Friday, January 15, 2010

Hedge your BETTs – the 7 paradoxes of technology in education

I shuffled around BETT for a short while, but I always find it a rather unreal spectacle – a huge shanty town of stalls, selling to largely suspicious customers. There’s several contradictions in ‘education and technology’ that are all too obvious here.
Paradox 1: Technology and classrooms
Education is obsessed by classroom delivery. That means it has to constantly try to force technology into this one box. Classrooms are designed for teachers to talk to groups of students, who then troop off every hour or so to another classroom. To shove technology into this context is like punching holes in the walls. The boxed-in learners are always trying to get out and the technology allows them to do so. So you get this emphasis on iPads, expensive whiteboards and table-top computers and all sorts of other nonsense that has been shoe-horned into the classroom, leaving poor teachers to manage the fact that learners, especially onine want to be free.
Paradox 2: Technology and teachers
The second assumption is that technology should always be teacher-mediated. That’s because the current educational model assumes that teaching is always a necessary condition for learning – it’s not. Teacgers in schools are wonderful, that's their habitat. But the more successful attempts at content creation, distribution and use have been largely teacher-free, allowing students to get on with their learning in the quiet of their own homes or bedrooms - Google, Wikipedia, Khan, BBC Bitesize etc etc.
Paradox 3: Anti-corporate attitude
On the whole, schools, and the teaching profession, have more than a whiff of anti-corporate attitude. Teaching is often explicitly (not always) anti-private sector. You see this on Twitter where many of the tweets are moaning about technology and evil vendors. This makes the market rather awkward, as there’s a lack of trust between sellers and buyers. Hence the crowds of attendees who end up trawling the exhibition for pencils, plastic things, stress balls and other goodies.
Paradox 4: Anti-technology
Although most of the people at BETT are not like this, many of their colleagues are explicitly anti-technology. I’ve experienced this many times in schools and colleges when I’ve given talks on technology.
Paradox 5: Technology brings visibility
Teachers instinctively know that a VLE and other pieces of learning management software, expose them to scrutiny, either by managers or parents, and fear this exposure. This is understandable, but teaching has long been an occupation that lacked scrutiny.
Paradox 6: Small is expensive
Technology in schools has suffered from poor procurement and poor implementation because it is bought by individual schools when the real model should be higher up the value chain, above individual institutions. Schools often make bad, expensive choices and struggle to support the things they buy, leading to further suspicion.
Paradox 7: Technology wants to be free
Technology has a place in schools and a huge role in education. But that role is largely to do with learning out of the box that is the classroom. It needs to target and promote autonomous learning, free from the distractions of groups within a classroom. Most people use technology on a one-to-one basis, not in large groups. If we freed up students to get on with self-driven learning, delivered all learning at home via technology, we’d get better value for our money.
Hedging your bets?
There's some fantastic people working in education and technology, who really care about improving the lot of students, but context crushes much of this effort. I’d like to see technology free us from some of the hideous aspects of the existing model – by delivering strong, inspiring content, allowing home learning to be delivered, marked and communicated back to teachers, giving parents more information and control. But I wouldn’t BETT on it!


Seb Schmoller said...


I spent a few hours at BETT on Wednesday. The main thing that seems to have changed since I first went in 1996 or 1997 is that the men with microphones and headphones running sales presentations no longer have pony tails. (That and the "elephant in the room" fact that the Internet now provides a rich environment for learning.)

What struck me hard was the way that big vendors are selling stuff designed to be used on a big scale into the small units that are schools; whilst small specialised vendors are trying to hack it in space that has its tone set by the glitzy stands of the big vendors.

Meanwhile, in the main (and of course there are exceptions to this), purchasers have relatively little nous about how to decide what will actually work well, and, as you say, even if they did, many purchase decisions are being taken too low down in the value chain, and for a system that is not designed to use technology for learning well in any case.


Donald Clark said...

Good observations. It is as if the internet doesn't exist at all and the RM people in purple shirts were doing exactly what you described as were others.

Bob Harrison said...

Hey Up Donald and Seb, just on the way back from BETT and still bewildered at the dominance of projection technologies and "interactive"(sic)boards.

It is a technology push trade show and costs a fortune to exhibit.

