A lot has been made of about the role of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa recently. Whilst I don’t know enough about Egypt, Libya and Bahrain to comment on their internal political situation, what I do know is that it takes more than the mere ‘potential’ of something to make a difference in practice.
And so it is with education. Mark Allen’s contribution to the #purposed debate reminded me of the important difference between something’s being available and an individual or group having the requisite skills and critical faculties to use it in a new, interesting, or even revolutionary way. As I mentioned in my comment on Mark’s blog, one of the reasons I think everyone should study a little Philosophy and History is because it prepares one to consider the ways things might, could or should be rather than being limited to tinkering within existing parameters.
So next time you read or hear of a technology or service that is going to, is, or has ‘revolutionised’ something, think of the context and milieu into which that tool or idea has been launched. As with Purpos/ed, it’s very likely you’ll find more than a hint of latent demand and the ‘adjacent possible’ in there. It’s never just about the tool or service.
Dan Meyer, an inspirational teacher I’ve mentioned plenty of times before, has as his mantra “less helpful”. You can see it on his blog and watch him explain what he means in this TEDx presentation (see especially his stuff on Clever Hans).
I’ve decided my mantra is going to be less shiny. Just as Dan helped his students (he’s currently pursuing a full-time PhD) by being less helpful and not spoon-feeding them, so I’m going to help everyone I meet by being, and by promoting the concept of being, less shiny. That’s not to say that things can’t be exquisitely well-designed (I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro) but function needs to enter the equation on an least an equal footing with form.
At this point I’d like to drop into the mix that I bought two (original, 16GB wifi) iPads today – one for my wife and son, and one for me. Together they cost the same as the wifi + 3G model I was tempted by a few months ago. They’re less shiny – and less expensive – than they were yesterday. Why? The announcement of the iPad 2.
It’s not always a question of “We can afford it, so…” As I explained when divesting in 2009, there’s a difference between recognising the appropriate use of technology and being the equivalent of a dog chasing shiny cars. The iPad’s actually useful now: you can edit Google Docs (the holy grail for me). There’s established workflows, gestures and norms that surround it. I’d say there’s definitely a case for using them in a considered and focused way within educational environments.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we should always hold off buying new products straight away: we should just know what to do with them. As Agnes Kukulska-Hulme pointed out when I interviewed her for the JISC Mobile & Wireless Technologies Review I undertook last year, sometimes a device comes out (in her case, e-book readers) that almost exactly solves the problem you’ve defined.
New, free and shiny technologies are like catnip to educators. An almost-tangible frisson of excitement cascades through Twitter, Facebook and subsequently staff rooms and TeachMeets in the hours, days and months following announcements of such products and services.
(click image for explanatory presentation)
Is there a business model behind the technology? (OSS counts!)
Can it be used in a transformative way?
Style is not substance.
I’ve certainly been guilty of using things in the classroom mainly because they look good. And that’s fine, so long as you realise at which end of the hierarchy you’re working. Sometimes you need a bit of the shiny.
Teachers want ‘stuff’ they can take away and use tomorrow. While I always show how the theory works in practice, it never seems to have the same impact as CPD with titles like ’10 engaging starters’ or ’7 great discussion tools’… The ‘quick fix’ is just that and somewhere down the line a proper solution needs to be found.
If I had to go back and re-teach 2003-10 again, I’d do so taking into account the sage advice of “more haste, less speed”. It’s the considered and sustainable use of technologies that make a difference.
This post isn’t a dig at teachers; it’s a broadside at senior leaders. They, after all, create the parameters within which teachers operate. If you’re pressured into using technology at the level of substitution it’s effectively akin to using a pen instead of a pencil. Something to merely mention in passing, not something to write home about.
Considered use and reflection upon the use of educational technology can be found. Start at edjournal.co.uk and start asking of each new edtech tool you come across: so what?
I’m all for breaking down the arbitrary and artificial barriers between ‘subjects’. I can remember having no idea what to specialise in at age 16 (and so hedging my bets with Maths and Physics on the one hand, and English Literature and History on the other). Despite this wish to see more osmosis between subject areas, the knowledge, skills and understanding that come under the headings ‘History’ and ‘Philosophy’ I believe to be especially important.
