Some thoughts on learning technologies in the classroom

I was invited to participate in a panel session as part of the inaugural London Festival of Education today. It was a great event with some big name speakers as well as thoughtful contributions from those at the sharp end in the classroom. I’ve written it up in a combined post with MozFest on my conference blog.

As ever with panel sessions I didn’t get a chance to say all I wanted to say about the topic of the session, which was entitled How learning technologies are changing teaching. The session description revealed more: “Slates and chalk have been replaced with iPads, and blackboards by interactive whiteboards. But is it the same old teaching just with fancy new kit?”

Writing up the notes from this session in an organised, coherent way would require a book. And I’ve already got one of those to write. So I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with the following:

  • Wouldn’t it be great if we had a national agency to advise schools on how to use technology effectively? Although it was far from ideal, Becta was that agency. And we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
  • The classroom is a symbol of intergenerational solidarity and conflict. Because it symbolises a shared experience it’s a contested space everyone thinks they’re an expert upon.
  • Focusing on specific examples can be limiting. I caught the end of a discussion as part of the Today programme BBC Radio 4 on Thursday morning. The representative from Nesta was asked for an example of ‘a really good lesson’ using tablet computers. Quite rightly they didn’t attempt to answer the question. I think I’d have been tempted to throw the question back at them and ask what a really good lesson using pencils would look like.
  • Technologies are more than just tools. And they’re not ‘neutral’. They were designed by someone, or a group of people, or a multi-national profit-seeking organisation for a particular purpose.

“A bias is simply a leaning – a tendency to promote one set of behaviours over another. All media and all technologies have biases. It may be true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”; but guns are a technology more biased to killing than, say, clock radio. Televisions are biased toward people sitting still in couches and watching. Automobiles are biased toward motion, individuality, and living in the suburbs. Oral culture is biased towards communicating in person, whilst written culture is biased toward communication that doesn’t happen between people in the same time and place.” (Douglas Rushkoff)

  • Different technologies have different affordances. They may look the same and be put in the same categories by retailers and reviewers, but the opportunities they afford are different. This isn’t to do with cost, it’s to do with the logic of the device. So with some devices the trade-off you get for them being extremely easy-to-use is being locked into a proprietary ecosystem.
  • Technologies do not operate in a vacuum. How, why and where technologies are used depends upon our values, expectations and motivations.

“When technologies are released, they are adopted and appropriated within existing social values, structures and expectations; they are shaped and reshaped by beta testers, early adopters and marketers; and they come to mean different things and be used for different purposes by different people. Different social, religious and cultural values, for example, pattern the uptake of medical technologies… [and] domestic technologies are appropriated into the existing values and cultures of families.” (Keri Facer)

  • We can’t engineer future-proof schools. The future doesn’t just happen, it’s created by all of us. We shouldn’t be at the whim of people trying to make a profit by selling things.

“Rather than envisaging a ‘future-proof school that tries to insure itself against socio-technical change, therefore, we have the opportunity to create future-building schools that actively support their communities to tip the balance of socio-technical change in favour of fair, sustainable and democratic futures.” (Keri Facer)

  • Doing the wrong thing faster or better isn’t progress. Going further down a wrong road doesn’t mean you’re going to get to the destination you had in mind. We need to re-think how we measure learning. If educators feel that something is valuable but it doesn’t necessarily lead to better test scores, then we need to re-think the tests.

“You can’t take on twenty-first-century tasks with twentieth-century tools and hope to get the job done.” (Cathy Davidson)

“As Internet analyst Clay Shirky notes succinctly, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” (Cathy Davidson)

  • Spending all day looking at screens is a bad thing. But technology can augment what we do. Think of sports tracking utilities that enable you to compete against yourself. Or track the number of steps you do and upload it to a website. Personalised, embedded technologies are a huge leap forward in terms of what we can do with learning and teaching. The example usually used is having a search engine in your pocket, but infinitely more powerful is a network of people – human agency – on tap. It can turn everyone into a superhero, compared with the 20th century.
  • Concerns about the impact of technology on the brain are often misguided. The brain is supposed to rewire itself. How else could you learn anything?

