Technological agnosticism

You know, I think I’ve cracked it. I’ve finally worked out, after all this bitching about technology, what I actually do do with it. And l realise, and perhaps you did a long time ago, that the one thing I don’t generally do is technology for the sake of technology. I don’t, by and large, go “ooh, that looks good, I’m going to use it next week.” My usual reaction is to go “ooh that looks good. I’ll try to keep that at the back of my mind and see if I need it later.”

So when I think of my classes, the learners use mobile devices a LOT, but largely as web access or as dictionaries, or as note taking devices, taking photos of the regular (i.e. non-electronic) whiteboard. This is just what happens, mind you, after only the slightest nudge from me. The VLE is used regularly, but mainly because it’s a neat easy way to get documents and links and videos and so on to the learners in a way which means they can have it later if they want it. I posted a video of me giving some instructions, not because I wanted to try it, but because it suited a need that I had. I saw a gap in a lesson which was filled neatly by PollEverywhere, and another where Socrative fitted the bill.

Essentially, then, it’s laziness. By and large technology is there to save us effort, and if learners accessing a dictionary app on their own devices is less hassle than gathering up a bunch of heavy dictionaries, then awesome.

There are benefits and drawbacks to this, of course. As a benefit, it means that most of the technology we use in class is used fairly comfortably and naturally. Nothing is shoehorned in: the technology feels, or at least is meant to feel, smooth. There’s not much by way of farting around with new stuff. Indeed when new stuff is introduced, it’s now and then, as necessary. The drawback, of course, is the missed opportunity. How many ideas or things have I noted, bookmarked, diigoed, and all the rest, which would have saved me loads of effort, or made something a bit more special, but simply haven’t been able to recall when I need them, nor thinking to scan through my increasing list of bookmarks and things,

This is the perplexing bit, but so far I’ve not really found a tool to do it, apart from my brain, which is a fairly creaky piece of kit at the best of times. Bookmarking tools like diigo only really work if you remember to look at them: they don’t think for you. There is an approach issue here as well: I tend to “notice” stuff rather than actively search stuff out, so links get favourited on Twitter, bookmarked or whatever, but then generally forgotten. It usually takes serendipitous aligning of noticing a new thing at about the same time when you really need to find it.

So, for me, perhaps, two lessons from this reflection.

First of all, I need to find/develop a better system / approach to gathering and curating resources, both online and off. After my first four years of teaching, I had about six lever arch files of copied handouts, cut up bits of paper and all the rest. I sent the whole lot to the recycling bin when I went to live in New Zealand, at which point I realised that I had never actually looked at the damn things, and was managing quite happily without largely thanks to memory sticks, CD-RWs and online resources (this was 2004, remember, pre google docs, Dropbox, Facebook and Twitter). So files upon files of paper resources swiftly fell by the wayside, to be replaced by files and files of electronically stored resources. But even then, I have to nudge myself to remember to look instead of trying to find or make something new. We have a huge resources drive at work, shared across and contributed to by the whole ESOL department, and, even if it wasn’t originally my idea, I was fairly deeply involved in redesigning it and setting it up. Since then, I don’t think I’ve ever looked at it, unless prompted to by someone making a suggestion. I guess this is mostly just mindset, rather than needing a system: for a system to work, you have to engage with that system, so that, perhaps is what I need to do.

The second lesson is the more widely useful one perhaps. The approach I have to technology is, I think, fairly healthy. The technology is almost invisible, embedded so well that nobody seems to notice it. Explore new ideas, yes, but I think for me, the technology must be used in a way which doesn’t necessarily make a big deal of the novelty factor, and have a negative impact on timing and classroom interactions. I find it quite hard now to justify spending more than about ten minutes of classroom time getting used to new stuff, even though the long term impact of that is possibly going to be beneficial, because there might be some learning that could happen right here, right now.

I used to be an e-learning evangelist of the highest order. I think evangelism is a good metaphor: most people when they integrate technology do so as a act of faith. There seems to be very little by way of actual evidence that e-learning has a positive impact: just lots of assertions by biased bodies and anecdotes. And we all know what the plural of anecdote isn’t. So I have moved from a position of absolute faith to a questioning faith: in the mid-2000s I was perhaps a dedicated and unquestioning Catholic but have grown to become perhaps more of a Protestant, sometimes even agnostic in my views around e-learning.

