Don’t bag technology – ask what it means first

I’ve been feeling discouraged lately in my conversations with people about education. Maybe I’ve been talking to a small sample of people, but I’m feeling really peeved at the moment (and it may be because of lack of sleep).

I’m not sure if the endless circular conversation – between those who see the value of technology in education and those who dont’ – is even worth the effort. Yes, I’m not in a very positive frame of mind currently. I don’t find I have the energy or patience to continue, but I still want to reflect on what the problem is.

It’s not a problem that centres on technology at all. It’s a problem that centres around the very human aspect of dialogue. Dialogue which depends on two (or more) people listening to each other and making a real effort to understand what the other person is saying.

I’m sick and tired of entering into a conversation where I’m asked to justify my belief that technology is an important aspect of transformed learning, learning that has to change with the times in order to prepare us all for the way the world works and the way it will work in our students’ future. Most of the time I find that I’m cornered into petty justification because the other person is coming from a personal conviction and will, at all costs, aim to knock me off my beliefs to prove an ultimately negative point. This is not a dialogue. Cornering someone so that they desperately try to stick up for their beliefs while ignoring the larger argument is not dialogue. It radically narrows the scope of information which would otherwise offer a larger, more informative picture.

An example:

Me: I believe that technology offers new possibilities in learning (*very aware that this is a broad and ambiguous statement which needs comprehensive explanation*)

Other: What’s all the hype about technology? Does it really teach ‘them’ anything? Or is it a just a gadget, the latest fad?

Me: Technology offers possibilities for creating and connecting with others.

Other: I know all about that. It’s been proven that kids no longer have personal skills because they are using technology too much.

Me: They are learning the skills of online interaction

Other: I read/saw on TV how dangerous online involvement is, and how it isolates kids, how it takes them into dangerous zones which their parents don’t know about, how bad it is.

Me: You have to look at the real evidence. The media is often one-sided and sensationalises a small part of the picture

Other: But I heard an interview about it and these people are reliable; this information is authoritative.

Me: There are many wonderful connections kids can make to the real world and real people outside the classroom to make learning relevant

Other: (confused look) What are they learning by talking to each other? Is there any academic value?

And then the conversation reverts back to All Things Negative in terms of Any Kind of Change with regard to What Is Considered Sacred about Education, and it’s Sacred because That’s The Way It Was, and That’s The Way It’s Always Been, so all of this new stuff is Bad. We should probably go back to Grammar and stay safe teaching Facts. Numbers, Dates. Like my own education where I studied the Victorian Year Book and copied out fascinating information about how much rainfall and wheat we had in Victoria in  a certain year (the one that had passed). Fascinating facts about sheep and sewerage, I’ll never forget that (except for the facts themselves).

Ok, so now you’ve fully realised how down I am about this argument. I just have to point out that the worst thing about that kind of ‘discussion’ is that you never end up saying what you want to say, but you end up sounding like a crazed evangelist, ready to die for your cause – and I hate that. I’m not a crazed evangelist, I have much more to say and show you if only you would listen. The problem is about listening and wanting to hear, not about technology itself. It’s an age-old problem of failure to listen.

If I had a chance to talk to the ‘other person’ without being pushed into a corner, I would question their negative association with the word ‘technology’. I think this is a wide-reaching association. Technology = computers, dangerous  online involvement, unhealthy focus on what is not real, and therefore what takes you away from real, people-to-people contact.

But technology is also TV. Do you watch TV? Does it stop you from going out of the house? (If so, then it’s your personal problem) Or does it offer a window into the world?

Do you use a telephone? Does it stop you from seeing your friends and family in person? Or does it offer you an opportunity to chat more often in between visits?

All technology!