“Many of our anxieties about how the new digital technologies of today are “damaging” our children are based on the old idea of neural development as fixed, or “hardwired.” and on notions of distraction and disruption as hindrances instead of opportunities for learning. Our fears about multitasking and media stacking are grounded in the idea that the brain progresses in a linear fashion, so we are accumulating more and more knowledge as we go along. Most of us, as parents or teachers or educational policy makers, have not yet absorbed the lessons of contemporary neuroscience: that the most important feature of the brain is Hebbian, in the sense that the laying down of patterns causes efficiencies that serve us only while they really are useful and efficient. When something comes along to interrupt our efficiency, we can make new patterns.” (Cathy Davidson)

  • Instead of platforms as standards we should focus on standards as standards. We like to belong to things that are popular. That’s why technologies – including social networks – have a tipping point, but also a lifecycle. Just as an example, go to a conference and ask if anyone can lend you an iPhone charger. You’ll be inundated. Yet there are actually more phones with micro-USB chargers – and, in fact, it’s an EU regulation that users can use this standard to charge their phone. It’s a less extreme example of breast milk versus powdered milk in developing countries – there’s no-one to champion the former so those peddling the latter make millions.
  • We need mind-expanding education and critical thinking skills, but we don’t need to regurgitate facts. There’s a quotation on the side of the British Library that I like:

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” (Samuel Johnson)

“The biggest problem we face now is the increasing mismatch between traditional curricular standards of content-based instruction and the new forms of thinking required by our digital, distributed workplace. at any level – blue collar or white collar – those jobs requiring “routine thinking skills” are increasingly performed by machines or outsourced to nations with a lower standard of living than [us].” (Cathy Davidson)

  • Technology can be used well and technology can be used badly. Technology may have biases and affordances, but it can be bent to the will of human beings. There are rich, innovative, exciting and liberating uses of technologies. And there are dull, pointless, soul-sapping use of technologies. We need to use technology mindfully.

“The mindful use of digital media doesn’t happen automatically. Thinking about what you are doing and why you are doing it instead of going through the motions is fundamental to the definition of mindful, whether you are deciding to follow someone on Twitter, shutting the lid of your laptop in class, looking up from your BlackBerry in a meeting, or consciously deciding which links not to click.” (Howard Rheingold)

  • We need to invest in training and peer assistance. Teachers are insanely overworked: no other industry would stand for it. And teacher CPD – especially around technology – is poor. More recently there’s been a fashion to say that learning technologies should be as easy to use as Facebook which is ridiculous. Most people were introduced to Facebook by family, a friend, or a colleague. They forget the learning curve and the constant re-learning they have to do when the interface and controls change.
  • The skills, competencies and literacies we need now are different from those required in the past. It’s like a huge Venn diagram that’s constantly overlapping and moving. We’d do well to remember that we’re not trying to create adults like us but adults that will have the skills appropriate to the world in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time.

“I didn’t let my child loose on the streets without teaching her about traffic and looking both ways. Similarly, I don’t like to see otherwise well-educated people loose in digital culture without knowing something about what makes a small-world network work or why a portfolio of weak ties is important.” (Howard Rheingold)

“In previous eras, it may have been true that “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Today how you know what you know matters as much as who you know, and one of the most valuable traits a person could have in a twenty-first-century organisation is a knack for knowing “who know who knows what.”” (Howard Rheingold)

  • We need names for things so that we can easily have conversations about them. Take, for example, the concept of the flipped classroom (where content is ‘delivered’ at home and activities take place during lesson time). Forward-thinking educators have been doing that for years, but now it has a delivery channel (YouTube, Facebook, etc.) and a name. It’s a thing.
  • Learners will almost always know more about technology than their teachers. That’s not a reason to avoid using technologies, that’s a reason to embrace them. It’s empowering and demonstrates the teacher as lifelong learner. It’s scary to let go of the reins, but hugely beneficial and changes the dynamic of the classroom.
 

