Technology, Bias, and Vested Interests

I promise this is my last critical post about technology and learning, I really do. But I’ve been annoyed by something, an article about a report on how FE is lagging behind in the technology stakes.

There are two issues here.

The first is the accuracy of the claim. Do a search for reports and research into the benefits of elearning and, well, you can’t move for the damn things. Technology, if you believe everything you ever read, is the magic bullet that will engage learners with learning and create a fully functioning digital universe. But hang on, if we look a little more closely at these claims, we discover that actually they are just that – claims. Claims that technology benefits learning. Not evidence. Not hard data, that is, like, say teaching two groups of learners one with and one without tech and see who does better in a test. I hope that when you read that you will be sneering at my simplistic test description there, saying “ah but education, it’s just too big and complex to study it in that way.” (although you’d be wrong: it would be perfectly possible to devise a fairly straightforward trial of technologised learning in that way, and if anyone would like to give me some time and money, I’ll do it, because I’m interested.) The reason I hope you’ve said that is because it underlines the fatal flaw for your argument as well. If you to want to argue that you can’t measure education that way, because it is complex, multi faceted blah blah, then you also have to ask yourself the question “how do I know technology works?” Your evidence is a flimsy and as questionable as anyone else’s. That gives us a no score draw at best.

Ok, the second issue. Where evidence does exist or is claimed to exist, it is often in the reports of people with a vested interest in education taking up the use of technology. Take this one, published by Microsoft and Intel, the suppliers of much of the hardware and software used across the vast majority of FE colleges in the UK. Colleges which, perhaps, are upgrading a little less often than a few years back, buying fewer computers, that sort of thing. From a business perspective, two multinational corporations who care not one jot for the young people and adults of the UK, apart from their capacity as consumers, persuading colleges and their learners to invest in their products is a potentially very lucrative investment. Profit is rarely a wholesome motive, even less so when dressed up as the public good.

Vested interest is a dangerous thing: in medical science, for example, research into the effectiveness of a given intervention when funded or carried out by people with a vested interest in said intervention working, is generally peer reviewed and checked for accuracy in its modelling. It’s not a flawless process, but it does cultivate a culture of scepticism and questioning. Alas, in education, we are generally too soft and lacking in confidence for this sort of thing, especially when policy gets behind whatever random claim is being made. Indeed, claims for rigour and robustness suddenly seem laughable in education when we still, as a profession, from teachers in the ground floor all the way to senior managers, don’t engage ourselves in enough research to understand how much of what is presented to us as fact, from e-learning to Bloom’s Taxonomy to hell-in-a-handcart learning styles, is entirely open to discussion and questioning. Nothing is sacred: most scientists can tell you that. Unfortunately, education sometimes seems to be founded on the kind of journalistic psychology not unlike that found in tediously aspirational magazine articles.

I think what I would like is to find some neutral, unbiased studies of actual learners in an actual context who actually end up being more successful than others as a result of engaging with technology. I don’t see it happening any time soon, mind you, so that wish will go into my special internal box of wishes, right next to the one for solid evidence in favour of target setting for ESOL learners. Both practices are policy driven, rather than learner or indeed reality driven, but the difference for me with technology is that I do think it has some positive impact. I’d like to do that research, because I have a suspicion that the technology would be proven right. I don’t think it would be as amazingly wonderful as people would like to believe and I certainly don’t think that teachers can be replaced with hole in the wall grannies or “learning coaches”. I just think we need to redefine what a teacher is, and how they interact with their learners with technology, which is perhaps where my next post is going.


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