Best when human

Getting busy at the Education.au ICT in Learning Symposium

This is an attempt to organise many thoughts after spending an amazing weekend with a number of passionate and wise ‘ed-tech’ people at and after the SICTAS symposium in Sydney last weekend.

It may have been an ‘echo chamber’ a little at times but…it felt wonderful. The gathering was passionate, informed, engaging, motivating and hopefully fruitful when our recommendations come to the top echelons of public service in Canberra. A big public thank you goes to people at Education.au for pulling it all together.

But there were some curious moments and statements that made me think.

Where are we going?

One of the interest-catchers was the statement “we need to know where we are going.” On the face of it, one would not think much of it. But after a day of discussing the massive changes that are occurring in the world, let alone educational opportunities and technologies to process it and make sense of it, after talking about openness, different approaches to curriculum and teacher development, discussing and imagining more organic, participative, community schooling afforded by the rise of ‘Web 2.0’ (for lack of better word), rethinking of arrangements for creating and sharing content and ideas, and more… the words “we need to know where we are going” sounded a little thin. They go against the paradigm shift we had just been talking about all day and which is happening ‘out there’. Dean Groom (must check his School Without Walls idea !) put it nicely to our table with a counter-argument: “With major events happening so frequently these days (and brought to us or affecting us almost instantly, raw or re-interpreted; my addition here), people are starting to be OK if the world turns upside down one day.”

The “knowing where to go” makes sense if we are talking about a direction, not necessarily a firm destination anymore. With institutions we had trusted for so long and thought to be immovable crumbling down (“safe as a bank” has certainly lost its punch for one) it is perhaps a good time for education to become less organisation-centric and more person-centric. Professional learning networks (PLN ) and personal learning networks (PLE) may just be handy acronyms for something we are beginning to imagine and create but they certainly have a great chance of equipping students of all backgrounds, talents and abilities, as well as teachers and administrators, to embrace, survive and thrive in the world’s messiness. There was a strong theme (if not undercurrent 🙂 of personalisation and access to quality education among many of us at the symposium, particularly those ‘hitting the ground’ in classes and lecture theatres.

In the view of many gathered at SICTAS, stricter, tighter, more prescriptive curriculum, with standardised measurement to boot, is about as effective as the “control of the message” in these days where every person with a modem or a mobile phone in a street is his or her own media publisher an could turn from total obscurity to a powerful opinion-maker in a matter of a few thousand clicks, forwards, (re)tweets and shares around the world. Liberating? Yep. Participatory? Yep. Free? Yep. Scary? Yep, a lot.

Let’s not turn kids into narrow, test-performing monkeys but teach and learn with them how to recognise, negotiate and deal with the good and the scary stuff that may (or may not) be out there one day, online and more importantly, offline. Destination – unknown, direction – clear.

Perhaps it’s time (IMHO) to even begin entertaining the idea of rhizomatic education, expressed in its most simplistic form as “community as the curriculum”. The idea is not new, certainly does not come without its dangers (maybe another time on that…) but with the advent of digital technology and its ubiquity, the potential is very exciting as well as threatening to the established ways of schooling in particular. Heard of the very old proverb “it takes a whole village to educate a child”? What an exciting, messy, dynamic and huge village we live in these days.

Implications for teachers

There is a significant gap between student and teacher use of digital technology. I touch it every day and have large studies to back the assertion. A growing number of students, at least a significant majority (please no digital natives here) are excellent multitaskers and their frantic pace seems, and often is, at odds with the tradition of steady, thoughtful, lock-step process of life and learning most of their teachers are more familiar with (hm, the frenetic pace of teaching requirements does not allow much of that either, does it?).

But students are getting better at it. They are becoming more discerning and better at recognising patterns, quality will come when they are given time to think about rather than simply voraciously consume massive amounts of media. They are becoming increasingly sophisticated in seeking information, producing information, recognising patterns and, in time to come, making sense of them. And that is where teachers come in – helping to make sense, turning lifeless, static, meaningless, digital, easy to reproduce, explicit information into tacit (Polanyi), dynamic, analogue and personally meaningful knowledge. Quality – not quantity.

If a teacher simply says the only and best way to learn is by reading a book and quiet reflection (very true SOME times) by virtue of being the only way (s)he has ever known, (s)he may be selling kids short, plus sound superficial because students will increasingly know that is not the case. The teacher may also be missing on a great (not the only!) opportunity to personally connect with students.