Time for a NICE-r kind of education?

Teaching may be as much of an art as a science, but there’s stuff that we know works in education. Whilst context definitely matters there are things – like timely, formative feedback – that can be done well no matter where you are and what situation you’re in.

To my mind, we should have something like the NHS Evidence website for things relating to pedagogy. It could provide answers to questions like:

  • Where’s the evidence for using tablet computers in education?
  • Where can I find out more about different forms of assessment?
  • Is there a sound research basis for giving homework?

The NHS Evidence website is provided by NICE – the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. We have nothing similar for education. Although health is as much of a political football as education, at least they’ve got a research basis.

If there’s no political will to separate politics and education, perhaps it’s time for a non-profit to do this kind of stuff? Or perhaps they are and they need more publicity?

 

Some thoughts on iPads and one-to-one initiatives [DMLcentral]

My latest post at DMLcentral (the 10th I’ve written for them) is now up. Entitled Some Thoughts on iPads and One-to-One Initiatives I reflect on the seeming tendency of educational institutions not to heed lessons about buying wholesale into a single vendor’s ecosystem.

To my mind, educational institutions uncritically adopting iPads is very similar to the dominance Microsoft had through their Windows series of operating systems and Office suite. I argue in the post for a ‘mixed economy’ of devices which is better in the long run for all concerned.

Check out the post by clicking here.

(I’ve closed comments here so you can comment there!)

 

What Constitutes ‘Rigour’ in Our 21st-Century Educational Systems? [DMLcentral]

My latest post for DMLcentral is up. Entitled What constitutes ‘rigour’ in our 21st-century educational systems? I analyse the latest moves of Michael Gove, the English Secretary of State for Education:

What concerns me about Gove’s proposals is the assumption that rigour consists of a very particular method of assessing young people’s knowledge, understanding and skills. I say this as a former teacher and senior leader, as someone who is currently involved in education on a national and international level and, most importantly, a parent. The ability to sit still and concentrate for three hours on examination questions testing feats of memory does not sound to me like a 21st century skill. Which pieces of the complex puzzle of human knowledge, skills and understanding are not captured under such a system? I’d suggest many.

I’m closing comments here so that you can comment over there. 🙂

 

Time, innovation and funding.

I’ve worked in both schools and universities. In the former the ‘barrier’ to innovation is usually said to be time. In the latter it’s usually seen as the trials and tribulations of getting funding.

Whilst I agree that teachers work crazy hours and that both schools and universities are generally underfunded, I can’t help but think that the real reason institutional innovation is stifled is because of permission-seeking.

We all know that the worst kind of censorship is self-censorship – the fear that your actions might bring displeasure or punishment. People, I’m sad to say, don’t tend to give themselves the permission to innovate.

It might be slightly controversial to say so, but it’s easy to ask for time and money in an attempt to ensure a project is a success. And it’s also easy to say that something’s ‘not possible given current resources’. But time and money do not in and of themselves lead to successful projects.

What I think people are hankering after when they ask for money or time for innovation projects is approval. Might I suggest that truly innovative projects are unlikely to get such approval?

Some projects need huge levels of buy-in and support and funding and scoping. Most don’t.

Just get on and do it.

Image CC BY-NC Wiertz Sébastien

 

My high school report.

Update: Some people have asked about my use of ‘high’ school in an English context. We had (and to a great extent still have) a three-tier system in Northumberland.


My parents, who live five miles away in the house where I grew up, are having a long-overdue clearout of their attic. A few days ago they brought round my National Record of Achievement. It’s a faux-leather folder with embossed letters that we used in high school to collate, well, anything other than demerits.

