Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Generativity: the Essential, but Overlooked, Design Tradeoff in School Information Technology

The first of my two proposals for the K12 Open Minds Conference, to be held September 25-27 in Indianapolis, Indiana:

For all the incredible advances in computing and network technologies over the past 30 years, most ed tech veterans will admit to a certain nostalgia for the days of their old Apple II's. Not just because the field then was a new frontier, but because teachers and students had the freedom to explore and experiment on simple, robust machines that they controlled and maintained themselves.

Today, our networked systems are massively more complex, under constant threat from swarms of malware, encumbered by myriad legal mandates and liabilities, and the main conduit for mission-critical administrative tasks. We have responded to these demands by adopting corporate IT practices from industries like healthcare that provide some measure of security and reliability, but at the cost of what Jonathan Zittrain calls "generativity... a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences." In recent years, forward-looking educators have routed around their loss of generative power by experimenting with "Web 2.0" technologies, but ultimately we need school-IT systems designed to accomodate and foster user-generated innovation.

Allowing generativity is not the only, or even the most important, priority in designing a school's IT infrastructure, but in recent history, it has rarely been a priority at all. In this session we will discuss what "generativity" means, why it is especially important for schools, and what we can do to bring it back into our IT.

If you've got any comments, corrections or suggestions, now would be a good time to make them.

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