Opinion: Educational Technology – Are we naked revolutionaries?

Interest in maths and computer science dwindling
Our current education system is flawed, as has been ably highlighted by Paulo Frere and more recently Sir Ken Robinson. Our outdated industrial paradigm is no longer able to keep children engaged in a world of ubiquitous digital stimulation. The chemical “solution” of medicating learners into becoming compliant products on the education production line, is increasingly being viewed as not only dangerous and inappropriate, but also not addressing the real problem – the flawed system. Now schools are turning their attention towards a technological solution, one that may be even more disastrous than its forebear – one that bears many of the hallmarks of the emperor’s new clothes.
While businesses have adopted technology for over a quarter of a century, schools remained largely unchanged and irresolute. As the pressure mounts from vendors offering “solutions”, to parents pointing to other schools, to decreasing attention spans of children, schools are suddenly scrambling to implement educational technology solutions and governments and industry are wantonly throwing money at this new “solution”.

Failure in the air?

However, unlike business that instructed technology companies about their needs, schools are being instructed by technology companies about how they should teach.

Now we are seeing the first signs of concern, as these technology solutions fail, and some in a grand scale as was the case in the failed Los Angeles iPad initiative. Already schools are glancing nervously at each other as they begin to wonder, “have we been sold the emperor’s new clothes?” This immediately leads to a cycle of blame – it’s the wrong technology, it’s the wrong strategy, it’s the wrong content. While all of these may be partially true, the issues are far simpler, yet far more critical. The impending failure of educational technology will be due to a lack of appropriate experts and an appropriate digital pedagogy.

Following the wrong leader

The lack of experts, may seem somewhat surprising, especially in a world where there is no shortage of experts. However it is the lack of appropriate experts that is the concern. Ironically schools are eagerly following the dictates of non-educational organizations to inform them about their area of expertise -pedagogy. This is somewhat akin to an aircraft manufacturer telling farmers how to farm because they want to use a plane for crop spraying. And so we are seeing a flood of schools using iPads, or rolling out laptops equipped with eBooks, and “valuable” learning videos, because the technology experts have told them to. The problem we have is that while technology companies understand technology and teachers understand teaching, we have few who understand technology-based education.

The Copy-Paste mistake

The second core issue is the lack of an appropriate digital pedagogy. The heart of this problem may be put down to a single word – skeuomorphism. Most people have a natural aversion to the new, and so technology giants such as Apple, Google and Microsoft have long employed skeuomorphic design principles to soften our transition from old technologies to new ones. Skeuomorphism is quite simply the retention of the form of the old without its function. This is classically seen in smartphone cameras that click like a DSLR camera, or pages in an ebook reader that curl as they are turned like a paper book, or a diary app with a “leather” cover and bookmark. None of these elements has any functional value, but simply carry a resemblance to the form of the past, thereby imbuing the user with a sense of familiarity and comfort.

However, it is the widespread adoption of skeuomorphic-based digital pedagogies that is causing technology-based teaching to fail. Schools are wearing their digital clothing, where they have the form of the offline world, with little valuable function in the online world. For example, lauding the use of ebooks as a remarkable implementation of educational technology. Besides saving trees, there is no difference in pedagogy. Or, applauding a school’s smartboard implementation, whereas they offer little teaching or learning differences to their old blackboard counterpart. Or, the enthusiastic use of videos on iPads for modern teaching, whereas these videos are no different, pedagogically, to a real teacher presenting a class. Simply copying offline teaching approaches and pasting them into an online world is not only limiting the potential of educational technology, it is further damaging our tottering educational system.

A new digital pedagogy

Ken Robinson called for a revolution in education because the system is failing. Schools are responding by pouring technology into classrooms. But what we’re actually seeing is the silicon coating of old industrial paradigms and pedagogies while boasting about new innovative approaches. Dipping our kids in silicon by essentially replacing their chemical tablets with digital tablets will no more solve the problem than our first failed attempt at medicating our kids into learning did.

We need to seek out appropriate guides who are attempting to understand the affordances of new technologies. We need to develop appropriate pedagogies that don’t simply copy offline approaches and paste them in skeuomorphic subservience into the digital world. We need to rethink, reimagine, and redesign how we teach and learn, otherwise the revolution may be over before it even begins.

By Craig Blewett (www.teachernology.com)

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