Rethinking Technology Leadership

Well, I've really enjoyed this week of guest blogging.  As an academic whose professional livelihood requires writing according to lots of strict formatting and content guidelines, I find a lot of freedom in the blogging form.  Thank you, Scott, for giving me this opportunity.


I was going to go for the trifecta and write about technology through another popular non-fiction book, but I decided to just attach a copy of an article I had published last year.  In that article, I make reference to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.  In particular, I argue that the Internet, as an embodiment of multiple forms of computer-mediated communications, is a space with properties that correlate with necessary attributes of community.  I won't go on...it's all there in the article. (Download 04300_06_becker.pdf)

So, instead of my Bowling Alone/Internet/community argument, for my final post I just want to offer some of my latest musings on the the intersection of educational technology and school leadership.  As Scott has mentioned, there are a handful of professors of educational leadership who think deeply about technology issues.  I have the good fortune of knowing and working with these folks.  We meet at conferences and whenever Scott pays for us to come together (hehe).  One of the topics we discuss regularly is the notion of "technology leadership."  We ponder questions such as: "what is technology leadership?...How, if at all, is it different than other forms of educational leadership?...If school leaders don't understand technology issues, is technology leadership then just a matter of good distributed leadership?...etc., etc." 

These days, however, I'm thinking those lines of inquiry are misguided.  I think by naming and wondering about this thing called "technology leadership" we may be guilty of doing the sort of labeling and boxing-in that I argue vehemently against in so many other aspects of education.  To suggest that "technology leadership" is a separate leadership domain could set us down a bad path.  A fair analogy would be the world of special education.  In our doctoral program, a critical mass of our students work in an administrative capacity in the field of special education.  At a recent colloquium, many of those students voiced their concerns and displeasure about being treated as a separate entity from general education.  Furthermore, such treatment allowed the general education leaders (particularly the superintendents and building principals) to perform what they thought was distributed leadership but what was probably better characterized as passing the buck.  These special ed. leaders felt strongly that many of the problems they face would be alleviated if the general education leaders knew more about and were more actively involved in special education.

I think some of my colleagues may disagree with what I just wrote, but that could lead to a healthy dialog.  Regardless, given what I wrote, my focus this year is in figuring out how to reach out to a general education leadership audience.  I think we need to think about ways to infuse our existing leadership preparation programs with technology issues.  So, when we talk about supervision and observation, we need to mention mVal and other technology-based models.  In the school law classes, we must address technology-related issues such as data privacy, Internet safety, etc.  When students discuss community engagement, they need to know about the power of computer-mediated communications.  And on and on...

Thanks again, Scott, and to bring this post full-circle, I know that this blog will grow into a vibrant and healthy community.  I'm glad I'm a part of it.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.