I opened mine and flicked through the meaningless bronze and silver awards, the certificates for things that didn’t need certificating, and the various proofs of things done I’d long since forgotten about.

Then, near the back, I came across my Year 11 report from the February of my last compulsory year in school.

Let’s have a look at some highlights, shall we?

English – “Although he tends to waste time in class, Douglas has produced all the coursework required so far…” – I wasted time because I finished all the work set and the lessons were formulaic in the extreme. I was forced to think ‘inside the box’ and I was bored to distraction.

Biology – “Douglas is able to grasp topics very quickly and shows a very good understanding. I have always been worried by his arrogant attitude…” – Why? Because I dared to go beyond the textbook we used every lesson? Because I asked hard questions that the teacher couldn’t be bothered to answer?

Physics – “Douglas shows interest in some topics but he prefers to get involved in ‘idle’ chatter too often. He has ability in this subject but he must be prepared to work harder.” – Physics was one of my favourite subjects. I just didn’t like working in an atmosphere where silence was expected (if rarely achieved) *all* of the time.

French – “In discussion with Douglas [notice never ‘Doug’] he agrees that so far this year he has been content to produce work that is just satisfactory and shows the minimum of effort.” – That might be because the closest we got to real-life French were laughably outdated videos. The (compulsory) language class felt like an irrelevance.

Life Studies – “Douglas has understood the issues raised and contributed sensibly to some of the discussions but he has not yet fully learned that there are no simple answers to complex issues.” Ouch! I saw this teacher a few weeks ago for the first time since school. I went out of my way to thank her for lending me a copy of Sophie’s World, which eventually led to me studying Philosophy at university.

Senior Tutor – “Well done, Douglas. This is an excellent report, I am sure you have a bright and interesting future ahead of you.” – Well, it *wasn’t* an excellent report, and I ultimately underachieved, but the ‘interesting future’ bit was spot-on. 🙂

The rest of the teacher comments were mainly bland and generic, focusing on me needing a revision plan and to work harder. I don’t really blame my teachers – it must have been a fairly tough place to work.

When I talked through my report with my wife it was interesting how we came at this from different angles. Given that I’ve gone on to achieve a doctorate and done reasonably well career-wise I saw the above as evidence of the disconnect between school and ‘real life’. She on the other hand, wondered what I could have been.

Of course, we’ll never know the counter-factual. We’ll never know what would have happened if I’d gone somewhere different than a school where only 25% achieved 5+ A*-C grades (the national average at the time was 45%). And, anyway, what would have constituted a ‘better outcome’? More money? More status?

I’d wager that the biggest differentiator and predictor of ‘success’ in life (whatever that is) is parental expectation. OK, so my father was Deputy Head of the high school and my mother worked in the school office, but it wasn’t their presence that kept me on the straight-and-narrow.

What kept me honest was the expectation that I would attend university. And to attend university you have to jump through the flaming hoops of examination systems. So I jumped through the hoops. I may have almost burned my bollocks a few times, but I got through in the end.

Others didn’t. Primarily, I’d argue, because they weren’t expected to.

I’m still thinking through all this and what it means for my own children, so in lieu of a neat conclusion I’ll leave you with the wise words of John O’Farrell:

Children from advantaged backgrounds are going to do much better wherever they go to school – that is module 1 of a GCSE in The Bleedin’ Obvious. If you read to your children from an early age, if the poor things are dragged round museums every other weekend, if you have the time and energy for them and are not leaving them at home alone every evening because you have a second job cleaning floors at Heathrow, then your children will do better academically. If your local comp got 50% five A-Cs including English and maths, that doesn’t mean that your child has only a 50% chance of achieving that over-simplistic benchmark. What parents generally perceive as a “better school” usually means a school with an intake that is easier to teach.

 

BYOD and cross-platform tools for learning.

I had a really interesting conversation on Twitter with Fraser Speirs and Dave Major this morning about ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) and cross-platform tools for learning. You can see that conversation ‘storyified’ here.