Yes, it changes the way we live. Some of us held off getting a mobile phone in the early days (we didn’t need it? we’d lived without it), but now we can’t imagine going out without it? Good or bad? It’s something worth investigating more deeply. But it’s here to stay, and it’s technological capacities are growing fast. Change is difficult; some of us jump on the bandwagon and others yell insults at the bandwagon from afar. What we need to remember is that, like it or not, the way we function in the world is changing, and we would be wise to jump on so that we know what we’re dealing with. So that we know what kind of support and education we need to give our kids. So that they’re ready for their world. Are we thinking about this? Are we looking forward or backward?

This morning I followed a link posted by @scmorgan on Twitter which led me to an article on the Edutopia website:

Kids create and critique on social networks.

The first couple of paragraphs grabbed my attention.

In the common conception, kids plus social networking equals an online popularity contest conducted in grammar-free instant-messaging lingo — not exactly an educator’s dream world. But the Chicago-based Digital Youth Network, a digital-literacy program funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, has tapped into the networking phenomenon to encourage creativity and learning.

The Digital Youth Network runs a private Web site called Remix World, which is modeled on popular online social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.

This ning works like Facebook where students can create a space (their page) which is their own style, and where they can post their work and receive feedback from their peers, take part in discussion, and give and receive constructive criticism. Sharing with the class (or other classes) is more engaging because they care more about what their peers have to say than what their teacher has to say, and they want to show what they can do. They develop confidence in themselves when they realise they can help out or contribute to a discussion. It’s all there for the class to see; their contribution amongst everyone else’s. They don’t remain invisible or unheard. They have a place, a voice, a unique style.

When students are motivated to create work that they share online, it ignites an independent learning cycle driven by their ideas and energized by responses from peers.

That’s the theory, but let’s hear it from the kids

Twelve-year-old Jalen (also the subject of an Edutopia video profile) is among those who’ve taken their work to a larger audience on YouTube and elsewhere. “I post online because I don’t want it to just be on my computer, where nobody can see it,” Jalen says of his work, which includes graphic art, videos (both remixed mash-ups and some using original footage), and computer games. “I get positive and negative feedback, but it helps me get better and better,” he says.

“One guy on YouTube told me it was a good video, but the timing was off,” he remembers of one project that got mixed feedback. “So I went back and edited it.”

The article also talks about another student who created his own social network. He didn’t follow a prescriptive set of teacher-created instructions.

“I didn’t learn from anywhere particularly,” Mosea says about creating his network. “I just experimented.”

Experts say that, even more than the digital world in general, collaborative Web 2.0 tools in particular can motivate self-directed learning.

Students creating and publishing online within their own community is the first step to compelling learning, but the deepest learning takes place in the commenting and conversation which follows:

“While the ability to publish and to share is powerful in and of itself, most of the learning occurs in the connections and conversation that occur after we publish,” argues education blogger Will Richardson

Of couse, this kind of learning is not automatic or without its problems. But this is where the teaching part of it comes in. Teacher support is more important than ever for these new experiences to be successful. It’s not a matter of handing over to technology, stepping back and expecting self-directed learning to naturally take place. Nothing could be further from the truth, as teachers who have worked with online networks have discovered.

Researcher Christine Greenhow cautions that the virtual world can also present its own barriers to independent learning. “Students can get easily distracted,” she observes. “There are so many nonlearning paths, so we need to help them stay focused.”

And there’s the rub. If those against technology think that kids just jump in and need no supervision, they’re wrong. Wherever kids are and whatever they do, they need supervision and support. As parents, we shouldn’t leave them to their online activities without taking a real interest in what’s going on – and I don’t mean looking over their shoulders with a critical eye. I mean engaging in conversation where we learn what they’re doing, and why they like doing it. Or even trying some of these things out ourselves. As teachers, we shouldn’t leave them with the laptop and Google, and expect them to navigate a positive and successful learning experience.

To finish, I apologize for my rave – I think it’s something I needed to get off my chest to reduce mounting frustration.

Finally, technology is about the people who use it. Let’s demystify it, let’s try to understand it before we judge it, let’s acknowledge that it’s increasingly the way the world functions, and learn how to make the most of it.

