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Global Village Conference in 1994

By David Ayers
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #6, 1994.

What happened at Global Village Conference, 1994
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Dr. David Ayers

This was the second annual conference of the Global Villages Institute (GVI)—an organization with sweeping vision, missionary zeal, and powerful supporters.

GVI’s name and guiding principles come from Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement that information technology would radically transform our planet into a “global village” where old barriers of place and time would rapidly shrink into insignificance. The aim of the conference was to discuss ways in which new technologies and approaches to teaching could be used to equip students for the information age. And, of course, they came to discuss how old approaches to schooling would have to be transformed to accommodate these changes.

Practical Homeschooling was there to take a close look at the latest high-end technological developments. We also wanted to learn about what new kinds of education these visionaries were proposing. Our bottom line: “What do we see here that could be helpful, and what do we see that could be harmful, to homeschoolers and the homeschooling movement?”

On the bright side, a lot of the technology presented had real merit. For example, one well-attended presentation dealt with the Internet and its AskERIC educational research service. This session explored ways that students and teachers can delve into many topics with a depth and impact impossible in traditional libraries and classrooms. The speaker showed us how to gather information not only in “hard data” (book or print) form, but also as sound and graphics, and on topics ranging from raising pet hamsters to Matisse, the Great Books, and Mars exploration. (And you thought you were on the cutting edge with your CD-ROM encyclopedia!)

Chris Dede—Mr. Reality Check
The Educational Testing Service (ETS) presentation on computerized student evaluation was also valuable. We looked at how computers were being used for more convenient standardized testing. Consistent with the theme of “technology transcending place and time” says ETS, test-takers can now get almost instant feedback from tests taken in their own homes. Yes—your child might soon be able to take standardized tests in his pajamas! Great for all of you who must test regularly to meet state guidelines . . . assuming the tests themselves do not become tests of political orthodoxy, and that privacy concerns can be met.

But it went beyond this. We saw new computer testing programs being developed that would allow true performance assessment—evaluating what a student can actually do. These will make it possible for a student to take tests using multiple ways to solve single problems; to solve problems in teams; and to apply a range of academic disciplines to tasks. The instructor can evaluate the choices the student makes and the processes he uses. For homeschoolers, who usually seek knowledge beyond rote memorization, and who engage in cross-disciplinary learning projects, set up co-ops, and employ hands-on learning, the uses for this technology are obvious.

And of course, there were lots of the latest gadgets: interactive television, multi-media computers, networked schools, on-line collaborative student projects, international e-mail pen pals, and so on. There were “wonder academies,” such as ACT in McKinney, Texas, where all students are given a notebook computer and phone jacks line the walls, or Peakview Elementary School of Aurora, Colorado, where the typical classroom has computers and video equipment, and parents, teachers and students work together designing and implementing cross-subject, often high-tech, projects. No wonder all those public school teachers attending looked so dazed—most had never even heard of most of this. It was common to here them referring to it, with a mixture of suspicion and awe, as “zowie stuff.”

Many speakers emphasized that we need to readjust our philosophies, attitudes, and methods to accommodate these new technologies. Surprisingly, a lot said in this regard would please homeschoolers. These “new” approaches included: transcending the limits of the classroom; less age- and grade-segregation; emphasizing individual, self-directed work; teachers as facilitators and co-explorers rather than just as lecturers and drillers; the need for different techniques for different individuals; the need for using a broader range of approaches and technology for teaching given subjects; flexibility of time and place; the centrality of parental involvement; and making parents co-learners as well as teachers.

Homeschoolers could really use some of the suggestions made at the conference. For example, many pointed out that, to gain the benefits of educational computing, users need resource centers and tech support. There’s no reason why regional homeschool associations and sympathetic churches couldn’t make a creative effort to provide such support. (“Hi! I’m the Minister of Technology at Main Street Baptist Church!”)

Another helpful idea was that technology buyers should sit down and work out a plan encompassing their long-range needs before making purchases, to reduce the need for expensive and troublesome upgrades later. One of the most convincing speakers along this line was Carol Maero from Disney World, who pointed out some of their most fascinating rides still run on eight-track tapes and twenty-year-old mainframe systems because of such planning.

Then there were discussions about the value of industry-educator collaboration—an area homeschoolers ought to be thinking about far more than we currently are.

Finally, several speakers warned—wisely—against a “Pollyanna” view of technology. Christopher Dede, an educational futurist with George Mason University, said users “could end up neglecting the real world while erecting empty castles in hyper-space.” You thought television could be dangerous—try virtual reality. This is good to think about when considering how to use technology at home.

At least among the Global Village leadership, a more positive view of homeschooling prevails than is common among educational elites. The Global Village statement of purpose specifically lists homeschoolers among those they wished to be involved. GVI Executive Director James Mecklenburger said this about small, home-based academies—something very close to full-blown home schools: “‘Cottage Schools’ is a pleasant name for the phenomena of home-based schools; neighborhood learning centers. These are approaches to education that become more feasible at high levels of quality, as the information age reduces the need for school campuses.” One conference attendee, a public school teacher, wrote about such schools: “Would cottage schools be too isolated socially? I believe our present system isolates our children far more than a home environment would. . . . Flexibility and close supervision is the key to positive social interaction; the cottage system has it, and the institutional school system does not.”

