(Tab)let them eat cake II

A few recent blogs have re-kindled my interest in “EdTech” and its place in teaching and learning. Following my post on discussing tablets during a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meeting last term I also feel obliged to give a quick update of what happened next. My own thoughts remain very similar to before. I have the same healthy scepticism for any new learning directive or teaching strategy regardless of whether it includes technology or not; convince me that the benefit outweighs the cost. This theme was further highlighted by Tom Bennett’s Raging against the machines? Not really. Adventures in misunderstanding post on EdTech. He too has a “hearty scepticism” and would like to see “wide-ranging evidence” to persuade him it has a significant impact  – but too often this sort of attitude is perceived as technophobia rather than a considered stance to new methodologies. As Bennett says

“If tech adoption were cheap or easy, and didn’t take much time, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. But if you want to persuade people that it’s right for them then it’s not unreasonable to ask what evidence is there that this will have a positive impact before they money on it. That’s just good governance.”

The fact is that it is not cheap nor easy to implement ,on a whole-school or even departmental scale, changes to EdTech so we had better be sure that they make a measurable difference. I am pretty open-minded about most new ideas but can be prone to paralysing cognitive dissonance when I fear that they might cause colossal amounts of work… In this respect I would imagine I am very much like everyone else who actually works as a classroom teacher and understands all of the trials and tribulations required to semi-successfully teach and assess a large(ish) class of students. In fact a blog post from December by the excellent Heather F on how technology has transformed her teaching struck a chord with me. In addition to her, as always, sensible musings her point that “if applications of technology are genuinely useful they won’t need the hard sell” is bang on the money (pun intended). I have no doubt that tablets will prove very useful both in specific subjects and across the school at some point, but I have not yet been made aware how. Perhaps this will be something I find out as I look to delve deeper into their impact in the classroom. However, I am equally open to the idea that we are not at that point just yet. That is what I mean by having an open mind and not being immovably one way or another, pro or anti EdTech.

Ain't no party like an S Club party! (Image taken from Flickr)

Ain’t no party like an S Club party!
(Image taken from Flickr)

So what did we do next after our aforementioned TLAG meeting? We set up a ‘working party’ to explore staff attitudes further (it seems from my own personal experience that jokes on the theme of “well it certainly is work but I’m yet to get to the party” are either unfunny or have been said before).  The group was made up of seven members of staff from a range of subjects across the School and hoped to represent a spread of opinions, from those very open to EdTech, those with experience of its implementation and those who were healthily sceptical. I believe that we got the balance about right other than we seem to have more “sceptics” than “champions” to borrow from Harry Webb’s superb recent post on why EdTech sucks (and what to do about it). The aim of the group was to discuss how best we could survey what teachers across the school thought about the possibility of EdTech, specifically personal devices such as tablets, aiding teaching and learning in the classroom. One thing that we all agreed with is that coercion of having to use EdTech will simply not work, as Harry Webb says “mandation is clearly not the answer”. However, there are definitely some benefits or “lots of small gains” as a member of the working party mentioned at our last meeting. We also felt that people did not know enough about what you could do with a personal device in the classroom; the “unknown unknowns”. I include myself in this category – I do not know exactly what I could or could not do with something like a tablet – and aim to expand my knowledge by attending conferences, reading blogs and participating in workshops to see what they can offer. No doubt you’ll hear my experiences in the eagerly awaited third instalment of the (Tab)let them eat cake saga, release date to be confirmed.

I am lucky enough to work with a range of talented people and one such colleague summarised a sensible approach to EdTech and the vast array of shiny gadgets available with these two simple questions:

  1. How does ‘it’ make the teacher’s job simpler, easier and more effective?
  2. How does ‘it’ make the student learning process simpler, easier and more effective?

If ‘it’ does not have evidence that it improves either of the above then you need to re-consider whether ‘it’ is the right approach to learning and teaching, whatever ‘it’ might be. The working party has also focused the direction of how we will canvass the opinion of the staff body; in our most recent meeting a method we considered and agreed upon was to actually go into departmental meetings to discuss the range of options available. Following a chat with one or two members of the working party (staff with the “known knowns” to bastardise further the Rumsfeld quote) there would then be a short departmental questionnaire to fill in. Our aim is to roll this out in the next half term and try to get round every department before the end of the academic year. I am intrigued to find out what people around the school think and this will then inform the next steps of the working party. Additionally I am also looking forward to discovering myself, first hand or via the conference circuit, what might be possible. However, if it does not improve upon or simplify what is currently in place then I may well remain the open-minded sceptic. To be continued…

Header image taken from Flickr.


11 thoughts on “(Tab)let them eat cake II

  1. chrismwparsons

    I agree with so much of this – I too feel straddled as to where I should head regarding ed-tech – and I am technically the leader of it in our school!

    Here are my two problems:
    I think the heart of great teaching comes through the interaction with, and guidance of, the teacher, and that brilliant lessons can therefore only make good use of various technologies, rather than derive their greatness from them. So I want to wave my hands around, warning about the hype.
    However, I can see that as obvious as it was that an exercise book offered some learning advantages over a slate… the extra capabilities of the digital realm must offer SOME advantages to us as teachers and pupils as learners. The problem with this part is that in order to fully come into its own, as well as needing to be more reliable as Harry points out, the technology must also become invisible to us – if should offer no more barriers or distractions than paper. And the REAL problem here is that, for that to happen, we must put considerable effort into overusing technology in our classrooms in order for us to be able to invisibly dip-into using it as and when it offers a real advantage (and in order for manufacturers to evolve things appropriately). We don’t simply need to learn what we can do and how we do it, we need to OVERLEARN it.