Olympia is many years past its best!

Spent most of my time in seminar programme which was dull with DCSF and NCL speakers not turning up!! and no technology being used other than powerpoint.

The total cost of BETT(time,travel,hotels etc) is phenomenal and would be better spent elsewhere.
Emap and Besa must be laughing all the way to the bank(LLoyds or RBS?)

Lars Hyland said...

Thoughtful, if mournful, post Donald. Made me refer back to my Black Swan article of November 2008 where I optimistically suggested that an educational "black swan" event is needed to effect real change. Still not happened but...I guess with the radical cuts in HE funding, graduates seriously questioning the value of their qualifications (and the debt incurred in the process), students at school free to communicated with anyone, anywhere, anytime through their mobile devices, then surely many of the ancient pillars that prop up our education systems will crumble, and we will tumble into a chaotic transition towards a new self organising world where the responsibility for learning is genuinely personal, fluid, adaptable and crucially builds on genuine self-motivation.

No pain, no gain.

Alex Jones said...

I share many of your feelings about BETT. But I don't find the 'Another Brick in the Wall' philosophy entirely convincing.

Our legal system indicates that children need to be guided and taught, that they aren't able to tell the difference between what they want and what they need. If that's true, and I think it is, children are going to need some control over what they learn. I'm all for an education system that leads these young people to be autonomous and self directing, but that needs teaching too.

Some children want to escape from school - not the majority in my experience, and that includes some pretty challenging environments. Some children also want to escape parental control but no-one would suggest a feral existence as a response to that. Even with our badly structured school system the majority of children enjoy school.

Perhaps you are overstating your argument to better make your case. I think there are very real dangers in implying that teachers are the problem. I hope you don't really believe that large numbers of teachers think technology is a bad thing. I think you're wrong. I know that if you work with schools you most certainly will know that teachers are very highly scrutinised. Most of them welcome the opportunity to develop their practice. Your arguments seem to be an encouragement to those who'd do away with teachers and replace them with a computer-moderated monadic education system. I'm sure this isn't what you intend.

Donald Clark said...

Alex - I agree with almost all that you say here. My points revolve around the idea that schools, as currently structured and funded, are essentially clusters of classrooms built around teachers. This is a round hole for the square peg of technology. I'm certainly not in favour of free-wheeling, feral learning. In fact, I'd prefer a more structured approach with less fanciful 'teaching methods' and more focused 'learning'.

I do, however, think that teaching (not teachers) in their current role, are a problem. For example, I disagree that teachers are under great scrutiny. OFSTED is light touch, teachers know when they are due to arrive, and a huge amount of preparation goes into 'cheating' the system. In any case these inspections are not frequent. Teachers have also fought appraisals for years - something that was normalised in other professions decades ago. The fact that so few teachers ever get dismissed for poor teaching shows that scrutiny is ineffective.

I certainly don't want to do away with teachers and don't see this as an either/or debate. What I do believe, is that teaching NEEDS to be supplemented by autonomous learning, and that is best served by technology. My kids attend a state school where 'homework' is pretty rare. The teachers have largely given up on the idea of students working on their own at home. The middle class parents, provide that homework themselves and hire tutors, while the rest suffer badly (we had a dramatic drop in our GCSE results last year). This is what happens when teachers are allowed to 'do it for themselves' without any scrutiny.

Donald Clark said...

Bob - this obsession with screens behind teachers is weird. Coffield has shown that the impact of this technology is miserly given the investment. I've become quite simplistic in my old age believing that that focused, well designed content with lots of formal assessment does the job - one on one with the student. I've got my kids through maths, and the three sciences in a school by feeding them content in this way, as the teachers don't believe in homework. I'm pretty sure they'll get straight As/A+s. BBC Bitesize, SAMlearning, MyMaths etc. do the job, weak though they all are. Imagine what we could do with worldclass educational content.

will789gb said...

There was an Open Source Village so if there is local purchasing this might help. My impression is that Windows is locked in at a high level.

Will Learning Technologies be much different? should the training department just let people go home to browse the web?

Why not combine the two shows? BETT is drifitng into Olympia 2. Is the learning theory very different for schools and/or adults?