Open Thinkering


Tag: educational technology

Digital myths, digital pedagogy, and complexity

I’m currently doing some research with Sarah Horrocks from London CLC for their parent organisation, the Education Development Trust. As part of this work, I’m looking at all kinds of things related to technology-enhanced teacher professional development.

Happily, it’s given me an excuse to go through some of the work that Prof. Steve Higgins, my former thesis supervisor at Durham University, has published since I graduated from my Ed.D. in 2012. There’s some of his work in particular that really resonated with me and I wanted to share in a way that I could easily reference in future.

In a presentation to the British Council in 2013 entitled Technology trends for language teaching: looking back and to the future, Higgins presents six ‘myths’ relating to digital technologies and educational institutions:

  1. The ‘Future Facing’ Fallacy – “New technologies are being developed all the time, the past history of the impact of technology is irrelevant to what we have now or will be available tomorrow.
  2. The ‘Different Learners’ Myth – “Today’s children are digital natives and the ‘net generation –they learn differently from older people”.
  3. A Confusion of ‘Information’and ‘Knowledge’ – “Learning has changed now we have access to knowledge through the internet, today’s children don’t need to know stuff, they just need to know where to find it.”
  4. The ‘Motivation Mistake’ – “Students are motivated by technology so they must learn better when they use it.”
  5. The ‘Mount Everest’ Fallacy – “We must use technology because it is there!”
  6. The ‘More is Better’ Mythology – “If some technology is a good thing, then more must be better.

The insightful part, is I think, when Higgins applies Rogers’ (1995) work around the diffusion of innovations:

  • Innovators & early adopters choose digital technology to do something differently – as a solution to a problem.
  • When adopted by the majority, focus is on the technology, but not as a solution.
  • The laggards use the technology to replicate what they were already doing without ICT

In a 2014 presentation to The Future of Learning, Knowledge and Skills (TULOS) entitled Technology and learning: from the past to the future, Higgins expands on this:

It is rare for further studies to be conducted once a technology has become fully embedded in educational settings as interest tends to focus on the new and emerging, so the question of overall impact remains elusive.

If this is the situation, there may, of course, be different explanations. We know, for example, that it is difficult to scale-up innovation without a dilution of effect with expansion (Cronbach et al. 1980; Raudenbush, 2008). It may also be that early adopters (Rogers, 2003; Chan et al. 2006) tend to be tackling particular pedagogical issues in the early stages, but then the focus shifts to the adoption of the particular technology, without it being chosen as a solution to a specific teaching and learning issue (Rogers’‘early’ and ‘late majority’). At this point the technology may be the same, but the pedagogical aims and intentions are different, and this may explain a reduction in effectiveness.

The focus should be on pedagogy, not technology:

Overall, I think designing for effective use of digital technologies is complex. It is not just a case of trying a new piece of technology out and seeing what happens. We need to build on what is already know about effective teaching and learning… We also need to think about what the technology can do better than what already happens in schools. It is not as though there is a wealth of spare time for teachers and learners at any stage of education. In practice the introduction of technology will replace something that is already there for all kinds of reasons, the technology supported activity will squeeze some thing out of the existing ecology, so we should have good grounds for thinking that a new approach will be educationally better than what has gone before or we should design activities for situations where teachers and learners believe improvement is needed. Tackling such challenges will mean that technology will provide a solution to a problem and not just appear as an answer to a question that perhaps no-one has asked.

My gloss on this is that everything is ambiguous, and that attempts to completely remove this ambiguity and/or abstract away from a particular context are doomed to failure.

One approach that Higgins introduces in a presentation (no date), entitled SynergyNet: Exploring the potential of a multi-touch classroom for teaching and learning, is CSCL. I don’t think I’d heard of this before:

Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is a pedagogical approach where in learning takes place via social interaction using a computer or through the Internet. This kind of learning is characterized by the sharing and construction of knowledge among participants using technology as their primary means of communication or as a common resource. CSCL can be implemented in online and classroom learning environments and can take place synchronously or asynchronously. (Wikipedia)

The particular image that grabbed me from Higgins’ presentation was this one:


This reminds me of the TPACK approach, but more focused on the kind of work that I do from home most weeks:

One of the most common approaches to CSCL is collaborative writing. Though the final product can be anything from a research paper, a Wikipedia entry, or a short story, the process of planning and writing together encourages students to express their ideas and develop a group understanding of the subject matter. Tools like blogs, interactive whiteboards, and custom spaces that combine free writing with communication tools can be used to share work, form ideas, and write synchronously. (Wikipedia)

CSCL activities seem like exactly the kind of things we should be encouraging to prepare both teachers and young people for the future:

Technology-mediated discourse refers to debates, discussions, and other social learning techniques involving the examination of a theme using technology. For example, wikis are a way to encourage discussion among learners, but other common tools include mind maps, survey systems, and simple message boards. Like collaborative writing, technology-mediated discourse allows participants that may be separated by time and distance to engage in conversations and build knowledge together. (Wikipedia)

Going through Higgins’ work reminds me how much I miss doing this kind of research!

