Joseph South, Chief Learning Officer of ISTE and former Director of the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, has seen a lot of changes over the course of his career.  Emerging EdTech, outside pressure put on teachers, and the value of diversity in the education community all combine to make now a compelling time in education.

In South’s estimation what has changed the most in technology recently is how much technology is available for free or for a low cost.

“The sophistication of the tools that you can get for free or nearly free is unreal.”

South started his EdTech journey as a 4th grader, learning that the university his dad taught at in rural Arkansas had computers available. He started playing on them, learning to code from the engineering students. This was all at a time where the tools were often limited to academics and a few industry professionals who were right at the bleeding edge of the feild.

“When I made the computer do something I wanted it to do, the whole world changed for me. That feeling has never left me, that feeling that technology can take your ideas and amplify them, empowered me, and it still motivates me” 

In college he signed onto a publishing project where they were stitching Monty Python clips together to teach rhetoric. This stunned him and continued to open up his educational horizons.

“Learning was so confined by its geography, US News and World Reports and Time Magazine was how I knew there was a wider world” But there was a limit to how well those weekly magazines could cover the rapidly changing world of computers. Things evolved slowly, but eventually some of those pieces of software started releasing their free or low cost versions. South remembers Autocad as one of the first pieces of software that made itself available for free to High Schools.

All this free technology is wonderful, but there are always issues with uptake and with getting people to use these tools. He points out that it has taken businesses a long time to understand that middle school and high school kids are investing in their product. 

Recently, the Unity game engine has been taking great strides to position themselves as an easy to use solution which is also free. South says that learning to use software like Unity is really the way to build employable skills, but we don’t incentivise young people to use these powerful tools to create. And even though some motivated students are able to train themself, South wants to see these kinds of tools used daily in the classroom and feels that wider use is vital.

But that would require us to really trust our teachers, and these days there are new laws which are making that more and more difficult.

“There is a curriculum written by the state and it is page by page and if you follow it and the kids fail, it is the state’s fault. But if you deviate and your kids fail, then it is your fault”, a state of affairs that South points out, makes it hard for teachers to innovate on strategies.

“What we consider to be the optimal outcome of [K-12] right now is probably college entrance and college is great, but it left a lot out … this is an equity issue. The percentage of college grads that are white and from higher socio-economic statuses is many times higher than those who are not white and from lower socio-economic statuses”.

South says that he recently took the initiative to delete a degree requirement from a job posting. He did this because in the workplace it is other kinds of skills, like  knowledge of the software, that are actually needed and not the degree itself.

I think the whole fixation on college degrees will end in my lifetime

Joseph South

He admits that this is not a full picture of the issue and wanted to clarify that for a lot of immigrants, a college degree can be used as a way to overcome prejudice that would otherwise come their way, but even the most sophisticated skills based assessments that should blind have built in issues because they were created by humans with their own bias. So often the hit rate of choosing a good candidate from the hiring pool is less than 50%. South extols the need to be hiring more diverse people for these positions, and not just because it will be better for the people and groups that you are hiring.

“I get really frustrated in the paternalistic view in some of these practices, this is as self interested as you get, these are incredibly talented people who are going to make your business better”

But what we do and how we change things is difficult to know. 

“I remember when I was a kid, one of the things that I did when I was in kindergarten, we would run around our neighborhood and pick up all the cigarette butts and litter and there were mounds of it.“ but you don’t see that anymore. “We have changed, the perception of littering has changed.”

But “we need to keep putting political pressure on in all the ways that we keep putting political pressure on.”

There are a lot of questions about whether change is actually happening, but South does not think that we are going backwards, just that the problem is deeper than we thought and looking at it closely has made that clear.

“We swept all the dust off the floor and then moved the carpet and saw there was a lot of dust under there.”

Sometimes it feels like we are regressing, so it is important that we keep pushing in the direction of more openness and diversity because changes are happening. Technology can help. Social media amplifies both the good and the bad especially in education. But knowing where the dust is under the rug makes the cleaning easier and gives us all hope for the future.

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