Rather than simply being deliverers of standard(ised) curriculum and becoming mere ‘technicians of the empire’ (perhaps too fruity a term for thousands of smart operators out there), the shift afforded by the rise in consumption and acceptance of digital technology could help teachers to reclaim the somehow shading title of a professional. Professional in a sense of remaining ethical, lawful, yet taking risks, doing the best we can FOR STUDENTS as provocators of learning (not mere suppliers) and connectors to sources of vertical (experts), horizontal (peers) and deep (community) mentorship – the ‘usness’ Prof Heppel often talks about. Technology may be a powerful enabler, it can be ignored less and less, but it is no magic bullet – thinking, acting, learning and care by constantly asking the question “what am I doing to best prepare this person to survive and thrive in the world that is likely to turn out”. If clever use of technology is very likely to determine large chunks of their lives in this future, it is probably not wise to ignore it, no matter how vague and uncertain the future may be.

The majority of teachers in this country don’t ignore technology, but we are often simply baffled by its enormity as a whole. We often struggle with the fact that technology is sometimes forcing us to let go of the control or admit that we don’t know everything there is to know or, heaven forbid, assess in our classroom. That is a significant rewriting of centuries old and encrusted ‘teaching DNA’ we are talking here, and not just in teachers’ minds but in the minds of voters and their ideas about of ‘what a teacher does and should do’. It is not to be ignored but not held as gospel either.

“Technology alone does not make good teachers” is an accepted truism, but one that often helps teachers to avoid even considering technology in their teaching. The key question here is “what makes ‘good teaching’?”. Ignoring at least the potential of technology to improve one’s teaching practice is probably going to be less and less tolerated – first by students, then by their parents and with them the wider society.

hattie feedback

What clever use technology can do is enhance the very things that research has shown time and time again to be the determining characteristics of a good teacher. For example, teacher feedback (considered most influential on student achievement in oft mentioned study by John Hattie) does not have to be mediated by technology but surely it would help to:
–    send the student a quick note (text, audio) about parts of their paper as you are reading it before the final draft is due,
–    asking for further clarification of stated ideas in a public online forum to really see how sound the knowledge is,
–    an online, private, asynchronous dialogue about the (un)met needs, aspirations or background of the student,
–    using voice comments on student’s work as if talking to him/her thus providing rich feedback way beyond the few scribbled notes on paper,  … not to mention
–    feedback from experts or peers around the world in the form of comments on a blog post, invitations to collaborate, group ratings for a piece work

… and more, and of all it from virtually anytime, anywhere.

These are just a tiny few, top-of-the head examples of personal, human feedback made possible and/or enhanced by technology. These have been all been put in practice by some truly excellent and passionate educators around the world. It’s not all just about ‘time saving’ and economics of it – it is about the richness and authenticity of feedback made so accessible with simpler and simpler tools (and at increasingly low cost too).

For all its volume, the most useful technology is actually becoming simpler and simpler. Setting up a Twitter account for example, requires far less technical skills than learning Microsoft Word or Excel, not to mention setting up a VCR (still know what that is?). But learning and using the former (Twitter) can be not only faster but much, much more powerful and useful for teachers and students than the latter. It is not because it is simple to operate (too often teachers are treated with ‘must make it as simple and dumb as possible’ – if teachers see value in something they will learn how to operate the most complex technology!). It is because, in the words of Dr Evan Arthur “technology works best where there is direct interaction between humans“. The mental leap to the job of teaching is not hard to make here is it?

Implications for policy makers

When asked by one of the policy makers at the SICTASS symposium about the most important things for change we have collectively sought on the day, I stated my top two: time and leadership. Time to play, explore, reflect, adopt, reject, collaborate, create – enough verbs here but you probably get the sense from the starting few that all this does not and will not happen over a year or two. Leadership to make things not only law(ful) but acceptable and accountable in the eyes of the voting and paying citizens.

At the moment, a lot of the talk in the media is about the computer richess and funding the physical infrastructure. It’s easy to measure, it’s easy to show, it’s easy to scrap too. But the human infrastructure will make things go, the one that can’t be ticked in a box that easily but is messy, probably expensive (but note necessarily so), and far less certain or easily measured. Please, no more extravagant computer riches and thinking ‘we have solved the problem’ by putting computers in schools. It is often the schools with few resources that pull off amazing things with ICT because of the people, not the flashy equipment. This is NOT to say that funding for new ‘computer power’ should be scrapped but it needs to be aligned with the ‘people power’ that will make it go in that class or school. The excellent, very brief ‘3 x E strategy’ paper could be a useful guide to what make technology go in schools (and there is always the good old ‘11 things that make a difference’ by Bryn Jones and Chris Betcher).

