What is the point of Educational Technology?
I spend a huge amount of my time reading about the top 5 apps for teachers, the best software for collaborative writing, the best web tool for this, that or the other, how to do something that I’ve never heard of but should have and now feel guilty about, so I’m going to Google it and try to drop it into a conversation next time I’m face to face with another teacher, so that I seem on top of the ever-burgeoning world of educational technology.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan. I might even describe myself as being someone close to the cutting edge of what is going on, but the more I read, the more concerned I become about the quality of what is going on in schools.
For every success story, there seem to be a couple of examples of really poor practice; schools that have launched a 1:1 initiative that has backfired, or teachers that use web-based-project-based learning as an excuse to sit down and let the kids get on with it.
I don’t blame these teachers. I don’t blame the IT guys who help rollout devices to students. So where does the blame lie?
I’m not sure I have an answer, but I suspect that the ‘real world’ outside of school and perhaps the internet, might not be entirely without guilt.
The problem with the real world is that it functions at a different pace and in a different way to a school. Schools don’t need to be progressive to be successful, they simply need to produce good results. If you look at league tables in this country there are not a lot of ‘progressive’ schools at the top. There are however, a lot of schools that are built on a reputation of excellence. Excellence is defined in these league tables as schools which get really good exam results and sometimes by the number of students that they get to university. There is no doubt that these schools do very often give their students the most incredible of extra-curricular activities too, but one must wonder to what extent these schools are leading by example when it comes to looking to the future.
A business must be adaptive, flexible and innovative to keep itself afloat in today’s aggressive marketplace. A school must be rigorous, solid and dependable. There is an inherent contradiction here.
Businesses want to utilize the latest social media to let as many people in their key demographic know about the products they offer as possible. They want their customers to be excited about what is being offered to them, to know that they are valued and that they are getting a great deal. The business world is competitive, but this manifests itself in such a way as (generally) benefitting the customer, otherwise they lose out to someone else.
I won’t bother making the comparison with schools; I think it’s fairly obvious that what is described above is not what we get in the classroom.
For a school to thrive it needs good exam results. For its students to survive, a school needs to teach them skills and prepare them for reality. At present this is an unhappy juxtaposition.
I am not naive enough to think that educational technology can solve these woes. The technology is only as good as the hands it is in. But, in this way, I think I can offer an important insight.
Technology used well in schools can offer a tangible link to the outside world – it can be a bridge in many different ways to what is happening outside of the classroom. It could act as a link to other schools, learners and countries that will enhance the experience that students can have in a classroom. They also offer an idea of the type of workflow they may experience when they leave school. Organizing your work on a mobile device is inevitably the future of schools, but it is the reality of many businesses already and certainly will be by the time the students currently starting secondary school leave.
There are a lot of people who think that students using things like iPads in classrooms are pandering to the pressure of being cool/current/getting carried along with a passing fad. In some schools this may be true, but in general, this is a naive assumption.
The world progresses. We don’t write on slate any more. We don’e use chalk. We don’t force kids to use fountain pens. We let them type work. We let them use the internet (sometimes grudgingly). Each of these steps were painful for the teaching profession to move away from. Many thought that those that leapt first were insane. But the truth is simple. The world progresses. And, so too do schools (eventually).
Educational Technology is not a gimmick if done right. It is an inevitable progression of how we teach our children. What is important is that we learn how to use it in the best possible way. This may mean changing the way we teach. It may mean changing the way a school functions. It may mean completely redesigning the concept of school.
I’ve said ‘maybe‘ a lot in the previous paragraph. I didn’t mean it. It definitely will mean these things change, I just know that this is frightening for a lot of people.
How can teachers help?
To start things off, I think teachers need to take a step back and evaluate where they stand at present.
There’s a very simple model from the 1980’s (Schulman 1986) which outlines what makes a good teacher that I think few would argue with. It goes like this:
Now, this model has been redesigned (Mishra & Koehler) to incorporate our current tech-centered needs and now looks like this:
The point is simple. Teachers need to be able to understand how to embed technology into what they do. But you can’t do this unless you’re already a good teacher. The technological side of it only comes into to play if you already knew how to balance pedagogical knowledge with content (subject) knowledge. Only then can you understand how best to integrate an iPad into a classroom.
The biggest problem with Educational Technology to date is that the people that sign off these projects, or design ‘education apps’ didn’t have Pedagogical Content Knowledge in the first place – they just guessed at what we needed and threw something our way expecting us to figure it out. Which is why there’s so much to read about on the internet – slowly but surely there is a great team of people around the world who are beginning to make sense of all of this and eventually, the people who make the decisions about these things are going to have to listen and look at the models that work. These are almost always going to come from the people who have been or are at the coalface of education.