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I have read about the pushback against “personalised learning”, particularly in the USA, for a while. The latest is this article, Teachers’ Union Faces Backlash Over Publication on Personalized Learning.

It might seem strange that attempts to help learners are met with resistance from the people at the frontline of helping them. The rhetoric, and perhaps the possible reality, is that computers and corporatised solutions threaten the jobs of teachers.

The actual reality might be that there are other factors that reduce teaching positions, e.g., shrinking budgets, poor test scores, political mandates.

Singapore’s reality was and is our low birthrate. As a former faculty of Singapore’s only teacher preparation institute, I saw the demand for teachers plateau and now see it in gentle decline.

When I started educating teachers 20 years ago, I would hear preservice teachers occasionally remark during our ICT classes how computers were going to replace them. That did not happen then and ICT is not the cause now.

We have yet to “personalise” learning in the mainstream Singapore classroom as much as edtech vendors might like. We do not have computerised standardised testing like many schools in the USA.

Our personal and personalisable technology is stealthily hidden in students’ bags, locked away in carts, or white-elephanted in labs. ICT is still like good-to-have bottled water and not must-have tap water.

Our edtech vendors are thankfully not as aggressive or creative as enrichment tuition agencies. The latter offer a different sort of personalisation: Exchange money, drilling, and sweat for better grades, never mind if you actually learn anything.

So in the USA and Singapore, we have depersonalised personal learning. It is corporatised and mechanical ICT in the USA; it is the avoidance of meaningful ICT and being test smart here.

When I facilitate ICT classes for educators of children with special needs, I try to create a shared context while they pursue their own focus areas.

One way to create a shared cognitive context is to use videos. The video I embed below provides some important reminders about leveraging on ICT whether we are “normal” or “special”.


Video source

The videos feature Carly Fleischmann who has severe autism and cannot speak due to an oral motor condition.
 

Video source

Carly was largely silent for the first decade of her life. Then she reached for a laptop which literally gave her a voice. ICTs have allowed her to pursue her dream of interviewing celebrities.

I use these videos to illustrate that technology should:

  • Enable, not just enhance.
  • Be in the hands of the learner, not just the teacher.
  • Focus on ability, not disability.
  • Be used to create, not just consume.

Carly has a YouTube channel and book to her name. She might seem to be the exception instead of the rule.

I say we break that stupid rule by empowering all children and learners — special and ordinary — with ICT. I say we stop making excuses and find ways to enable instead. I say we stop old and outdated behaviours that are teacher-focused instead of being learner-centred first.

There is a saying that hindsight is 20/20. People who say this mean that things look clearer once you get past them. It is easy to look back and see what you have accomplished.

It is also easy to paint a picture rosier than actually was. Our memories are more fickle than we would like to admit. One of my favourite sayings is: Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

Like it or not, we forget more than remember [Decay Theory]. We Instagram-filter our memories as we snapshot them [Interference Theory].


Video source

So when ISTE2016 made this declaration, I clap and I caution.

Let us celebrate successes, but not congratulate ourselves prematurely. Things may have changed, but they are not representative of every context, even in the so-called first world.

For example, participants at ISTE were having wifi issues.

We know of teachers who are still behind or trying to get over the “how to use tech” barrier. If you conducted a study, I would wager that a significant portion of “professional development” gets stuck at technology awareness and basic training.

Singapore embarked on the ICT Masterplan 4 this year, but teachers still complain about access and connectivity. They are not just talking about technology (poor signal, blocked resources), but also about policy and practice.

I mention these not to play down the achievements of any system attempting and embracing change. It takes guts, persistence, and time for change to happen and there will always be laggards and brickbats.

But let us not give naysayers fuel for their fire.

I say we admit we have failings, address them, and learn from them. I say we not whitewash underlying problems. I say we challenge rhetoric with reality.

I have not facilitated an evening class for a long time. My last time was probably an advanced ICT course for instructional designers several years ago.

I avoid evening classes because they take up family time, i.e., dinner, watching YouTube videos together, bedtime rituals. I am also always buzzed after each class is over so I find it hard to sleep.

However, it helps when the learners are active and receptive to change.

One of the things I did was to lead my learners through a roughly hour-long experience on what it means to merely enhance with technology and to enable learning with it. I did this by getting them to collaboratively concept map in groups.

Concept mapping: Enhance or enable?