16 thoughts on “Don’t bag technology – ask what it means first”

  1. Wow, I agree with you about this frustrating lack of open mindedness that some seem to have. I don’t think technology alone saves the world – I never said that, and you didn’t either. On the other hand, in 2005, oh wait, it’s 2009, we’re STILL having to convince/defend/explain the worthiness of something that offers new possibilities for learning? Grr. I hear ya, I feel your pain.

    Just one quick point – I was in a recent conversation with someone who also said something like “kids have lost their social skills, now all they do is online stuff.” What a load of malarky. I think the people who say that don’t realize that it’s just that kids have developed ANOTHER LAYER of socializing, that many adults don’t get. The students of today have their regular ol’ socialization skills PLUS a new layer, not MINUS.

    Well, keep on truckin’ – there is an army of us out there who are virtually with ya. 🙂

    ~Chris O’Neal

  2. I so appreciate your response, Chris. You make some excellent points, especially your point about kids developing another layer of socialising; so true! I’m not usually so angry but sometimes it builds up. Thanks for your support.

  3. I love me a good rant! I always feel better after I’ve had one; releasing that valve and letting some of the pent up frustration steam out!

    Above my desk I’ve stuck a sheet called ‘Dialogue rules’. Number 3 is: “SUSPEND. We agree to suspend our opinions and positons and open our minds to other ways of seeing the topic. We will actively search for strengths in other positions and basic agreements that will move us forward together. We are willing to be influenced.”

    As always, of course, it takes two to tango, and sometimes ‘they’ aren’t wanting to dance the same dance.

    Do you read Karl Fisch ‘Fischbowl’ blog? He had a good rant on this topic himself earlier in the year, where he got fed up with trying to play by the rules of dialogue and set down what he thought were now non-negotiables about technology. I’ve just tried to find it again, but can’t. But you’re not alone!

    1. Yes, it’s good to get it out. And I must also stick the ‘suspend’ rule up for myself to remember. I’ve come to the conclusion, I’m not good at confrontation. I’d like to learn not to take opposition personally. I think I’ve read Karl Fisch’s post, but I’ll revisit it now. Your comments are always appreciated, Steve.

  4. Tania,
    This is a good post…a reminder that change is not easy & that knowledge, belief and commitment are the best tools for advocacy. You make some excellent points in this post, thanks for raising the core issues again. A great reminder for us all….

    1. Knowledge, belief and commitment, yes. I do understand that change is difficult, believe me. Thanks for your comment, Fran. It’s an ongoing ‘fight’, isn’t it? How long before it’s taken seriously or given some credibility?

  5. I’ve been where you are Tania and to some extent still remain there. I think the argument has to shift away from a discussion about technology to a discussion about what constitutes good teaching today. Is it good teaching practice to ignore societal changes and teach the way you have for years and years just because you know it worked well in the past? There is no way I would teach like I did when I first came out of Teacher’s College. I like to think that every year of my teaching has seen me evolve in my practice. What I am doing now is part of that evolution and is a reaction to the way the world works now. If I want to be a good teacher and do the best by the kids I am entrusted with, then I need to know how the parameters have changed and how I can arm them best to meet this new landscape head on. No fail argument in my opinion.

    1. It’s definitely about what constitutes good teaching, and your answer (in the form of a question) is spot on. I suppose we need to turn the argument around pretty quickly so as not to get trapped in defending isolated technical applications. If we’re not talking to teachers, it’s altogether different, because people have strange notions of what constitutes good education and it’s not usually about learning. Thanks for your comments; always indicative of a strong, positive direction. I suppose for a while I’ll just take refuge in my network, so as not to feel that ‘I’m melting’.

  6. I really appreciate being in a school where technology is provided in a positive and practical way and I can use all the new ways of doing in my lessons with my students. I can teach anywhere, could use chalk and a blackboard if I had to, and have worked in much less well equipped schools. However, by being able to use IWBs, having access to a well set up computer network, and launching inot web 2.0 with my students, I know that I am equipping them for the world they live in, not the world of my own schooling. I am having fun and so are they. We are all learning together and it is so powerful. Don’t give up Tania, what you are into is so worthwhile and progressive, and one day the nay sayers will catch up (or they might get out!)