    Effectively we’re in a liminal state with ed-tech, but I think that the notion that it “engages learners” and it’s “what they’re used to using anyway” has been such a massive red-herring from the real benefits that tech should offer, that it’s almost a crippled ship needing a complete re-build.

    1. tlamjs Post author

      Thanks for your comments. We are definitely in a transitional stage and as EdTech becomes more prevalent there is a need to ensure that we do not put the cart before the horse – the learning should be supported by devices not the other way around.

    2. Crispin Weston

      Chris, I agree with your analysis of the problem (it has to be invisible) and the fact that the argument that we *must* use technology because it reflects what the students are used to is a red-herring. But I don’t agree that the only way to produce something useful is for teachers to overlearn it.

      All tech is becoming increasingly invisible (aka easy to use). This happens because the suppliers of the technology work very hard to make user interfaces easier and the systems more transparent. The simpler it is on the dashboard, the *more* complex it becomes under the hood.

      Only in education is the user of the technology expected to take stuff which *wasn’t* designed for education and bend it to their particular use. The answer to the problem is to look to the ed-tech industry to create education-specific tools which are fit for the job that teachers want them for. I agree that this must not mean replacing teachers – it must mean giving teachers the tools they need to pick up and use as they see fit.

      The trouble is that the ed-tech enthusiasts are basically hostile to the ed-tech industry (which will trump their “knock it up in the garden shed” approach) and consistently conflate need to learn about technology and the need to use technology.

      1. chrismwparsons

        Thanks Crispin – I do get this, and I concede that you’re probably right that ‘playing hard to get’ will help push improvements to the applicability, usability and reliability of ed-tech (although I think you still need users investing in the industry to generate the revenue for it to invest in improvements – I’m highly aware of this with LearnPad who are doing all the right things to my mind, but are limited by their size as to how fast they can innovate). I also concede that if the technology was better, it would simply be easier for us to implement. Undoubtedly this is true as well.

        Nevertheless, however easy the technology becomes to use, if it is going to generally ‘upgrade’ ways of doing things, it really does have to go through a phase of overuse in order for it to grow-out of being both a novelty and an ‘add-on to cognitive load’. I’m not sure than any technology will become so obviously intuitive that it still doesn’t need thinking about the first few times you’re using it, and if that seems to lead to some clumsy and lacklustre classroom experiences, people need to show a bit of perseverance to carry-on to a state where it can just fit in. Paired-talk requires no technology at all, and yet I have had to consciously work at using it, and push-on through some rather reluctant and ‘clunky’ experiences of using it with pupils to the point where its power really shows itself and I don’t have to think about it. Upscale that to choosing whether or not to use the tablet set for the ten minutes of a lesson where it might really add power to the learning, and it is clear that there is a whole myriad of things that teachers and pupils need to have got used to in order to make this a naturally appropriate, seamless and invisible form of learning.

      2. Crispin Weston

        Happy to meet you half-way Chris! Particularly in respect of incomplete and experimental solutions (I think it might take some time to get to critical mass, where everything fits together).

        On funding of small companies, this can be done so long as ed-tech is not seen as a hobby-business. This will IMO only happen when ed-tech consistently saves teachers time and raises outcomes and so appears attractive to the bean-counters. Only then will schools really buy and financiers really invest.

      3. chrismwparsons

        Thank you Crispin – I feel honoured to be met half-way! I also think your final assessments of the situation above sound very wise.

  2. Crispin Weston

    I agree with you, Tom Bennett, Harry Webb and Heather F – while at the same time remaining an enthusiast for the *potential* of ed-tech to make dramatic improvements to education.

    I don’t think the issue is cost – there are huge costs in the education which ed-tech should be able to save.

    The problem is effectiveness and workload and on both these points, mandation is the enemy. If you *have* to use the stuff, there is no incentive for anyone to make it any good.

    I don’t know whether you saw the recent ETAG report (http://etag.report/) which concluded that “the use of digital technology in education is not optional”. Although this is framed in terms of learning digital skills, which was outside the remit of the report, the recommendation will be interpreted as mandating ed-tech, which is what the report is supposed to be about. And it is fundamentally wrong.

    As a front-line teacher, don’t give into the moral blackmail. Sit back, relax, and wait till the ed-tech industry produces the must-have ed-tech product. Unless you are fussy, they never will.

    1. tlamjs Post author

      Thank you… Interesting to see the conclusions of the ETAG report and foresee the potential pitfalls of a mandatory approach. But you are right, the potential is there for it to make dramatic improvements.

    2. heatherfblog

      I entirely agree with Crispin here. Love the point about how mandation is counter productive. If you look through a list of ‘the best apps’ for schools with ipads they are clunky, overlapping, each needs to be separately mastered and most have dubious benefit. Only a techno zealot would ever want to invest the time to master the use of any significant number.

  3. Pingback: (Tab)let them eat cake III | tlamjs

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