I’ve been resisting for years now, it seems. Years and years. And yet she’s got me again, pulling me back to her, despite my best efforts. She’s been wooing me, drawing me in with her glamour and elegance, and with her subtle edge of sexy rebelliousness.
The wicked mistress here is, of course, entirely metaphorical, and her name is Technology. I think I would go so far as to say that my entire career, since my very first job, has been linked to some form of computer. That’s fifteen years, fif-bloody-teen, of going online, taking students online, using and occasionally abusing computers, the Internet, phones, tablets, MP3 players, the whole shebang, not to mention the bits and pieces that have fallen by the wayside. It has been a largely professional affair: my love of gadgetry is confined to what I can scrounge from the workplace. I am not rich enough to justify needless expenditure on the latest gadgets, and do not live amongst high end laptops and flatscreen TVs linked to tablets and various other bits. My home TV is a CRT telly I got when my Nan died years ago, my own laptop is running Windows Vista* and was bought in 2006 (it is physically dying now, to be fair). My only concession here is my phone, a fairly up to date iPhone 5s, but even that’s only possible through a contract.
So, what happened? I got tired and just a little bit bored. I had become the technology guy, the computer chap, you know, the one rushing around telling everyone about cool new this, and exciting new that, and, well, it got boring. I’m not sure when it happened, really, but I got to the point where I simply did not have the energy to be excited in front of “so what” faces any more. I also got fed up of being pigeon holed, known only for his ability to stick a computer on and show you something while rattling on about it being “cool”.
I think, as well, that there was a change to my own personal philosophy of education, insofar as I can lay claim to having one. Back in the mid-to-late 2000s it was all about online resources. It was all about this website, that CD-ROM (remember that?), these pre-prepared, teacher-centric resources. I discovered Reflect for ESOL and dogme, and started to look at those resources much more harshly. Who decides the content of resources? Who dictates the methods used in the classroom? How can we stop paying lip service to learner centredness with teacher imposed strategies like ILPs, and start to hand the control of the classroom to the learners? To my mind the technology of the later part of the 2000s was all about this kind of teacher led stuff, and wasn’t there, not really, for much else.
As well as my own personal changes, I think it was a reaction to the increasingly rabid claims of the pro-technology gang, fundamentalists to the core. Technology is Good. Education without Technology is Bad. The tipping point here was at a conference for JISC where I felt uncomfortable, almost bullied, when I argued, quite reasonably, against the assumption that technology is a pre-requisite for good teaching. The blinkeredness of the assumption was quite shocking, really. To shift metaphors briefly, I felt like a moderate Christian asking complicated questions about the nature of God and belief amongst a group of Southern Baptists.
Between probably about 2009 and 2012 I fell out of love with technology, and took active steps to avoid her. Sure, I missed her, and, true to all messy break ups, we had one night stands, flirtations, longing looks in shop windows, but by and large I kept her out of my life. And last year, really, I broke it off. I’d had enough, and didn’t care two hoots for the VLE, for tablets, for BYOD, for any of it. Me and technology, well, we were Over.
Meanwhile, of course, several years after I had been championing technology, suddenly technology was mainstream. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the action, culminating in the final forced acceptance of institutions to embrace technology through the whip cracking of FELTAG and the SFA. So I took up the attack, and proposed a piece of research this year which was founded on an inherently critical approach. Yeah, yeah, 10% online, whatever, embrace the future yadda yadda yadda.
No, wait. Let’s look at the driver here: inevitably, and perhaps reasonably from a certain perspective, this is not about effective practice, and never was. This is about money saving. Nobody apart from a few enthusiasts wanted technology: it was expensive, unwieldy, hard work to implement, required mental changes, staff development and so on. Nobody wanted it. Never mind the impact of the technology on the learning: despite the best efforts of JISC and LSIS, technology was always going to remain at the sidelines of institutional practices: empty, unenforced words in policy documents. Suddenly, of course, there is the mandate to save money through 10% online study and everyone wants in. The shift for teacher development also has moved from the carrot of “look at this exciting thing that will really engage your learners” to the stick of “put 10% of your course online or we are going to have to start talking redundancies”. Never a positive motivating factor, that one.
Talk about red rag to a bull. Wait a minute, I wanted to say, has anyone EVER actually asked students what they think? Has anyone sat down and said “hello, 17 year old motor vehicle engineering student, are you a digitally literate, technologically confident person who expects significant chunks of learning to take place online?” Has anyone ever spoken to adults with low levels of any literacy, never mind digital skills and literacy? Again, the driver here is financial, not the learners. The old trope “learners expect technology these days” is more or less taken as a given, but is it actually true? I wasn’t so sure, particularly with the adults I usually encounter. I put a research proposal together and have got some money to find out.
Now, the initial side effect of this was to look at my own practices, and do you know what? I’d never really broken it off with dear old technology at all. I have been BYODing away, VLE all over the place. I thought I had said goodbye, but there she was, part of my life all the time. What’s crucial, however, is that I’d been letting learners take the lead on this. If they were struggling with a word, I’d get them to check spelling using predictive text on an old phone, or download a dictionary app on a smartphone. I’d point them to websites to get further language practice, get them to engage with social media, all sorts of things. The technology had crept into the classroom via a couple of mindset changes (“Phones on!”) and was quietly, naturally, embedding itself. This was not because learners were expecting it as part of their learning, but because technology supplied the answer to a problem. No dictionary in the classroom, and three flights of steps to the dictionary cupboard? Go online.
Technology is no longer there because I am making it be there, but because it is part of the scenery. Technology, for me, is not innovative, it is just a thing we use. Even amongst a low level ESOL class, smartphones are almost as ubiquitous as pencils. And like pencils, digital technology is sometimes the best tool for the job, and sometimes it isn’t. My mindset has changed, as has the technology. I am no longer blindly, crazily in love, but the love has grown and matured into something else.
Technology: all is forgiven. Let’s make a fresh start.
*i always seem to end up buying the shit version of Windows that comes out before a really solid, popular version. Before Vista I had a PC running Windows ME, which was so poor nobody has ever heard of it.