OK, so I’ve got degrees in both of them but their erosion, I believe, cuts us off from the past and alternative ways of thinking about the world around us. And that’s not a good thing.
Past people were neither ignorant bad managers who deserved to be exterminated or dispossessed, nor all-knowing conscientious environmentalists who solved problems we can’t solve today. They were people like us, facing problems broadly similar to those we now face. They were prone either to succeed or to fail, depending on circumstances similar to those making us prone to succeed or fail today. Yes, there are differences between the situation we face today and that faced by past peoples, but there are enough similarities for us to be able to learn from the past.
It’s surprising, and encouraging, that many of those interested in educational technology have a background in the Humanities; the latter lends, I believe, a critical element that underpins a wider digital literacy.
I’ll be speaking several times this year on ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacy’. You can be sure that I’ll be stressing the importance of the criticality developed in the Humanities subjects over some of the shortsighted technological determinism that sometimes rears it’s ugly head online. I can say with some confidence that any time you wonder how Device X ‘will change education’ you’ve got it backwards.
So, long live History and Philosophy! (although not necessarily as discrete subject areas)**
*A good deal of my reading comes from serendipitous finds in secondhand bookshops. 🙂
**If you’re wondering, the choice of image for this post comes from it being one of the best tests I’ve found so far for the reading/understanding element of ‘digital literacy’. Why? Well, because you would have to understand:
I was asked a few weeks ago to present at TeachMeet Oxfordshire by organiser Matt Lovegrove. Although I’m no longer in the classroom and couldn’t make it in person, I thought it was a great opportunity to share stuff I wish I’d known when I was still in schools. Below is my slightly-more-than-7-minute video on ‘models of learning’. Relevant links can be found underneath and it’s best viewed fullscreen! :-p
As I attend an increasing number of conferences, I’m becoming more and more aware of differences in approach taken by educational technology-related companies. Broadly-speaking, they can be represented on a continuum from ‘conspiring’ to ‘inspiring’ (place each on the left or the right depending on your political preferences).
To my mind, there’s three ways in which an edtech company can be inspiring:
Develop a product or way of learning that changes the parameters of the debate
Model effective practices with a demonstrable commitment to pedagogy
Solve a genuine learning problem
The first type can usually only be done by someone as large as Google, someone with the money, time and resources to either invent or mainstream something that changes conversations about learning and teaching.
I’ve already written about how I believe BrainPOP! to be an example of the second type; their product, whilst great, isn’t as important as their approach to how they do business.
The third type, solving a genuine learning problem (not a pseudo-problem or manufactured crisis) is important. Let me attempt to explain the subtle difference between conspiring and inspiring:
If you’re providing a way to make examinations faster and cheaper without adding any value to the process, then you’re conspiring.
If your business model is predicated upon an ‘average teacher’ or lecturer who is hostile to technology, then you’re conspiring.
If you uncritically apply the latest fad, buzzword or way of describing your product to what you’re offering, then you’re conspiring.
Involving yourself and your company in the above means conspiring to rob students of authentic and valuable educational experiences. You’re conspiring, at the end of the day, to enrich yourself and your colleagues at the expense of learners.
How, then, can edtech companies, inspire?
By making more intuitive something (educationally-valuable) that was previously difficult, awkward or tricky.
By helping engage learners through pedagogically-sound processes and not just shiny toys and impressive graphics.
By treating teachers as professionals who care about educational experiences without castigating them for not necessarily jumping on the latest bandwagon.
The Inspiring/Conspiring continuum, then, is my new method of judging edtech companies. I’ve seen some of both at the conference I’m currently attending, and I’ll be avoiding BETT 2011 (based on past experience) due to too much of a focus at the wrong end of the continuum.
As I explained to Gavin Cooney, CEO of Learnosity, after BETT 2008 I was fairly convinced that their offering, a method of recording students for language learning, was in the ‘conspiring’ camp. I couldn’t see how they were adding value. Now that I’ve actually seen what they do, I’m more convinced to place them in the other camp. It can be subtle, as it’s often one of emphasis, but anything that allows learners of a compulsory foreign language to enjoy what they’re doing, pseudocontext to be avoided through real-world learning, and teachers to have access to intuitive technology, is OK by me. 🙂
I’ve learned many important things in my life, but 2 broad truisms in particular are pertinent to this post:
The more confident and able a person is in a given area, the more they’re willing to share.