One set used a whiteboard, another used a mobile app, while others used an online tool. I impressed upon them how a whiteboard map might be easier to do, but it was not as manipulable, archivable, sharable, or media-rich. An online concept map is viewable and editable to any or all and does not suffer from bad handwriting.

The mobile app was disconnected from the web and was thus a mere enhancement of what could be done on a whiteboard. The online map enabled cross-team collaborating and critiquing.

While there some value in enhancing learning, there is greater value in enabling it. Consider how some autistic folk interact with others in Second Life, how the mute speak with voice apps, or the blind consume with screen readers.

This makes sense in the case of learners with special needs. But as I pointed out yesterday, all of us have special needs. Why stop halfway at merely enhancing instead of going all the way by enabling with technology?

Why have school wifi only to block sites technically instead of having a social management system?

Why get students to tweet quiz answers to you when they can reach experts or tap cultures different from their own?

Why use two or multi-way communication mobile apps for one-way dissemination?

Why operate in fear or worry and seek to merely enhance when you can go boldly and learn from mistakes by enabling?

Late last year, the OECD released a report that declared that using educational technology did not guarantee good results.

The press had a field day with it, nay-sayers gleefully taunted “I told you so!”, and anyone associated with enabling change with ICT questioned their lot in life.

Well, this was not quite true for the last group of people.

While some suffered a dent in confidence, other educators moved beyond this argument and focused on what was and still is important: Enabling powerful and meaningful learning by students regardless of results measured only by narrow-beam tests.

The argument that technology does not help is old and invalid.

The press and nay-sayers focused on the negative and forgot to point out that the ineffectiveness could be due to teachers who do not know how to marry new tools with new strategies.
 

 
Consider a person with a hammer (old tool) and who is an expert at hammering (old strategy). Now give them a Swiss Army Knife (new set of tools). They might struggle to use the tools (poor strategy) or resort to hammering (using the old strategy regardless of tool affordances).

The argument is old because we already know that for something like a wide range of ICTs to be effective, there must be broad acceptance, regular use, and rigorous professional development. There must be changes in teaching behaviours before we try measuring the effectiveness of ICT.

How you measure effectiveness is also important. Schools and the OECD used tests. Do these test for knowledge, attitudes, and skills that are a result of ICT-enabled learning? For example, are the tests open, collaborative, and Google-enabled?

No, they are not. It is like the tests are designed to measure how someone can run in a straight line when you actually need to determine how well they can climb up a tree. The body motions look similar when the person is miming the actions, but climbing is very different from running. The tests are simply invalid.

Say no to the nay-sayers because they do not know what they are talking about. I have told you do. Now you tell them so!

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.

A little over a year ago, I reflected on the three dimensions of educational technology: IT, ICT, and IDM. These evolutionary dimensions focused largely on technology affordances.
 

 
This year, I reflect on another three dimensions, this time from the social and pedagogical perspectives.

In the era of IT, teachers and media folks used technology to create content. We leverage on technology to do that to this day. This might be why Bill Gates declared “content is king” when predicting the ascent of the Web in the 90s.

While content is important and will not lose relevance, how policy makers, school leaders, teachers still treat it with reverence is passé. We can comfortably declare that we now live in an information-rich world. We need to question if any content we create is new or if it adds any value (to the next dimension, context).

However, schools now still largely process and reprocess old content. Teachers are evaluated on their ability to recreate such content, get students to practice it, and test how much content students retain temporarily.

What matters more is context. It shapes why we need content and it makes learning meaningful. Context also provides an authentic platform for practice and application. If teachers and lessons are labelled as not being relevant, it is because they are poor or lacking in context.

These contexts provide learners with opportunities to connect with knowledgeable others in order to create new content, context, and connections.

The technologies that kids embrace today, e.g., video games and social media, are not just places for learning content. Teachers who think inside their content box and try to create cool lessons are only partially reaching their students.

Video games and social media are also the platforms that provide context and connectedness.

One example: The content behind the skill of being able to make a prediction is learnt in-game as well as practiced and negotiated in that context.

Another example: Fans learn Korean by watching K-pop on YouTube or English as a Second Language learners watch English game play videos; YouTube as a platform is an authentic context for learning, conversing, and connecting.

Technology becomes educational not just when teachers create content with it, but especially when learners can do the same while in context and in connection with each other. To do any less is to provide a disservice to our learners and not do our job as educators.


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