It’s tempting to treat the use of technology in education like a fad, especially when we feel overrun by new pedagogy. Learning theory shifts often and my cynical side wonders how many theorists are justifying their occupations or, even worse, just selling a product. We’ve certainly had some considerable flops over the past few decades.
The theory of ‘whole language’ was a particular embarrassment, an approach which has been overshadowed in favour of teaching phonics explicitly. Some claim that this pedagogy frustrated the literacy development of a whole generation of learners who were subject to the theory’s practice in the 1980s and 1990s.
Other examples of failed educational theories relate to progress in the field of psychology: left/right brain theory has been besmirched, Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences’ has come under scrutiny for its lack of supporting evidence and new research is emerging today which discredits learning style theory, although some academics are still trying to scavenge some gems from the rubble.
Then add into this mix the manner in which schools can promote new educational theories in an ad hoc manner, fail to provide adequate training and overload already exhausted teachers. Educators are often not given the time to think about and discuss ways to implement these new pedagogies. Once the buzz fades, these theories are then dropped in favour of next year’s new pedagogical hotness. It’s easy to understand why some teachers are jaded about technology in education, if we see the use of technology as just another passing phase.
iPad fever swept the globe back in 2010 after Steve Jobs’ incredible landmark pitch (eclipsing Microsoft’s original attempt at the tablet ten years earlier). When I first got my hands on one, I found myself frustrated. Sure, the apps were polished and it was intuitive, but as hard as I tried, I could not find a use for it in the classroom beyond the capabilities of my laptop. The other big tech push at the time was for the use of interactive whiteboards. Professional developments I attended showed the devices to be gimmicky, overly complicated and of very limited benefit to my secondary English students.
I decided never to be fooled to use technology for the simple sake of using technology. It had to have tangible benefit to my students and it had to do something I couldn’t achieve more easily through other means.
Two years later the school where I was working introduced an iPad program at Year 10, a decision I dismissed as motivated by marketing rather than learning: we had to be seen to be keeping up with new trends. I was asked to lead a year-long project to facilitate the use of the new technology. Armed with my pragmatic cynicism of gimmicky technotrends, I attended the first meeting with Sylvia Guidara, a digital learning consultant and our project manager.
I asked, snarkily, if we were going to receive a list of tools that we could use in the classroom. She replied: “Danny, if all you want is tools, I’ll give you a list and you can go home. We’re here to discuss the new learning opportunities that technology provides.” It was just the jolt I needed to reshape my thinking. I got caught up in focussing on the ‘how’, when I didn’t even really know the first thing about the ‘why’.
The core question digital learning tries to tackle is very different to the classic pedagogical or psychological one. Rather than asking “How do people learn best?”, we ask “What new possibilities exist today that might augment our current learning practice?”. You don’t need to change your practice to help your students benefit. Technology should either enhance what you’re already doing, enhance what the student is doing by themselves, or make either of these processes more efficient.
Take your classic teacher-centric ‘direct instruction’ teaching method (disparagingly known as ‘chalk and talk’, even though new research emphasises how effective it can be). If you were to record this and upload it to YouTube (as per the image above), students can view it again at home, pause it to make notes while they listen and replay sections of it when they need to hear it again.
Again, why not record and upload group presentations (as above) for the same reasons? Students have all the benefit that they would have had in preparing for and performing their report, however now other students have it as a resource for revision and further study.
These are not new teaching methods, but they are exciting new opportunities for rich learning.