I still don’t think that the inclusion of digital technology automatically makes for better teaching and learning. Indeed, the inclusion of any resource at all does not automatically make for better teaching and learning. No resource on the planet, paper based or not, will make you a good teacher if you are already shit. You still have to have an understanding of how learning happens and what things can have a positive impact on that learning. There isn’t a technology in the world which will do that for you, apart from that lump of grey mush inside your skull.



  1. Sam,

    Thanks for what must come as an important reality check for the techno-zealots, who continue to give a wholly false picture of what ed-tech in general, and BYOD in particular, is currently achieving in our classrooms. Perhaps I can summarize my conclusions from what you are saying.

    1. “There seems to be very little by way of actual evidence that e-learning has a positive impact: just lots of assertions by biased bodies and anecdotes”. Write it in letters ten foot high.

    2. Technology, as currently used in our classrooms (even when BYOD is fully implemented) really isn’t doing anything very useful, pedagogically speaking. Students look stuff up (yes, no-one can argue that digital technology has revolutionized the business of *reference*), take notes (I think an exercise book is hugely superior in this respect, allowing much freer expression and easier review), take pictures of the whiteboard (a practice I would ban – learners should be body-builders, not magpies). All in all, you really wouldn’t miss it if it wasn’t there.

    3. To abstract from point 1, what is being done with ed-tech at the moment comes down to the management of information, when the stuff of instruction is the management of activity. Activity still goes on, of course, but it is conducted and managed in traditional ways. The current generation of ed-tech has simply not touched the bits of the school day that matter: activity and feedback.

    4. If technology is to be used productively, it has not only to be incredibly easy to use but actually to *save* the teacher time. This point that would be so obvious to any red-blooded marketing person that it would hardly need saying at all. So it is really depressing, after twenty years of failed government initiatives, to have to be making the point at all. Yet still the techno-zealots argue that what we need is more training programmes, to convince teachers to spend their evenings innovating with off-the-shelf technology according to a set of completely unproven principles.

    5. To be more specific about point 4, what really matters in the classroom environment is ease of launch, at the point you need it. That means you need effective software infrastructures to manage assignment (for teacher-controlled individual work), sequencing (for computer-controlled individual work), and lesson-planning (for collective work in class), backed by automatic launch of third-party software resources and activities, using proven and open methods of interoperability.

    Where I disagree with you is in the implication that this is how it necessarily has to be and that good teaching must *necessarily* be all and only about the skill of the teacher. When the plumber comes to mend my taps, he certainly needs to be skilled at his job but he also needs the right tools. I fly to New York, it isn’t all and only about the pilot. He wouldn’t get me very far if he didn’t have an aeroplane to take me in. Any technical capability is provided by a combination of personal skill + technology. Too often it is assumed that the only way to improve the quality of teaching is to hire or train better teachers.It ignores the basic formula: teaching = teachers + resources.

    The fact that current forms of ed-tech have failed to provide teachers with the right sorts of tools is no argument that tools don’t matter – it is an argument that we need better tools and a new approach to ed-tech that will give us those tools.

    It is what we have needed ever since Kim Taylor, ex Headmaster of Sevenoaks School and Director of Resources at the Nuffield Foundation, wrote in 1970:

    “Schools are like the very earliest factories: simple materials, walls, workers and overseers. The tools of the trade, the machinery and equipment, are rudimentary…there is not much to counterbalance the skill, or lack of skill, of the individual teacher. Teaching is a job almost wholly dependent on manpower, and in the foreseeable future in the secondary schools the craftsmen we need are going to be in scant supply.”

    So while I agree that teachers are fundamentally important, I would put more emphasis on the potential of ed-tech to improve teaching (as technology routinely improves our performance in so many other spheres of human activity), so long as the tools and resources that ed-tech provides:
    * are specifically designed for the job;
    * integrate with each other automatically (including launch & reporting);
    * focus on activity and not the dissemination of information.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment,

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