People learn at least as much from the process as they do from the end result.
So what’s the Wizard of Oz got to do with this?
The Wizard tried to look more scary and powerful than he actually was.
Behind the scenes tends to be fairly straightforward, given some pointers.
Working in isolation on something (or to maintain something) big is often unsustainable.
This is why I like to share both my outputs and the thinking behind them – as well as the half-finished, sometimes muddled, resources created along the way!
To that end I’m delighted to introduce http://onthehorizon.pbworks.com, a space I’m trialling on behalf of JISC Advance. You can find some of stuff I’m able to share as part of the mobile and wireless review I’m doing for JISC. 🙂
Discussions I’ve had with James Michie and Nick Dennis about #edjournal
A conversation I’ve just had with colleague Steve Bailey about ‘cloud’ apps from a records management perspective
The further down the rabbit-hole I go, the more reports I read, and as I talk to increasing numbers of educational technology leaders, I’m realising how problematic my actions as a standard classroom teacher actually were. Why? Well as a ‘maverick’ my actions on a small scale could potentially have undermined the larger-scale roll-out of technology in that institution. I acted in a somewhat cavalier manner to legal issues and could potentially have affected cultural acceptance of educational technology writ large.
I’m going to propose a 10-stage ‘freeze-thaw model’ of technology integration. It goes something like this:
Draw up a list of minimum specifications.
Explore the app/service/solution that has most traction.
Talk to people who can do ‘due diligence’ regarding the legal side of things (especially terms & conditions, service level agreements)
Do some small-scale testing with a pilot group.
Agree upon how the technology is going to be used.
‘Freeze’ it – i.e. no more new features for a given amount of time (e.g. a term or academic year)
Discuss new features and have pilot groups.
‘Thaw’ it – let people play about with a sandbox and go through due diligence again.
‘Re-freeze’ – i.e. add features and then freeze for a given amount of time.
I’m aware that this goes against almost everything I’ve done before. For example, at the Academy I just opened up all of the tools available with Google Apps Education Edition to see what people did with them. I was pleasantly surprised. But, leaving after a year I didn’t have to deal with the data security, workflow or sustainability aspects of this.
Any type of project that is successful is sustainable in some way. I see the freeze-thaw model as a way of encouraging responsible experimentation. 🙂
I’ve reflected before on my difficulty in answering the question, “So… what do you do?”. From that post, however, the answer I’m increasingly keen on giving is:
I tell stories about how learning can be.
Invariably, given my predilections, this involves the use of technology. No matter where I go in Europe, in Turkey or the Middle East, there are three barriers that educators see as almost insurmountable:
I don’t have the time – I’m working flat-out as it is!
The curriculum doesn’t allow it.
We haven’t got the hardware/software/internet connection speed.
My responses to these?
Whilst there may a learning curve involved, you will invariably save time by making learning more available to students.
I ask them what the curriculum prescribes. More often than not it’s based on a false assumption – or, more dangerously, a textbook.
There has to be a reason for the school/local authority to upgrade the hardware/software/internet connection speed. Are you providing them with that reason?
And this is where the storytelling comes in. Because I’m not actually that interested in the technology itself. I’m interested in students reaching their potential, social justice and transforming education so it has some semblance of relevance by the time my son ends up in secondary school (2018 if you’re wondering).
So I came across the same issues when I visited the two schools my Dad works in near Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates. But what I came across there was the willingness of teachers to learn. They really wanted to improve and get better – so much so that they availed themselves of every opportunity to ask me questions, quiz me about practicalities, and pick my brains.
I didn’t present anything groundbreaking or revolutionary whilst I was in the UAE. In fact, it was pretty tame stuff. What I did do, however, was tell a story. And that’s a whole lot more powerful than pointing educators toward a rag-tag bunch of loosely-related technologies we refer to as ‘Web 2.0’… :-p