000, it’s no surprise today’s students are indelibly tethered to the digital world. From Snapchat to Kik, Twitch to YouTube, students socialize, entertain themselves and…gasp…learn while serving as flesh-and-bone Ethernet cords. This blog post doesn’t mark the beginning of students’ perpetual penchant (addiction?) for screen-time or signify its phenomena status but instead shall stand as a conversation starter as to the power of student perception on our current education framework and how this perception will undoubtedly impact both high school and college degrees.

 So old it’s new

Ages ago humans passed down knowledge orally. We’d sit around a campfire, literally chew the fat, and learn from more experienced members of our tribe. Over time this method of teaching and learning graduated to an apprentice model, where hands-on experience coupled with expert tutelage forged us into young professionals. Scene-select to the last hundred years or so as more complex societies took education to scale and we find teaching and learning now confined to age-cohorts, processed through a grade-level format with a blanket of knowledge and skills already prescribed for us. Aside from some tweaks and variances here and there, teaching and learning – school, as we’ve come to know it – hasn’t changed in over a century. That idea alone is terrifying but it’s become Stephen King-level when you consider our smartphones advance approximately every six months with students serving as the beta-testers.

Speaking of education’s one hundred years of stagnation, let’s shift our focus to today’s students and the oil and water relationship between their physical and digital education. What makes students more and more unique, unlike their student-body predecessors, is not only are they true digital natives but for the first time in history a generation has access to boundless information sources at nanosecond speed. Yes, the Internet’s been around since ’95, I’m well aware; it was my generation that staked our digi-flag in AOL’s early chat rooms. However, how we actually learned through the Internet was analogous to AOL’s dial-up speed. Nowadays, students seem to merely exist in the physical world, whereas they simultaneously live and learn in the digital one.

For educators, parents, researchers, and social scientists, it’s the learning part of that last sentence that should pique your interest the most. Why? Because it’s as fascinatingly brilliant as it is scary. Students are literally taking matters into their own hands, refusing to be confined to education’s bureaucracy and archaic system. Instead, students are adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, creating their own curriculums, choosing their own instructors and gaining their own micro-certifications.

The future is no longer ahead of us – it’s upon us.

I say this with fervor and familiarity because I am now the Executive Lead Principal of the Mt. Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, the United States’ first PK-12 STEAM campus also selected as the pilot campus for MCPS’ 1:1 vision.

What is college?

To be fair, post-secondary academia will probably be the first true casualty of the nanodegree revolution. I’ll speak solely from experience here, as my learning has increased exponentially now that I’m a PLC junkie. My professional learning community (PLC) has without a shadow of a doubt far surpassed any learning I received during my years in grad school – and I had a solid grad school experience, standing proudly behind my action-research dissertation. (Read about the Competitive Teaching Model here.) With student loan debt sending college grads to financial purgatory and Bernie Sanders’ pleas for FREE college fading, young adults’ version of anarchy is now to find their path and expertise through free, well-informed channels.

These days when I’m hiring a new teacher or interviewing a prospective administrator I’m more interested in your digital profile than your college portfolio, as far-out as it sounds I’m more interested in your Twitter handle than any letters you have following your government name. Who do you actively learn from? What Voxer groups are you in? Have you ever moderated a Twitter Edu Chat? These are today’s version of what school did you attend and what was your GPA?

If all of this sounds far-fetched, ask anyone under the age of 30 when was the last time they read an instruction manual. And, don’t ask students who their favorite teacher is because that word has specific connotations, instead ask them who they learn the most from – and where does this learning occur.

The answers are shaping our future: the physical and the digital one.

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