Note: I wrote an academic paper with Steve Higgins that was peer-reviewed via my social network rather than in a journal. It’s published on my website and Digital literacy, digital natives, and the continuum of ambiguity. I’ve also got a (very) occasional blog where I discuss this kind of stuff at

Photo by Daniel von Appen

Open Badges, Clay Shirky, and the tipping point.

The great thing about thinkers such as Clay Shirky is that they can put into pithy, concise quotations things that remain latent in our collective thinking. You know, things like:

We’ve reached an age where this stuff is technologically boring enough to be socially interesting.

I first used that quote in a post four years ago when I called for technology to be so commonplace and ubiquitous that it’s not considered a thing distinct from human interaction. Technology should be woven into the fabric of our identities not something set apart, alien and ‘other’.

Four years ago social networks weren’t woven into society the way they are now. Nowadays, of course, hashtags accompany the opening credits to television shows so that they can be discussed in a ‘channel’ on Twitter, it’s entirely normal to whip your mobile device when standing in a queue (instead of talking about the weather to a stranger), and you’d be shocked if brands didn’t encourage you to follow them on Facebook.

One way to explain this is through Clay Shirky’s lens: these things are now socially boring enough to be socially interesting. You can assume that almost the man or woman on the street knows what Facebook, Twitter and mobile devices are for without having to explain them first. That means we can talk about the next layer up- i.e. what we do with those tools.

Open Badges are still quite technologically interesting. There’s several aspects of them that the average person wouldn’t understand without having it explained. For example:

  • What metadata is
  • How an Open Badges consists of ‘baking’ metadata into an image
  • That anyone can host a badge backpack because it’s Open Source software
  • What is means that the various badge backpacks will be ‘federated’

Now, we could go about a mass education program and (relatively speaking) spend a lot of money helping people to learn about these things. But that’s not how things reach a tipping point. The way people become proficient with tools like social networks or Open Badges is because they scratch an itch (solve a problem) or because there’s a ‘hook’ interesting enough for them to be dragged, Alice in Wonderland-like into a deep rabbit-hole where they can find out more.

So in a UK context, Stephen Fry’s 2009 video interview where he explained his love of Twitter in layman’s terms meant that many people were provided a hook. In fact, this is how advertising and celebrity endorsement works: “I like Person X, and Person X likes Thing Y, so therefore I should find out more about Thing Y.” With Facebook, it was an itch to be scratched: when you’re excluded from a conversation because you’re not using a particular social network, then there’s a powerful incentive to join the tribe. Especially as the nominal cost of entry is ‘free’ and the difficulty level is ‘super easy’.

What we need with Open Badges, and which we’ll certainly have by early 2013, are compelling examples of how they can be used in education and other contexts. At the same time we’re working on ways to make ‘onboarding’ easier for issuers, displayers and endorsers. We’re also working on the UX and UI for badge earners. In other words, we’re ready for badges to be huge next year.

Watch this space. 🙂

Image CC BY Joi

Why a ‘mixed economy’ of digital devices is best for your educational institution.

lisa's scissors

Earlier today, on Twitter, I mentioned that the 64GB version of the BlackBerry Playbook is now at the scandalously low price of £129. They’re practically giving it away.

I mentioned that for some educational institutions that would be a really good fit, especially given that you can side-load Android apps. Eventually, I should imagine, you’ll be able to dispose of the BlackBerry OS altogether and juse go with Android for the entire system.

Bill Lord, a Primary school headteacher, replied that he was looking at a ‘mixed economy’ of devices for his educational institution, adding that he had three main reasons for this approach:

  1. Pupil needs
  2. Staff needs (confidence/competence)
  3. Vagaries of the market

I’m with Bill. To my mind, being an ‘iPad-only’ school makes no sense. It’s replicating the Microsoft vendor lock-in all over again. Since when was school about teaching young people how to use particular types of devices?

Instead, it’s better to look at the affordances of each device. That doesn’t mean how much it costs, but rather what it allows you to do. The BlackBerry Playbook at £129, for example, has front and rear-facing cameras and a high-definition screen. Sounds like an opportunity.

It’s OK to build learning activities around specific devices some of the time, but I wouldn’t want to be doing it all of the time. Why not focus on building and using things that are device-agnostic? Surely that’s a more sustainable option? Use the Web, for goodness’ sake!

Finally, if you’re reading this in the UK you should really stop by HotUKDeals every now and again. I’m on there at least three times a day – and not just to find cheaper stuff than usual. I also find it really enlightening in terms of what people are interested in but, more importantly, the comments people leave and the context they give. There’s some serious expertise there.

Image CC BY-NC reebob