Sometimes, we just can't drag ourselves out to the trenches and fight the power, no matter how much our hearts might yearn for change. Activists today, however, enjoy far more of an advantage over their marching counterparts from preceding eras. No matter their time or fiscal budgets, opportunities to show support for causes important to them exist. With education reform hovering over the upcoming 2012 election, teachers, parents, administrators, and students desiring sustainable change to the system might want to explore some of the ways — big and small, of course — to reach out and push things forward.
Internet and education experts already consider open source initiatives such as Open Culture, MIT OpenCourseWare, YouTube Edu, and a slew of others the future face of schooling. Some of the most prestigious names on the college and university scene (such as the aforementioned MIT, as well as Harvard, Yale, and more!) contribute to this movement, which presents higher ed in a far more populist context than ever before. What makes open courseware so appealing to so many is the cost. Specifically, free. Because students these days fear lifelong debt for very little career payoff (and, in some cases, a not-so-quality education), this pay scale for Ivy League-level lessons definitely earns generous appeal. Participating in open source classes and visiting free sites like TED, SnagFilms, Forum Network, and Documentary Heaven that offer up amazing supplements for classrooms of all structures legitimizes the cause even further. The more formal and informal students take advantage of the eclectic offerings, the more incentive experts receive to keep sharing their knowledge in free, public forums, which contributes to the Greater Good we all love so much. And, in turn, forces traditional college and university structures to reconsider how much they really need to charge for their services.
It's common knowledge by this point that digital technologies engage learners of all ages far more than traditional methods, providing greater classroom accessibility and autonomy for students possessing different abilities. More self-directed approaches to education allay much of the stress associated with a more rigid schedule of courses and mandatory attendance. And reduced anxiety means improved performance. "Traditional" and "nontraditional" students alike have kept the online education movement thriving (as opposed to merely afloat) because they appreciate how adroitly a well-crafted class or degree plan fits into their lifestyles and encourages them to complete assignments at their own personal pace. While internet-based classrooms, diplomas, and certificates do not come free of charge like their open source counterparts, they almost always require less tuition than brick-and-mortar schools. Though, of course, the same theme of "reform through participation" applies.
The edupunk movement draws its inspiration from the DIY and (duh) punk subcultures, unsurprisingly overlapping frequently with open courseware enthusiasts. Much like open courseware enthusiasts, edupunks believe that the self-directed nature of free, expert classes and low-cost online programs should (and will) come to heavily dictate future trends amongst individuals and institutions alike. However, this movement espouses more collaboration between participants than the straightforward video lectures or internet-based classes that still stick with traditional teacher and student roles. Think of it, perhaps, as more seminar-style, where participants enjoy more agency and authority than before. Giving edupunk a shot means contributing more ideas, insights, and resources than you likely would in an online class – and certainly more than downloading publicly available lectures and course materials from a professor who might never know you even did so!
Massive Open Online Courses kind of hybridize open source and online education initiatives with the more collaborative ideologies behind the edupunks. The MOOC Guide explains the varying ways in which these structures work, including examples and drawing parallels between them and Personal Learning Networks. Colorado State University recently began accepting some credits from the independent MOOC startup Udacity, further legitimizing the movement towards more democratized education. Do we really need to explain why signing up for MOOCs supports reform? Because we already more or less did in the previous three entries.
Petitions are, admittedly, one of the epitomes of "armchair activism" in the digital era, but they certainly can lead to changes both great and small. Education, understandably, is one of the most popular topics concerning activists writing up petitions at Change.org. Read through what they have to say, sign the (well-researched!!) ones you agree with, and even offer up your own comments for consideration and discussion.
Homeschooling unfortunately continues suffering beneath the reputation as an educational bunker for religious fanatics who don't want their kids to be exposed to the secular public school system. Meanwhile, in reality, an estimated 1.5 million American parents of all faiths and political ideologies elect to teach their kids at home under multiple motivations (which we won't get into here). Suffice it to say, one major way to buck the system is removing your kids from it entirely and raising them in an environment more conducive to their needs. No matter what message you want to send, contributing to the growing numbers of homeschooling families makes sure it gets broadcast to policymakers. If they want to fill classrooms with students, they need to make an effort to understand why the parents decide to yank their kids out. Obviously, nobody can please everyone – especially families teaching on the fringes – but they can still parse out some ideas about improvements to make public schools more effective without sacrificing efficiency.
By now, we all know of social media's value as an organizational tool contributing inextricably to everything up to and including complete national rebellion. Occupy Student Loan Debt harnesses the same social media techniques as the Occupy movement from which it initially sprung, but that's only one example of many regarding the role such technology can play in promoting and shaping education reform. Whether you choose to lurk or fully participate, social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and more perpetuate the discussion through posts, comments, chats, lists, video, and more. For the truly passionate education reformer hoping to help at home, logging in should be considered a non-negotiable conduit for networking, sharing, and staying updated on all the latest news and views pertaining to the cause.
