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Why do some technologies, including educational technologies, fail to integrate meaningfully into our lives?

Viewed optimistically, one might suggest that the technology was “before its time”. The technology was ready, but the people were not.

Viewed more critically, one might argue that the technology was a solution seeking a problem. The core issue is whether the problem even exists or needs to be invented first. If you put the proverbial cart before the horse, do not expect any movement.

Viewed more realistically, technology co-evolves with our use so rapidly that it is hard to predict what people want, expect, or will do with technology. If the proverbial posts keep moving, do not expect to score goals.

Steven Anderson described five reasons why educational research is not commonly used in schools. He then suggested four things teachers could consider about reading, applying, or conducting research.

I could not agree more. In fact, I am guiding and mentoring a group of teachers as they write research papers about their shared experiences. I enjoy the clinic-like sessions as we write, reflect, and revise our work.

But back to the importance of practice-based research. I sum it up with this image quote I made in 2015.

Practice without theory is blind. Theory without practice is sterile.

I reserved this read, Why We Must Embrace Benevolent Friction in Education Technology, for the new year.

A few concepts from the article jumped out at me, but the one that stood out was DRIP — Data Rich, Information Poor. What does this have to do with edtech?

DRIP is a criticism of edtech companies and providers that tout data analytics as a means of controlling, feeding, manipulating, or enabling learners. Data is just that, data. It is not organised information that might become internalised as knowledge and then externalised as intervention.

What edtech providers, particularly LMS and CMS companies, have yet to do is help their clients and partners make sense of the data. This is in part because programmer or provider speak is not the same as teacher and educator speak. There are relatively few people — like me — who can bridge that gap.

So what these providers do is reach out to administrators and policymakers because they all deal with numbers and data. They do so in a way that makes sense to them. It does not help that these discussions are not transparent and also make little sense to teachers and educators.

A while ago I heard about an interrogative torture technique that involved slowly dripping water onto a victim’s head. The slow drips quickly wear down psychological resistance and the interrogators get what they want.

That method does not transfer via DRIP in edtech. It will only drown clients and partners in meaningless data that does not actually help teachers or their learners.

This Sunday’s quote is courtesy of this tweet:

Tomorrow's educational progress cannot be determined by yesterday's 'successful' performance.

The quote is another way of saying that we cannot rest on our laurels.

If we do, we will get a bum rash and that will affect the way we walk. That in turn will prevent us from moving forward as well as we should. That is not implied in the quote and is something I visualise.

Yesterday’s practice was to just use the photo. Today’s is to give credit where it is due. The original image was a CC-licensed photo.

There are so many things to consider when trying to make decisions about educational technology. Be it for a class, a school, a district, or an entire country, decision makers consider cost, sustainability, adaptability, and a host of other important considerations.

However, most complexities can be whittled down a simple core. Whether you marry someone or not might boil down to love or circumstance. Whether you adopt an ICT tool, platform, or strategy could boil down to three types of questions.

Most of the time it is edtech vendors that make pitches. Are they using marketing speak (that you do not understand) or education speak (that you do)? If it is the latter, are they using buzzwords or meaningful terms? This will help you distinguish the ones who are out to make money and those who actually care and deserve to get paid.

Is the technology primarily in the hands of the teacher (like “interactive” white boards) or do they belong to the learners (like mobile or wearable devices)? If your agenda is to promote learning that is authentic, lifelong, and lifewide, consider what students have in their bedrooms. Do they have IWBs or mobile phones? How much ownership do they have of a learning management system (LMS or LMess or hellMS) versus their YouTube channel or Instagram feed?

Do you and the vendor use words like “aid” and “enhance”? Or do you make the case for “empower” and “enable”? Are you investing in technology that relies on old strategies so that the ICTs are mere add-ons or options? Or do you have a clear direction towards technology-mediated pedagogies that nurture technology-enabled learning?

Any reflective decision maker worth their salt will realise that there is a lot of noise in the search for signal. Tune in to what is important. In the area of educational technology, the right frequency is the learner and learning. Everything else is secondary and noise.

I was tempted to share a piece I drafted a while ago on the various Cs of educational technology. You know, the usual communication, collaboration, connection, etc. But I thought that others had already been there and done that better than I could.

I thought about what I have observed teachers trying to do and also what they might strive to do. At the moment I have three Ms: Motivate, monitor, mediate.

iPads arrive in 4th grade... by timlauer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License   by  timlauer 

When technology became more common in modern classrooms, some teachers rationalised that it was a way to motivate learners. Today teachers still think and say that, except the word now is “engage” (but here are reasons why engagement is not enough).

Technologies like mobile phones and laptops certainly motivate, but only in certain contexts. Outside the classroom, learners have free play with them. For example, they can watch the videos of YouTubers they subscribe to. If they wish, they can post or respond to comments about the video.

