Last time I talked to Dr. Sparks (“Sparky”) we were enjoying a late night dinner at the Old Ebbitt Grill following a week roaming the streets of DC and the halls of power with my Pepperdine cadremates. He wasn’t completely satisfied with my consultancy project and charged me with the assignment to get a better grasp on what I really wanted to do with my doctorate degree. Of course he had no idea that seven days later I would get kicked out of the program for failing to get a B or better grade in a different class (see Sound of Doors Closing). So the question shifted from what I wanted to get out of getting a doctorate with Pepperdine to what justification do I have for taking up this costly battle again at some other institution. What are my intentions?
My proposed consultancy was to help an independent folk artist, Neva, with her website, to take her web-presence to the next level and leverage the tools out there for many many others to discover her music and great onstage presence. Sparky has known me for a long time, going back to getting my masters degree at Pepperdine in 2002, so to him it probably looked like Joe was just doing another web project and not stretching himself all that much. Though he would never say this directly, he was asking me what makes me think that I deserve to be part of their “doctorate club,” what do I bring to the table that might permit me to add “Ed.D” to the end of my name?
Kirk: Captain of the Enterprise, huh?
Picard: That’s right.
Kirk: Close to retirement?
Picard: I’m not planning on it.
Kirk: Well let me tell you something. Don’t! Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you. Don’t let them do *anything* that takes you off the bridge of that ship, because while you’re there… you can make a difference. – Star Trek: Generations (1994)
I had a friend who became my friend after he beat me, getting the job that I wanted as technology coordinator for the school district we both worked in. He was the much better choice for the job. I’d go to his office every once in a while and he’d be required in a hundred places at once and after the dust settled, he’d ask what I was working on in my lab. He’d listen carefully and then say how much he missed crawling under tables, connecting CAT-5 cables, setting up servers and making the hardware and software work. I don’t doubt that there were days that he’d easily give up the suit and tie for the cable-ties and dust-bunnies, but he did so much good setting the policies, practices and standards that enabled the school site tech-coordinators to be education- and student-centric, to drive the technology to do what the vendor promised in pursuit of delivering the best educational experience. I was told that he was a pretty damn good teacher in the computer lab. But the circle of his influence reached so many more students when he left the classroom and started enabling teachers and tech-coordinators to do their best. That’s what I wanted for myself when I began the doctorate program five years ago, to take the good that I’d learned with my classroom of students and enable other teachers to give the same opportunities and learning experiences to their students.
When I began the doctorate program I was a computer lab teacher working at a K-5 elementary school, seeing about 600 students per week, working on everything from basic keyboarding, to teaching PowerPoint to first graders, Excel to second graders and HyperStudio to everyone else. Beginning the second year of the doctorate program I took a job teaching print media/technology and math to sixth, seventh and eighth graders at the middle school level. The transition wasn’t particularly smooth and I ended up taking a leave of absence from Pepperdine after the winter term in order to adjust to my new assignment. Before taking the middle school job I had applied for the same tech coordinator job that I’d lost out to my friend, who was being kicked upstairs to an assistant superintendent job. It was another “no,” and I knew that I lacked secondary ed experience, so that was one thing that was in the back of my mind when I took the middle school job. At the end of three years teaching at the middle school level I could say that I was pretty good at what I did but I was still working on a level that wasn’t really reaching much beyond the walls of my classroom. Fortunately, the opportunity presented itself to break free from my former classroom’s walls and teach online at the masters level for Full Sail University.
While not as influential on a policy level as a district tech coordinator might be, I was influencing a new group of teachers every month, making a difference in their professional lives, helping them develop new tech and media skills and enabling them to deliver a better educational experience to their students. Thus, working at Full Sail has definitely helped me realize part of the dream to be an influencer on a much bigger level than my previous classroom had afforded to me. And while there are monetary benefits that would come from having the doctorate, the job is not depended on adding three letters to the end of my name.
What still lacks, though, was something that I knew when I set about to get my masters degree. At the time I was teaching video journalism to fifth and sixth graders as part of a Magnet school program that I had helped to develop, but I knew that my position was dependent on the whim and choices made by people further up the chain of command. And sure enough, at the end of the grant I was “encouraged” to find another assignment and ended up at the K-5 computer lab, switching districts. Then four years later it happened again (funding changed and my job was eliminated) and that’s when I switched to the middle school job. The masters degree was supposed to help me keep my tech position and it did help me keep my middle school job because I didn’t have a single-subject credential or a computer science undergraduate degree. But I still was working at a level where if someone up the chain sneezed, I caught the cold. These days there are no teaching jobs with 100% security, but I think what I’m really driving at is working on things that are much more fundamental to teaching and technology than ensuring a cushy teaching position.
