Cloud Computing | Q&A

The Cultural Context of the Cloud

Cloud computing is referred to as a tool, as an essential component to 21st century skills, as an inexpensive way for schools to educate students at a time when budgets are being cut, and as the future of information and communications technology (ICT). To fully understand the implications of all this hype, educators need to see a larger context beyond the classroom, according to James Bosco, principal investigator for a MacArthur Foundation project titled "Schools and Participatory Culture: Overcoming Organizational and Policy Barriers."

In his new book American Education in the Third Era, Bosco writes, “It is more useful to understand the meaning of what is happening around us than to make guesses about the future…The critical task is to take a clear-eyed view of what is happening right before our eyes. Teachers, administrators, parents, citizens, and others who shape educational policy need to understand what is happening all around them and react with informed intelligence to cause the change needed to harmonize schools with new ways of living, working, playing, and learning that information technologies have provoked.”

For more than 30 years, Bosco has worked with school districts, government agencies, and educators of all sorts to understand and inform the process of transforming education. In addition to conducting research and participating in development projects, Bosco has been a student of the cultural impact ICT development has on how educators accept and reject technological advances such as cloud computing. He believes that the access to information that cloud computing offers can help bring learning in line with the way kids and adults live today.

T.H.E. Journal: You say it’s important “to take a clear eyed view of what is happening” in ICT. What are you observing that makes you emphasize this point?

Bosco: It is really terribly difficult, when one is in the midst of very, very drastic changes, to get perspective. We’re in one of the most monumental periods of human history. It’s easier to understand the past and to speculate about the future than it is to see the present.

One of the problems is that, in our schools, we have assimilated what’s happening: How smart do you have to be to realize lots of people have computers? We get that part. But what does it really mean in terms of how we relate to one another? How we tap into the information/knowledge of the culture, of society, how we create new knowledge? Those are tough issues to grasp. We need to try to look at the present with eyes that are not trying to make it fit with the past and trying to use yesterday’s mentality to understand today’s reality.

Coming out of the 19th and into the 20th century, school and education became synonymous. “Where did you get your education?” “I went to the University of Pittsburgh.” Formal school equaled education. Our opportunity to learn is now drastically changed by what we can do by working with our tablet or laptop. To a great extent, that message really hasn’t been received in our schools. What people are taking with them as their functional knowledge—what they are using when dealing with how they vote, how they work, how they think about things to a considerable extent—that’s coming from sources outside of school. What schools need to understand is, it ain’t yesterday.

You get into the business because you believe in what it does. Everyone who is in schools comes at if from a perspective of what schools have been, not what schools need to be today in order to be in tune with the world as it actually is. It’s tough.

T.H.E. Journal: Education is part of the culture of any society, but how does culture influence the use of technology in the process of learning?

Bosco: Culture, ultimately, is the composite of the various subcultures we live in. That could be geographic, it could be economic. We function in terms of the ways in which it is considered to be appropriate within that subculture. People working in schools—that is a culture.

If we take whatever is the latest iteration [of technology]—at one point it was the microcomputer, at another point it was the internet, now it’s the mobile technologies—and we drop it into the school, it will have a catalytic effect and make what we’re doing up-to-date. When you walk into a school and see kids using tablets working with the internet, you say, “We’re up to date.” Maybe not, because what happens frequently is we have kept the same culture, kept the same way of thinking about the task and what we have to do, but we’re just using something a bit different within the same organizational context. It looks different but it really is basically the same.

If you inject the technology into a school which is functioning with the culture that has been prevalent since the middle of the 19th century through the 20th century, it’s like a bacteria attacking an organism. What happens is the anti-bodies in the organism cure that and make it fit and harmonize with the way things are. The mantra for technology is, “We have integrate technology into our schools.” I say no, it’s about disintegrating. It’s not about using it to do the same things, it’s about changing social structure, changing the role of teachers and students. It’s about changing the curriculum; it’s about changing the pedagogy, not just fine-tuning it to be different.

T.H.E. Journal: You write, “Information technology is transforming the nature of the content of human culture as well as the processes whereby the content is produced, disseminated, and used. It is only when the broader implications of ICT for where and how learning occurs beyond the boundaries of the school that we can understand what can or should be done within schools.” Please explain the influence of learning outside school on the learning that is done in school.

Bosco: Inevitably the kid goes home at 3, and the kid who goes home is not different from the kid who’s sitting in the classroom from 8 to 3. That’s the same kid. We sometimes think of them as two kids in two worlds and the only world we’re cognizant of is 8 to 3. What happens from 3 to 8 isn’t anything we’re very much concerned about.

Maybe it’d be nice if there was a switch on the side of the kid’s head where we could switch it off when he leaves at 3, and then he’s not learning anything. Then when he comes back at 8, we switch it back on again so we had total control over it and we knew what was happening. Some of what the kid is learning is contradictory, conflicting with what we’re trying to see happen in our schools. Even though we don’t recognize it, everything the kid is learning is part of the picture.

Kids who have special interests, passions about things, to a considerable extent…have to deal with the things they’re passionate about outside of school. We can have kids doing things outside of school the teacher doesn’t know about, can’t use as leverage, can’t connect with so that there is more of a continuity. So what happens out of school doesn’t have any relevance in school when it could be very, very powerful.

T.H.E. Journal: What are the “ideological and organizational impediments” in the current educational system that hamper the effective implementation of technological resources such as cloud computing?

Bosco: The nature of the curriculum, the nature of the pedagogy. In many schools the curriculum is so burdened…teachers are really just concerned about covering things [so] you don’t have time for serendipity. One of the wonderful things about the internet is that it leads to this honest-to-goodness, real learning. Learning, which is not the most efficient process, oftentimes is a sloppy process, but we don’t have time for that.

I’m privileged to be working with a number of people in our schools in conjunction with the CoSN/ MacArthur Foundation project “Participatory Learning in Schools: Policy and Leadership” who really do understand that we have to move in a different direction. It’s not just about technology for the same old stuff. It is really looking at a new iteration, a new way of thinking about how we do schooling.

Technology has given us an opportunity to design learning environments that meet what a long line of thinkers going back centuries have dreamed about. They dreamed about creating learning environments that are connected to the world, where the school is not a disconnected entity. Where the young people who are in that environment are really engaged, involved, active participants in their learning, which is not just learning so that you can pass the next test. It’s learning that is functional, meaningful, valuable in your own life. We can now do that.

Technology is saying to people, “Understand what we have in our hand. Here again, see what is right before our nose.” We’ve got to seize this opportunity to see that this is not just as it is now—a hit-or-miss situation in this classroom or that classroom. It becomes standard operating procedure.