Ghost Dancing

Ghost Dancing at Pine Ridge

A week ago I found myself once again in a completely over run and outmatched Austin Texas, at the start of what has become a string of SxSW (‘south by’ newbies learn quickly), festivals starting with the relatively new SxSW edu.  It is rumored that when the original SxSW music festival started in 1987, one could buy a pass to every performance for under $20.  This year a platinum badge cost almost $1,600 and that didn’t get you into all the events, many requiring corporate connections.  In fact, in what is an old story with ‘successful’ events of this type, SxSW has become completely corporate, through and through.  Thanks Twitter J

As I sat in panel after panel at SxSW edu I found myself reflecting on how the ‘corporate nature’ of SxSW as a whole was playing out at edu.  Yes, of course, the corporate sponsors including the College Board (who brings you the SATs), the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, the Pearson and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations and others in what a friend of mine now refers to as ‘the educational cabal’ were omni present – on the walls and in the talks.

In fact the biggest continuous set of presentations was organized around inBloom,  rumored to have received many millions of dollars to aggregate digital assets so that individual teachers could build customized educational experiences for their individual students.  The inBloom folks had enough funding, apparently, to offer free beer and snacks every afternoon for the entire meeting, assuring attendance.  In contrast, I felt sorry for the poor corporate speakers in the big Google sponsored e-learning Lounge who lectured enthusiastically about what is essentially the same basic idea in ‘Google world’ without altering their scripted regular requests for feedback from an audience not present, probably due to the lack of beer.  (Don’t these guys know why most people now come to SxSW??).

Anyway, in these corporate presentations and the largely corporate styled panel-based product pitches, the theme over and over again seemed to be that ‘digitalization’ (a more general version of ‘gamification’) was the future of the educational system.  This trend made glaringly obvious when an executive of one of the ‘former’ textbook publishers made the specific point that they were now in the digital media market not the textbook publishing business.  (hmmm, the product he showed sure looked an awful lot like a digitized textbook).

So what was going on here?  What teachers and which educational system have the time or expertise to individually customize digital assets for individual students?  (the beer-drinking teachers in the  back of the inBloom room seemed to think that this was marvelously amusing and THEY were at SxSW  J ).  And what teachers or students for that matter were being referred to by the panelist who proclaimed that teachers need to teach children how to use digital media?  (Do the actually KNOW any children – clearly haven’t spent any time on Whyville).   And did anyone really expect Bill Gates (the former CEO of Microsoft you remember) to offer an insightful evaluation of the current state of the educational system and its future – instead of pitching more examples of digitalization Gates certified?  Do they all really believe that putting a digital cover over the current educational system is going to protect it from being undermined by tech savvy children?

Ghost Dancing:

Ah yes, again, history might be instructive.  In 1889, near the end of the U.S. Indian Wars, the prophet Wovoka of the Northern Paiutes Nation had a vision during a total eclipse of the sun, in which his God told him that if every Indian danced a new “Ghost Dance” all evil in the world (read the white man) would be swept away leaving the Western United States filled with food, love and faith.  The Ghost Dancing movement spread across the plains and all the way to the coast of California, adapted to the cultures and beliefs of individual tribes.  The Sioux, locked in a running battle with the U.S. Cavalry, introduced Ghost Shirts to the celebration, believing that by wearing the shirts their warriors would be impervious to the white man’s bullets.  Sadly, Wounded Knee was the last Ghost Dance for the Sioux.


The strong sense that I had at SxSW (and increasingly elsewhere) is that we were all being lulled into a Ghost Dance that involved covering up the mess of the educational system with digital ghost shirts.  Don’t projects like inBloom, for example, miss the point that children are already using the Internet to teach themselves and customize their own learning experiences?  Instead of providing tools for the existing educational system to impose its own preferred order, shouldn’t we be building communities in which not only teachers, but parents, grand parents and others encourage and engage with what children are already doing?   Shouldn’t we be asking, what does this new technology natively allow us to do, rather than how can we paste what we have always done into this new technology?  In Wovoka’s original vision, he himself was chosen by God to manage the people of the Western United States, leaving the (white) President of the United States to manage the East.  Is Ghost dancing in the world of education also about control, and protecting the old established order from the onward march of a new technology and the kids that use it?  Surveys today already suggest that many parents believe that their children are learning more on the Internet than in school and that most parents now regard at least K-8 as primarily custodial.  Will the SxSW panel pickers next year accept my proposed panel titled “Improving the custodial function of public education”?  Or will we hear more panels and more corporate presentations explaining how a digital ghost shirt will save the day (and their old top-down business models)?  It seems to me that far from instructing children in the use of digital technology the question is whether the educational system, given its encumbrances, including the industry long arrayed around it, is going to be able to catch up to what children are already doing?  If it can’t (and I have my doubts), is it headed to its own Wounded Knee?

Perhaps I will organize a raid of children (I do have the horses nearby) on SxSW next year – might be interesting.  J