I’ve blogged before about why a ‘mixed economy’ of device is best for educational institutions and I’d like to expand upon that briefly with three main points:

1. Learning is something that happens in the brain of learners. You might be able to give them consistency of device and platform but you can’t guarantee that they will have the same experience. Therefore, using that as a reason to go with one particular device is problematic.

2. Educators need to focus on activities rather than tools. One of the examples that Apple advocates often give of the superiority of iPads is GarageBand. It’s an awesome application, but it’s not a learning activity. I’d be really interested in discovering which learning activities can only be carried out on one type of device. I suspect you won’t find any.

3. What we do in classrooms is linked to, but should not be driven by, market forces. We can only buy and use what’s available, but we don’t have to be taken in by the rhetoric of companies. After all, they’re in it to make money. How the world turns out is much more in the hands of educators than anyone else.

Remember that. 🙂

Image CC BY Domenic K.

 

What we’re up to with Mozilla Webmaker (Open) badges.

Update: I don’t think I make it clear enough in this post that this is an example of Mozilla ‘eating it’s own dogfood’. We’re using a Mozilla-developed technology (Open Badges) for a particular purpose (to badge Webmaker skills). Hope that makes sense!

Mozilla Webmaker Badges

Background

I work for the Mozilla Foundation as part of the Learning team. More specifically, I’m part of the recently-created Open Badges subset of that team. In practice, however, there’s enough cross-pollination to make the boundaries between sub-teams very hard to see.

Mozilla wants to create a generation of webmakers. As it states at webmaker.org:

The goal:help millions of people move from using the web to making the web. As part of Mozilla’s non-profit mission, we want to help the world increase their understanding of the web, take greater control of their online lives, and create a more web literate planet.

That web literacies piece is at least half of my time as Badges & Skills Lead. But what does that mean in practice?

It means a lot of Skype calls . That’s for sure. Oh, and more Etherpads than you can stick a shake at. 😉

Mozilla Webmaker Badges

The Open Badges ecosystem is a new way of signalling and credentialing achievements on the web. You can see me attempt to explain it quickly and concisely in this video.

What we’re trying to do as a Learning team is to identify Web Literacies, Competencies and Skills that can be badged. We’re organising these into ‘constellations’ as my colleague Chloe Varelidi so eloquently puts it – learning pathways that allow learners to follow their interests.

Webmaker badges mindmap

(click on image to enlarge)

Chloe’s post has more gorgeous visuals than mine, but the mindmap I above (made using XMind) gives a widescreen view of what we’re trying to do:

  1. Granular skills badges are awarded for micro-achievements whilst using, for example, Mozilla Thimble (e.g. adding three <p> tags)
  2. The granular skills badges count towards accumulative Web Skills badges (e.g. HTML Basics)
  3. These Web Skills badges collectively count toward Web Competencies badges
  4. In turn, these (after peer assessment) lead to the awarding of one of five different Web Literacies badges

We’re going to be iterating this in the open, because that’s how Mozilla rolls. So we’ll have some Web Skills badges ready for the Mozilla Festival 2012 (London), with Web Competencies badges in place for the DML Conference 2013 (Chicago).

At the same time as all of this, Jess Klein has been working on the user experience (UX). She’s got a great idea for what she calls Webmaker+ (inspired by Nike+) which would provide a dashboard for learners within their Open Badges backpack. She’s working on the first sketches (including the one below) which you should definitely go and take a look at:

Mozilla Webmaker Badges dashboard

The dashboard would suggest badges to learners as well as show them various analytics and data about what they’ve achieved so far. The inspiration here is (to my mind) Khan Academy’s knowledge map and Duolingo’s learning pathways.

I think it all looks awesome. I hope you agree. 🙂

Top image CC BY-NC-SA Chloeatplay

Dashboard image by kind permission of Jess!

 
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