Democratizing teaching and learning

“Democratizing” is a word you’ll hear used by many technology folks these days.  Outside of the political connotations of the word, “democratizing” means making something available to everyone.  You may have heard that the Internet has “democratized content” and made information accessible to people around the world.  Larry Lessig has argued that technology has “democratized production of creative works.”  With a laptop and a few inexpensive apps, any teenager can produce a movie, create a song or write a book.  It is clear that technology is allowing people to access information, take on new roles and participate globally in new ways.  Technology is a democratizing force.

This weekend I witnessed a very different kind of democratization, but one still rooted in technology. My in-laws were visiting my family and were staying at my house for a few days.  As some readers may know, I have a 10 year old daughter and a 5 year old son.  My in-laws love their grandchildren a great deal and enjoy spending time with them.  When they visit, I often see my father-in-law playing games with my daughter or my mother-in-law building Legos with my son.   I know this is probably what many grandparents do with their grandchildren but it’s a little foreign to me.  I didn’t grow up with grandparents myself and I find this cross-generational interaction really interesting and educational.

I walked in to the kitchen Sunday afternoon to find my mother-in-law and son huddled around my mother-in-law’s iPad.  She purchased the device a few months ago and is still learning what it’s capable of doing.  Without saying a word, I sat back and watched my son as he taught my mother-in-law how to access different apps on her iPad and explained what each app did.  It was very cool to watch.  Here were two individuals separated by almost 60 years and yet their roles were clearly reversed.  My son had taken the role of a teacher and my mother-in-law had taken the role of a student.  Their ages really didn’t matter.  My son had some expertise that could be shared with my mother-in-law and it was obvious that both were comfortable in their new roles.  My mother-in-law asked questions.  My son re-demonstrated certain apps when necessary.  In a way, technology had democratized teaching and learning.  It allowed my 5 year old son to become a teacher and my 63 year old mother-in-law to become a student.

Before anyone thinks I’m just being a proud papa and championing my son’s brilliance, I don’t think my son’s technology abilities are out of the norm.  In its report called Always Connected, the Sesame Workshop examined the digital media habits of young children and found that half of five-year-olds went online daily.  While my son would love to go online every day, we try to limit his computer time and vary his experiences. He plays T-ball, rides his bike and gets dirty playing in the yard.  He’s not really a techno-kid at all.

Besides, this observation isn’t really about five-year-olds or mother-in-laws.  It’s about expertise and openness.  We’re entering a world where people have expertise to share.  Technology has blurred the definition of teacher and student.  Go to YouTube and search for tutorials on almost any piece of software and you’ll find screencasts created by middle school students.  And it’s not just software tutorials, either. Want to learn how to do a french twist?  Go to YouTube and you’ll find tons of examples.  And that’s the real message here.  Technology has given people new opportunities to become teachers and students.  Whether it’s a five year old demonstrating to his grandmother how to use an iPad or an investment banker choosing to create a worldwide tutorial site like Khan Academy, technology is a democratizing force in education.

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