There was much talk about the best approaches in infrastructure and professional development for this much touted ‘digital revolution’ to happen on the ground. The main dichotomies seemed to be national (top down) versus local (ground up), both with their merits. In my view, the issue is not so much the level of deployment but the usefulness, flexibility and ease of use of ICT by people on the ground – nowhere else. To use a bike analogy, let’s give teachers and students a simple, sturdy bike that works in all conditions – soon they will want to get the bike to go faster, look nicer, they might even strap an engine to it to get to wherever they want faster. The job of ‘policy makers’ is to give teachers and students that bike, get them to learn how to pedal and balance, show them places they could go to hold their imagination, give them time to do it – then leave the rest to them. When hearing squabbles about what best system to use etc etc, I kept thinking of a great line by G.K. Chesterton’s: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.”, somewhat like that often used yet poignant urban myth about the American space pen and Russian pencils.

Let’s reward clever use of technology, useful innovation, production and use of resources that will make an impact beyond the walls of the single enthusiast’s class. Then open the whole thing up! Enough fantastic and expensive resources that only 5 people get to see and use, enough sector squabbling, enough ‘copyright paranoia’ (Delia Browne proposed a simple red-yellow-green system for labelling resources that will make teachers pick, share, use and (re)shape resources with ease). Let’s open the doors to open source software and its dynamic, creative and committed army of supporters, contributors and improvers rather than locking ourselves into expensive vendor contracts that so often make sharing and exchange technically, legally and practically difficult. ‘Web 2.0’ we talked about so much at SICTAS has been stunningly successful largely because of the idea of sharing, thus countering the individualistic, competitive, protectionist attitudes. The phrase ‘participation is the currency of community’ was flashed on screen a number of times. This glowing, buzzing enthusiasm for ‘community’ is of course not without it dangers to exclude (again, more about that another time…) but we (at SICTAS) have agreed it is direction worth pursuing despite its pitfalls and uncertainties exactly because of its human face, human potential and not the least – human method.

The older and wiser heads among us at SICTAS rightly asked “this has been the case for two decades – 20% keen, the rest lagging not interested, so what is going to be different in the coming years?” Maybe it will be the sheer volume and ubiquity of digital technology, maybe it will be the shift to a more human web, maybe it will be a growing sense that ignoring digital technology in class may become close to putting students in the educational ‘at risk’ category (love the edu-jargon, don’t you 🙂 ). Don’t know really, no one does.

There was a slightly grandiose yet welcome talk about changing culture and attitudes, but I think we might as well change the behaviour first – one teacher at a time. You don’t necessarily need to have a positive attitude about something before you start doing it, positive attitude simply helps (a lot!) and may often lag. Let’s not righteously evangelise technology but humanise it with all its potential and pitfalls. Acknowledge the real world of the classroom, not the imaginary ones we like to build and talk about. Tools, no matter how flashy and ‘useful’ in the eyes of their designers, given to teachers without considering their real needs are really just a bunch of ‘misguided weapons’ that are not and will not be used in the trenches (in military speak…). If you want to make teachers use the tools – reward them, individually, but only if they help the core business of becoming a better teacher in the minds and hearts of their students, not just their own.

Dr Arthur’s summary words keep ringing in my head “technology works best where there is direct interaction between humans“. Yep… noticed the name of this blog?

PS Congratulations for reading through all this. Comments always welcome.

4 comments

  1. Jen Millea

    I once participated in a project where we provided audio feedback via cassette (it was the olden days). The feedback from students, interestingly, was that they found it too personal and confronting – particularly when it was about improvements that were needed.

    @jen Thanks Jen. I like your comment because it has all to do with teaching & student attitude and not necessarily the medium to convey. You beaut’ instant VoiceThread or clunky old audio tape – they just don’t want to hear the bad stuff. Well, reality bites sometimes… Cheers!

  2. Bryn Jones

    Great post Tomaz, you have captured a lot of the very complex discussion that went on that day.

    I was interested to hear the comment from several people that the reason many teachers haven’t yet engaged with ICT is “because there is still no compelling evidence that it improves learning outcomes”.

    What do others think about that? If regular and relevant feedback is important, as the research over 20 years says it is, then what better way to help the teacher and peers to provide it than with a combination of personalised learning via computer applications and communication and collaboration via web 2 tools.

  3. Dean Groom

    Thanks fella, I love the rapid thinking your doing right now. What interested me at the forum, over and above anything, was the ability of ‘connected teachers’ to immediately leverage their resources in live debate, and support or defend any hypothesis.

    It was seemed so easy for some people to pull out a bookmark in a discussion – it often felt like a tank rolling over a landscape previously committed to trench warfare.

    http://deangroom.posterous.com/the-premiers-challenge – I had to sketch respond to the article in the NSW DET newspaper, it is full of fear and deficit thinking, like I said all day “I want my kids to go to public school that doesn’t suck”. I wonder how many senior people send their kids to public schools, and how motivation would change if they had too.

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