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‘Kony 2012’ viral video provides teachable moment

“Kony 2012” is an example of disruptive technology for the classroom.

Last fall at the exact moment when Steve Jobs slipped from this Earth, I was attending a conference on Minnesota’s booming $1 billion education technology sector. Keynote speaker Thomas Jandris, vice president for innovation at Concordia University Chicago, was exhorting the attendees to resist the urge to try to sell educators high-tech ways to complete old tasks.

“For years, ed tech has catered to the payer, has sold them tools,” he said. “Now, you must pay more attention to the end user — the student — than to the payer. And this takes some stomach for risk.”

E-books, white boards, computerized assessments — they have their uses. But the entrepreneurs in attendance would do better to focus on “disruptive innovation,” the ways in which technology can unexpectedly open up markets or opportunities not yet contemplated, he said.

Fast-forward six months and my 12-year-old came home ranting about Joseph Kony, head of the Ugandan guerrilla group the Lord’s Resistance Army, who kidnapped and conscripted some 60,000 African children for his war to turn Uganda into a theocracy. The LRA is no longer active in Uganda but continues its brutal campaign in Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

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My boy was one of the 104 million people who watched “Kony 2012,” a half-four video by Invisible Children, within six days of its posting on the Internet. In it, a father tries to educate his son about a conflict he’s worked to end for decade. Compelling, it moved young people around the world to agitate for change.

I’m not sure whether my son saw the film, the most viral video in history, on his phone, his Nintendo DS, his tablet, a school computer or the one in his room, but saw it he did. More revolutionary, his classmates did, too.

Woefully ignorant

Like me, many of their parents were woefully ignorant of the war crimes or the film until they did. And the filmmakers acquired critics and controversies, and now there’s a second film and questions about whether the plight of those 60,000 African kids will stay lodged in the public’s consciousness any longer than any other viral video meme.

But: Talk about your disruptive technology. I think we can kiss goodbye the days when teens and tweens were exposed to current affairs topics approved by school district administrators, often months after their currency began to wane.

Around the country, some educators looked past the potentially intimidating subject matter and saw a teachable moment. There are stories circulating on the listserv maintained by the national Education Writers Association about schools where hand-lettered #stopkony posters decorate lockers, some apparently the product of classes designed to engage kids who are at risk of failing to graduate.

Young videographers inspired

Indeed, the film inspired some young videographers to parse the subsequent controversies online. And there are some folks who’ve prepared discussion guides for teachers who want to take advantage of the groundswell of youth interest. And there are signs that ed-tech is tuned in and trying to figure out how to capitalize on all of the disruption to innovate.

School administrators would be wise to realize there will be more Kony 2012s and educators should be empowered to capitalize when a viral campaign flashes through their classrooms, said Mike Zipko, a principal at the St. Paul public affairs public relations firm Goff Public who works in social media.

“One of the things about a video like [Kony 2012] is once you put it on YouTube, the distribution is the entire Internet,” said Zipko. “Kids got a hold of this and some teachers obviously saw something of relevance there.”

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I can’t end this post without adding that this same son this year joined his middle school’s debate team, where he has shown himself to be a natural. But the school-mandated topic his team argued for and against at various competitions was whether to colonize Mars. Which I imagine the adults thought was a nice, non-inflammatory issue until Newt Gingrich started stirring the pot.

The team did a great job, but my son’s not exactly up at night Facebooking about the urgency of settling the colonization question.   

Maybe if we take a deep breath and recall Jandris’ words about a stomach for risk we can welcome an era of student engagement. Wouldn’t it be revolutionary if the end result was kids motivated to think and inquire critically?