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BELLTONES: Committee of One Gets Things Done

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Mar 1, 2011
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Which cliché holds the greater truth: “Two heads are better than one” or “A committee of one gets things done”? If we are to heed today’s most common admonitions, the first is preferred. Collaboration is a catchword these days. It is lauded in staff developments, self-help books, and professional standards. We are reminded that youngsters must collaborate in order to succeed in today’s shrinking and interdependent world. I can personally attest to the value of collaboration in my own work. But the second saying has truth on its side as well. There are times when one person, acting alone and often against odds, can instigate much needed change and, in many cases, can open the door for collaborative efforts to take place.

I have been thinking about this topic for several months. In October 2010, I attended the Internet Librarian conference, one of my favorite annual events for professional growth. The keynote speaker was Patricia Martin, author of Renaissance Generation: The Rise of the Cultural Consumer and What It Means to Your Business. Frankly, when I read about her in the program, I was less than enthused. I am a bit jaded when it comes to applying practices from the business world to education and even to librarianship. Despite my initial prejudice, I found myself listening and taking notes with great interest during the session.

The title of Martin’s speech was “Adding Value to Your Community,” and an important element was the value of one person. I was particularly taken with her story about Sam DeLaGarza (!/samdelag). He was given the daunting task of revitalizing and repurposing the Ford Fiesta. Since his superiors did not expect him to succeed, they gave him a meager budget. In an unprecedented move, he used most of the money on social networking. As he was communicating with members of the group he thought would be his target (young adults just starting out in the world), he made a stunning discovery: A significant number of this demographic did not want a car at all, but rather they were looking for ways to get along without one. Armed with this information, he knew he had to convince these leery consumers to buy the economical Fiesta, and that became his focus. His success exceeded expectations, and the popularity of the Fiesta was one thing that helped Ford fare better than other car companies through the economic downturn. Quite a lot for one person to do!

Granted, he did not do all this alone. But he was the agent of change. He got the ball rolling. No one at Ford had previously launched a major project via Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites. He led out with something new and different in a company steeped in tradition. Somebody has to be that person in many situations. The reason this notion resonates with me is because I believe that in some schools, there may not be a lot of enthusiasm for new ideas. I know there are all those forward-thinking school administrators, teachers, librarians, and other educators who are doing great things with technology and the internet, but I fear they are not the majority.

I cannot quit worrying about those schools we do not hear about because there is precious little to hear. Later in the Internet Librarian conference, I presented to attendees at the concurrent conference for K–12 educators, Internet@Schools. During my session, I asked this question: “How many of you are at schools that are really zooming along with technology?” I expected to see a lot of hands … after all, this was a conference for nerds and geeks. Not one hand went up. So I said, “Well, how about if you are at a school where some neat things are happening?” That elicited a few half-raised hands, and actually, I do think these folks were being modest because I know they are doing great things. Even so, I was taken aback. Some people in the room were presenters, yet they thought things at their schools were not exactly zooming.

This reinforced my suspicion that while there may be lots of computers in school labs and classrooms, they may be underused or used more for drill and kill rather than with much creativity. I suspect the same is true for whiteboards, cameras, clickers, and other devices that have become popular in the last 5 or so years. Now, I have to wonder how many iPads and e-readers will meet the similar fates of being acquired with great fanfare but then allowed to gather dust. I frequently hear this about unused software and equipment from my M.L.S. students, some of whom enter our program with minimal computer skills and not much exposure to Web 2.0 applications or even more basic computer uses with kids.

Discouraging? You bet! Still, the story of DeLaGarza gives me hope. There can be change, even when there is just one person with a vision. That is a message I want to get out to those who struggle against the odds with efforts to bring 21 st-century skills to their libraries and schools!

How do we accomplish this? I put the question to my listserv compadres and got some great stories and tips:


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