The research that I was beginning to work on, before my disenrollment from Pepperdine, was what impact might happen if a public school district were to switch from printed textbooks to e-textbooks delivered on small devices like iTouches and Kindles. I wasn’t thinking in terms of literacy improvement but on bottom-line TCO level and the possible shift away from fixed, one-size-fits-all curriculum to dynamic, interactive, current, classroom-specific curriculum where the expertise of the classroom educator and familiarity with specific class’ strengths and need might be drawn into the process of what e-textbooks are used in the classroom. I was also thinking about the destabilizing factor this shift might have with the powerful textbook lobby as far as reducing their part of the budget which might also reduce their influence on the politicians who determine which curriculum to follow. Then, of course, the governator announced his proposal to go computer-based e-textbooks to save the California millions of dollars. I guess I was on the right track.
So, if I were to continue this research than the whole state of California might become the testbed. The point is that as I was watching the deployment of this technology into the general public over a year and a half ago and I could see how it would benefit educational users in terms of TCO and, more importantly, in terms of shifting towards a much more flexible system for delivering educational content.
Raising my sights from this particular example to the larger picture of my life’s mission, which is what I think Sparky was trying to guide me toward, I have to lock on to the common threads that I have seen since my masters program days:
- The power of online technology to enable deep, long lasting, life changing communities of practice,
- The need to balance measurable learning growth with the fact that education is at it’s heart a human endeavor, and while we humans are forever capable of exceeding anyone’s expectations, we do not do so on anyone’s set schedule or according to anyone’s predetermined quotas,
- After 30-years in the classroom the problems with Technology are not about the need for more teacher training or even better technological tools. The problem is a persistent “school” culture that is still run on the competitive factory manager model where little unformed minds come in one door and little learners walk out the other, having all had the same coat of paint and varnish applied to their outsides.
- The world of technology is changing and moving forward at a pace that the traditional world of education cannot hope to keep up . But we have to find meaningful ways to keep up, which means we might have to abandon fixed mindsets about education and the classroom and teaching that were from a time when a high school graduate could enter the job market and build a lifelong career with one company.
What this means to me is that I see my position at Full Sail as a foundation to enable my graduate students to mine the depths of community, to change their learning environments one student and one classroom at a time, to reflect the best that we can accomplish by efficiently using technology and media in our instruction and interaction with our students, and to learn from every success and every set-back. This also means that I must dig deeper into my own community of learners and be less of a lurker and more of a participant and agent of change. Too long the writer in me has enjoyed the anonymous vantage of the untraceable voice making sarcastic comments from a hidden perch. And it is too tempting to let myself get distracted in my little cubicle by all of the shiny gadgets being introduced on a regular basis and to favorably compare my lack of progress with those around me who have no calling in their lives. It’s time to occupy the Captain’s chair.
It isn’t about getting a doctorate and then “retiring” on some level. Perhaps that’s part of my previous caution, is that I didn’t want to expend so much energy in the pursuit that I wouldn’t have anything left for the post-doctorate part of my life. I don’t know where I got that notion from but it seems pretty stupid as I commit the thought to words on the screen. Anyway, I don’t come from a family with too many doctoral academics. There are plenty of masters graduates among my siblings and cousins (amazing when one considers that a high school diploma was the terminating degree of almost 100% of my parents’ associates who graduated at all). So I don’t come at this with any sense of expectation beyond acknowledging that I have been one lucky kid who worked to keep his options open to pursue his academic musings. I guess it’s time to be the adult and not the lurker, to do more than guide the next generation, but to have part in changing the paths that they will follow.
I think that drive, the intellect and passion behind it are the keys to my entrance into the hall of academics, the mythic doctorate club. I will not check my ID or my iPhone at the door.
images: Me and Sparky and 090723 stickam session by Joe Bustillos (cc) 2009
Quote: “Captain of the Enterprise?” from the movie: Star Trek: Generations, story by Rick Berman, Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111280/quotes retrieved on 7/23/2009
YouTube video: Leading the Nation Into a Digital Textbook Future – Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (Teil 1), posted by http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hPi1hrJxFQ retrieved on 7/23/2009