  7. You’re fortunate to be in such a school! I’m wondering if this happened after a long struggle or are you just lucky to have such a staff? Thanks for your encouragement, I’m not about to give up, especially with such a supportive network.

  8. Hi Tania,
    I can’t add too much to all this except this: I have spent the last few weeks thinking that perhaps the arguments aren’t worth it. I am finding that I have enough people who want to talk about what good teaching and learning looks like, who want to share ideas about social media, who want to reflect on their practice….so I am focusing on those. For most people, it’s not really the technology; it’s change. I am trying now to work with people who are open to change and possibilities. Keep doing great things and great things will come out of it….

  9. I’m convinced you’ve spoken wisely, Susan. Most of the time I am happy to do the same – focus on those people open to change. Sometimes I feel these are such a minority at my school that I’m not spreading myself enough. Most of the time my frustration is a personal issue I think I need to address on a personal level. This personal issue centres on my ‘childish’ need to be understood, to be fairly listened to by others. I realise this is my problem, and I need to work through it.

  10. Oh dear Tania, I agree with you! Just today I was asked to put together a justification of educational blogging (let alone the rest). Between the justifying and the Fear that Something Could Go Wrong it all gets a bit much sometimes!

  11. It does, or can do. Although it’s also a great opportunity to clarify things for yourself, and collect research for ammunition. Thanks for your comment, Kerry.

  12. Tania,

    A wonderful post. It’s a reminder that we’re not all on the same page. Teachers are an eclectic bunch, and this should be a good thing – I abhor homogeneity, as do kids – but I can appreciate your frustration that our differences result in division. Ironically, it is our diversity that should unite us – it’s what makes us interesting to our students.

    That said, I find it difficult to understand how educators – people charged with the responsibility of extending our youth, could be so reluctant to understand the context in which today’s youth develop. These teachers often see school as separate to the world outside, rather than an essential part of it.

    Now I don’t buy into the whole digital natives nonsense (now there’s a flawed concept that has got more mileage than it deserved) but I do believe it is the role of any educator to constantly seek out new ways to engage, stimulate and challenge their students. Educators should be provocative. They should be unsettling (but in a good way).

    And students? Well, students should be constantly shedding their skin in a classroom. They should be pushed to embrace change by experiencing it.

    Now of course, you don’t need to use technology every minute of a lesson to achieve such outcomes, but it puzzles me that some teachers can so easily dismiss the opportunities that lie in technology: the chance to produce rather than consume, the chance to collaborate across time and space, the chance to make a mark upon society without using a spray can. Technology gives students so many tools to analyse, design, produce and investigate and these should not be denied to kids simply because a teacher is unfamilar with such tools.

    I added dumplings to a chicken curry I made the other day and one of my progeny stuck out his bottom lip and refused to eat. After much coaxing, he tried one, then two… Ten minutes later he stuck out his bowl for seconds. I was pleased but I wish it didn’t have to be so hard. It’s sometimes like that with teachers (and they do not have the defence of youth to excuse their reactions to new experiences).

    Your post really made me think of how different people are. As I get older, I am increasingly aware that I am approaching a time when there will be fewer days in front of me than there are behind me, and that makes me want to pack in as many new experiences as possible. The thought of doing something the same way twice kind of depresses me. The thought of teaching the same lesson that I taught five years ago, ignoring all the incredible changes that have happened in the world, now that would lead to ennui so crippling, I wouldn’t get out of bed.

    I don’t think you’re alone in getting frustrated in having to justify your position, but that’s the lot of innovative people. By pushing the boundaries, you (by definition) place yourself on the periphery. There will always be a need to supply justifications to employers (they have a right to ask) but I hope we can move to a place in education where the innovative and bold are not subject to the sort of scepticism you allude to in your post.

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