Blogging and casting:
Citizen journalism, no matter the chosen digital platform, provides more perspectives on serious issues than merely picking up a newspaper (or, more accurately, reading a newspaper's website) ever did. If social media alone doesn't satisfy your need to push a passion for education reform, consider blogging about the issues instead. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, its very shape encourages longer talks and more detailed analysis. More visual or auditory types might prefer expressing their views and sharing their findings via videos or podcasts instead, and plenty of free and low-cost sites are available to ensure their voices get heard. No matter which route suits your needs and wants most, though, just make sure to do your research and pull from reliable sources! Cutting corners on your credibility only pushes your ultimate goals further back, so stay honest, stay courteous, and stay humble should future studies prove previously accepted finds inaccurate.
We're not advocating treating your wee kidlets like miniature microphones for your personal opinions, but spending time with them will help encourage them to think more critically about their educations. And, of course, grant you a comparatively more first-person insight into how teachers and administrators approach classes. Engaged parents who do not adhere to a sensationalist ideology might very well challenge today's students to reconsider how their schooling environments affect them, offering one of the most overlooked demographics in the whole debate – kindergartners through high schoolers – a chance to speak out and share. Make some time to talk to your children and hear them out. They might very well offer up some incredibly valuable nuggets of perspective you might not otherwise consider, whether it reflects a positive or negative outlook.
Phone calls and letters:
Alternately, VOIP and e-mail. If frank chit-chats with your kids about school dredge up some genuine concerns (as in – not of the "Junior is a behavior problem because his teachers just don't recognize what a precious and individual snowflake of creativity he truly is!" mold), feel free to contact the relevant instructors and administrators. Hopefully they listen. We're not advocating acting like a stalker and badgering authority figures, because obnoxious behavior and wasting time will more than likely prove counterproductive. But silence, apathy, and resignation when confronted with issues that sincerely require addressing all signify compliance. And a signal of compliance leads those in power to think everything is totally hunky-dory lollipops way down yonder in Education Land, so they move on and throw their money and resources at something else instead.
Regardless of whether they have kids, supporters of education reform might want to consider calling or writing e-mails and letters to their local, state, and national policymakers voicing their opinions as well. Any educated contribution helps!
Gamifying the classroom definitely ignites conversations these days, and educators embracing the technology love pointing out their fabulous, not-so-secret powers to engage and entertain while teaching. If you're a developer, you might want to help teachers out by offering them small, clever smartphone apps and online games for use in the classroom. If you're a parent, you might want to supplement your children's lessons by pushing them towards such resources, simultaneously establishing a greater demand and hopefully improving their grasp of the material in the process. If you're a student, give them a chance! Recommend (over e-mail, because otherwise you'll have to leave your living room) the most effective examples to your instructors. You might very well convert a Luddite by opening up and sharing technology other enrollees will appreciate.
Charity Navigator returns 500 different organizations when plugging in the keyword "education," each of varying degrees of reliability. You might want to run more searches through the Better Business Bureau, whether of Charity Navigator-analyzed groups or not, just to make sure they boast a clear record and sterling reputation. Find one you like and, finances permitting, kick some money their way. If you want to join in the fight but don't necessarily enjoy the time, donating is a great method of showing solidarity and support.
Conversely, if you have time but not money, run some research on which education reform organizations could use your help. They might not necessarily need your services, but you may as well ask and see what all can be done from home. If nothing else, there's always reposting and retweeting information to keep your social media and blog followers abreast of the latest relevant news.
Some states (like Pennsylvania), districts, and individual schools have started allowing parents to remove their kids from the stressful milieu of standardized testing with no penalties. Instead, they turn in equivalent assignments involving writing, designing, building, or another project approved by the governing bodies. Plenty of professional educators and parents despise the frequently arbitrary tests that all too often dictate student futures more than classroom grades and extracurricular activities. One of the many major cornerstones behind the education reform cause involves either changing or entirely obliterating the SATs, ACTs, and other standardized tests. Parents who would not mind seeing this happen should check their local rulings regarding opting out to show their support.
Reading isn't "fun for mentals," it's fundamental – especially when it comes to serious social issues like ensuring fair, equal educational opportunities for all who seek them. In order to best understand all the subjects feeding into the education reform debate, you have to actually fire up the Internet or pick up a book and school yourself. You can't be an effective leader or supporter without reading a few things about the concepts, institutions, and individuals behind the movement. Soak up as many expert opinions and scholarly studies as you can, regardless of whether you agree with everything they say. It'll help you coagulate more cogent opinions and engage in proper debate rather than poking at straw opposition and resorting to Limbaugh-like hysteria.