Now we turn to the dark side of the Global Villages conference. From time to time attendees were immersed in a strong under-tow of hyper-humanistic and even deconstructionist (“we create our own realities”) thinking that could be, well—flaky at times. In one plenary session with several hundred in the audience, we were informed by Linda Farley at ACT Academy that her students “can be trusted to construct their own knowledge.” To be fair, Farley also talked of resolving tension “between what the learner wants to know and what we want them to know.” William Crocoll, a District Superintendent in Vermont, said that in his schools there were no curriculums. Of six major presentations in that session, all emphasized “self-direction” to the point where at times it seemed there was little a student had to learn. Afterwards, a black elementary school principal turned to me and said, “They don’t seem to understand that a lot of kids—like many I deal with—need more structure, not more freedom.”

Ted Turner preaching his sermon
At times, there were complete breaks from reality. Paul Messier of the National Learning Foundation, a great fan of Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Vice President Al Gore, talked in Gore-like terms about “reinventing” things. Healthy students, he said, must learn to “rescript themselves,” “add reality,” “create reality,” and “play with reality.” Towards the end of his talk, he warned us all, “Create yourself by design, or be created by default.” Walking out of that sessions, it was easy to remember Dede’s warning from the previous session against “erecting empty castles in hyper-space” with technology—something Messier and not a few others there seemed prone to do.

In the area of morals, most of the presenters left no doubt of their thoroughly humanistic and relativistic approach—one made more dangerous by the kind of technology at their disposal to promote it in impressionable students. Teachers and parents were not emphasized as authority figures; no one dealt with their role in enforcing objective morals. Up to half of the presenters gave lists of the character traits they sought to instill in students. Compassion, love of learning, self-directed, team-oriented and so on were mentioned by most. Except for these values needed to be “global village learners,” absolutes were avoided. Students were not to be corrected against sinful tendencies such as sloth and stubbornness. John Newsom, media consultant with Bellevue Public schools near Seattle, was plainer than most, but not atypical, when he said, ”Everyone is on a non-judgmental learning curve . . . don’t do anything directive.”

This weakness in the Global Villages world became most evident in the main luncheon event of the conference, a lengthy speech by Ted Turner, owner of Turner Broadcasting. He opened his monologue with an attack on Christian beliefs, asserting, “This is my take on religion—God didn’t create man in His own image, we created God in our own image.” Towards the middle of his speech, following a humorous but incessant attack on the Catholic Church, polluters, the military, large families, and other scapegoats of the Hollywood Left (he is presently married to Jane Fonda), he gave his ten “voluntary initiatives” to replace the Ten Commandments which, he claimed, “needed updating.” These included none of the “old” ten, but did include ones like, “I promise to have no more than two children—or no more than my nation suggests,” “I support the United Nations and its efforts to collectively improve conditions on this planet.” His new “suggestions” were followed by laughter and prolonged applause; the finish of his speech by a long, standing ovation by a crowd of over 500 educators.

Obviously, not everyone in the room agreed with Turner wholeheartedly, nor would it be fair to label his views the norm for Global Villagers based only on their enthusiastic reception. Turner was funny, he is a celebrity, and of course, as a group it is probable that Global Villagers are anxious to win his favor. Still, it is not at all comforting that our Protestant Practical Homeschooling writer was the only one of over 500 in the audience to decide on principle not to stand during the thunderous ovation at the end, after a direct assault on the Catholic faith, Christianity, the God of the Bible, the Ten Commandments and so forth. (There weren’t even any Catholics there? No Jews?)

Nor did it help much afterwards when we were told by Mark Sherry of the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology, one of three co-sponsors of the conference, that Ted Turner supported Global Villages in a big way this year through free advertising and other public support, and that they hoped by next year to claim him as a major financial backer as well. This is hardly likely to discourage some of the negative tendencies we described earlier!

In the main, Global Villagers are sympathetic to many technological and educational innovations of real value, which homeschoolers ought to applaud and take advantage of. And they are more congenial to homeschooling than many educators. However, we also observed New Age tendencies and more than a little bias against central Christian beliefs. This cannot and should not be ignored.

Yet we homeschoolers can learn a lot here—far too much to ignore or discard because of these concerns. In a short talk over a month after the conference, James Mecklenburger, GVI Executive Director, told us that he is very desirous of seeing more involvement by homeschoolers in their conferences. Perhaps some savvy Christian homeschooling leaders could make a presentation or two at the next Global Village conference. Done cautiously, this need not be a bad thing at all.

For more information on the Global Villages movement, try the Global Villagers open forum on America Online, launched in July of 1994.

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