In the classroom, the teacher selects a video and typically leads the questioning or a discussion. Learners might be interested initially, but over time they realise they do not have the same level of choice and ownership. Such a motivational strategy gets old very quickly.

Since the rise of the learning management system (LMS), teachers have used technology to monitor their learners. This type of technology not only helps teachers assign work to their students online, it might provide answers to this question: How do I know they have done what I told them to do? This is still a common concern.

I am sure that teachers would like an LMS to also automatically mark (grade) student work. With the exception of more objective multiple choice-type tasks, the technologies in this collective is not quite there yet. This M-word does not make the grade yet.

A more important and powerful strategy is leveraging on technology to mediate learning. This strategy requires teachers to design student-centred learning experiences in which students learn with and from technology.

The teacher builds bridges, scaffolds problems, or creates links with the technology. Mediating technology connects students with content repositories, knowledgeable others (this includes the teacher), and spaces to explore and create. Ideally, such technology becomes as transparent as the older technology of the pencil and paper so that it enables learning instead of distracting from it.

The teacher needs to use mediating strategies as well. Whether the strategy is flipped, game-based, or social media-enabled, the teacher needs to become a small but critical part of complex learning experiences.

The teacher who mediates learning with technology need not be the only one to look for content because it is so readily available. Instead, the teacher needs to help learners see or do what they cannot. The teacher needs to be the meddler-in-the-middle. For example, the teacher needs to help learners search for and evaluate content. This not only helps with the learning of content, but also with critical thinking skills and digital literacies.

Many teachers still cannot see themselves doing this because they have never been taught this way and they might not think this is feasible. They might not realise this is how we currently learn after we are out of school. We learn without curricula or tests. We learn when the situation demands it. We learn all this with the help of technology that connects.

Today I conduct my third workshop on technology-mediated pedagogies at a school. It is my way of meddling with old mindsets, modelling a more progressive approach, and reaching teachers one person at a time.

I have always felt uneasy when people say “technology is a tool”. I definitely take issue with those who say “technology is just a tool”.

However, I could not clearly articulate why except to cite and explain Marshall McLuhan who said: We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

Teachers and school leaders who say that technology is a tool often mean that pedagogy should come first. This gives it purpose. But so does context, relevance, or the nature of the content. So what comes first?

I also used to believe that the pedagogical horse should lead the technology cart. However, that analogy is not relevant. Today we have the car where the horse and the cart are integrated. You can still tell the engine from the cabin, but it would be silly to favour one and not the other. If you did, it would not be a car.

But I discovered an even better analogy in technology isn’t a tool, it’s an instrument. The author cited a gun-related article which stated:

A gun isn’t a tool – it’s not a hammer or a drill that you can pick up, use to solve a problem, and put away until you have the next problem you want to solve. It’s an instrument, like a guitar or piano. It requires constant care, it requires checking and tuning before each use, it requires an intimate relationship with its mechanisms, with its parameters, with what it can do and what it should do and what it is meant for. It requires care and feeding. And it requires practice, near constant practice for you to be any good at doing anything with it.

After that the author summed up his thoughts like this:

Technology is an instrument. Learning how to use it properly makes you an artist. You can create works of art or works of work. You can become skilled. You can use it to touch other people’s hearts or pull money out of their wallets.

Citing technology as merely a tool is often used as an excuse by those who do not wish to use it in teaching. They say that pedagogy comes first and technology distracts. To borrow a phrase from the author, they treat technology as a wall instead of a conduit.

The shift in thinking could be to see technology not as hammers but as violins instead. Except for trades folk, tools like hammers and screwdrivers are used when they are needed and then put away. Musical instruments, on the other hand, need to be used every day (perhaps more than once a day), practiced with, read up on, and cared for.

There are basics that one needs to master with both tools and instruments. But to be masterful and to change the minds and move the hearts of those who you play for takes dedication with an instrument.

musical toolbox 01 by byronv2, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License   by  byronv2 

All that said, some surgeons call their tools instruments. Some people use tools to create intricate pieces of art. So my reflection is not really about debating the merits of educational technology as tools versus instruments.

A problem that teachers might not realize they have when they reject technology is that they are focusing on skill set. They worry about not being able to use the technology or lacking ideas on how to integrate it. They see technology changing so quickly that what they do might be obsolete before they master it.

The underlying issue is mindset. Pedagogies do not change as quickly as technology and some technologies last longer than others. These are the practices and instruments that last and should be practiced every day.

Whether educational technology is viewed as musical instruments or artisanal tools, their practised use can become less of a chore and more of a joy.

Sharing by blogging and tweeting every day is no more a chore for me than watching entertaining YouTube videos or reading enlightening online articles. This is because basic skill sets have become ingrained by practice and transformed themselves into a mindset. If teachers want to integrate technology effectively, they must acquire both sets.

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