Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tech v teaching: it's a dialectic not a war

It’s not about the technology, it’s all about the learning. Learning then tech? Tech then learning? Both positions are wrong. Both sides have their book-selling evangelists. The truth is a little mroe prosaic.The relationship between learning and technology is a complex dialectic. It always has been and always will be. The great revolutions in technology, that shaped the learning landscape were writing, alphabets, writing instruments, paper, printing, books, calculators, computer, the internet– none of this technology came from the ‘learning’ community. What did come from the learning community were lecterns, blackboards and…. On the other hand a lot of learning technology has been shaped by great learning professionals who make it usable, productive and manageable. It’s not one way traffic – it’s cross-pollinated.
Nozick – the world is not simple
Nozick wrote a brilliant paper called Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? And if you read it and replace Capitalism with Technology, you’ll see the parallel. The real world is messy, not at all simple. It is very different from the structured world of wordsmiths, schools, Universities and corporate training departments. The real world creates loads of brilliant consumer tech that is useful and compulsive. Just because it doesn’t fit the straightjacket of a classroom of lecture hall doesn’t mean it’s of no use in learning. Learners start doing things for themselves. Teaching and learning is also messy and doesn’t fit the neat formulaic nature of technology. What we need is dialogue and synthesis. Jaw, jaw, not war, war.
Tech then learning
In some cases learning technology emerges, without reference to learning, yet had a profound pedagogic effect on the way people learn. Google is a good example. It changed the way we access knowledge, find academic papers, do research and so on. This was a serious pedagogic shift, that irreversibly changed the way we learn. Similarly with Wikipedia, a crowd-sourced knowledge-base, was a major step forward in terms of the way knowledge was seen (as corrigible), created, edited, discussed, distributed and accessed. YouTube has become a learning platform in its own right, with uploads, video editing, channels and a vast library of videos where learning by doing or ‘how to’ learning became, not only available, but accessible. Khan Academy and many other services came, not from within the world of education but from outsiders who shaped technological innovation on the web.
Learning then tech
Also, those who teach, or interested in learning, used the technology sensitive to the needs of learning and learners. Indeed, there are many examples of technology that emerged from this sensitivity to learning theory and learner needs. All manner of useful content creation, content delivery, communication, collaboration, assessment, learner management, learning management, simulation, spaced practice, adaptive systems have been developed with learning in mind, often by educators. Moodle is a good example, where Dougiamfas took the LMS idea and turned it into something useful for educators.
Both sides produce failure when they stick to their prejudices. The tech folk when they overreach and overpromise; the learning folk when they refuse to listen and overreact. We’ve seen the disastrous consequence when both tech and teachers get obsessed with ‘devices’ leading to the wrong focus on short-lived mosquito projects, using iPads, mobiles, lego, Microbits, Whiteboards - when what is needed are turtle projects – sustainable projects that appeal to actual users. This is what happens when over-zealous hardware vendors team up with ‘device fetish (10 examples)’ teachers and educators.
Way forward
They way forward – think strategically, not tactically; scale and efficacy, not pilots and ill-defined research projects. A good example is AI and adaptive learning. After 2500 years of mathematical progress, AI has come of age, as the internet feeds the rocket-ship with data. We see real progress by people from maths, physics, coding and AI backgrounds. This is being tempered with good teachers and learning theorists to produce productive and useful tools. That’s the way it should be. Blended learning is another good example, something almost everyone on the tech sides agrees with but remains difficult to implement becuae of the tech v teaching wars.

In practice, and I’ve been doing this for well over 30 years, it is a complex dialectic. Tech arrives and sometimes it changes the learning landscape without any intervention from the learning folk, sometimes it’s adapted by the learning folk, sometimes it’s just used by hundreds of millions because it’s useful. The educators v tech argument is specious because it fails to recognise that the real world is messy.  That is the way of the world, complex causality, not ‘us v them’, ‘tech v learning’, ‘teachers v tools’. Sure both sides have their purists but most see a synthesis.


Martin King said...

There may be a new factor emerging in this - there will be pressure capitalise teaching through technology.

Education management is more comfortable with capital expenditure rather than revenue costs and it is easy to show off tech which is "concrete" and tangible - see how we are improving teaching we have invested in a new automated performance managed AI backed managed learning system ... etc

Donald Clark said...

Interesting point. Not the case in Universities, as the budgets are separate and JISC spend huge sums to, in my opinion, little real effect. In schools, this effect can happen. However, this may be healthy. To give but one example, I personally witnessed the waste of supply and emergency teaching in a large secondary, where teachers turned up and slammed on DVDs for the kids to watch. I think there's all sorts of ways tech can be used that is superior to the existing systems in place. The trick is to procure properly, with learning outcomes and a proper cost-effectiveness analysis. Unfortunately, few schools are capable of this - hence the device fetish , let's but a bocx of iPads approach.