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Technology destroys the perfect and then it enables the impossible.

Seth Godin recently made this declaration:

Technology destroys the perfect and then it enables the impossible.

He said this while providing examples of how computers do things better, faster, or cheaper than people can. His examples were from daily life and commerce.

Something similar could be said about schooling and education. The “perfection” is the general insularity of the classroom from the outside world. Technology needs to destroy this status quo, but it is only chipping away at this mountain of change.

Today’s classroom walls are potentially more porous thanks to our phones. These allow teachers and students to connect with experts and content beyond traditional means.

Why is the change so slow in schooling and education?

The same people who use their phones in their personal lives might see how the changes are better, faster, or cheaper. However, they probably do not see how the same applies in the classroom or other learning contexts.

Technology will need a lot of help to overcome this human impasse. Training and professional development that addresses skills and behaviours will do little to make this change. To enable the impossible, we must start first with mindsets.

While the technology affords change, the teachers and leaders must allow it. They might be aware of what technology can do and perhaps even how, but they must also know why.

Yesterday I reflected on disaster-based technology integration. Today I focus on our context and what NOT to leverage on.

Singapore schools practice e-learning days where kids stay at home for lessons. Prior to this, schools send notifications to parents that explain how this helps us be prepared for the unexpected. In our context, this might mean a viral outbreak or the haze.

That type of rationale — e-learning is emergency learning — does us no favours. The viruses do not celebrate racial harmony in one day and the haze does not heed our kindness campaigns. That is my way of saying that WHEN such events occur and HOW LONG they will take is not easy to predict.

One e-learning day repeated a few times a year is not going to cut it. I know of schools that stagger e-learning content in batches to prevent server overload that one day. How prepared are we should we require constant access over a protracted period?

If there is model to look to, it is how Google ensures that YouTube is up 24×7. That sort of e-learning (entertainment-learning) is available all the time and any time.

When e-learning is relegated to a single day, the preparation to implement it is minimal both technologically and pedagogically. Content and platform access are outsourced to one of a few edtech vendors. There is practically no pedagogy beyond the blanket statement of encouraging students to be self-directed learners.

Being self-directed is important, but most e-learning days are not exemplars of that. Students are told exactly what to do, when, and how. They are following formulas, instructions, and recipes. They are not being independent.

What might self-direction look like? When learners have an authentic and complex problem they want to solve, they meet in a WhatsApp group they already have, watch a few relevant YouTube videos they look for, and discuss solutions.

Any parent with an e-learning notification letter can also tell you that e-learning days seem to coincide with days or the week right before vacation periods. Is the focus meaningful learning or administrative creativity? Does this mean that the e-learning is in excess, extra, or otherwise good-to-have but not essential?

Not many adults examine the quality of such “e-learning”. As a concerned educator and former head of a centre for e-learning, I offer some questions for both parents and teachers:

  • Bearing in mind what I just wrote, why do you have e-learning?
  • What does the e-learning material and experiences do the SAME as school?
  • What does the e-learning material and experiences do DIFFERENTLY from school?
  • What was worth the effort? What was effective and what was not? Why?
  • After answering the question above, why do you have e-learning (really)?

What might we take away when we compare our efforts with the disaster-driven technology for e-learning?

We should not be complacent when we have the time, space, and resources to do different and do better. But like the case study I summarised yesterday, we should leverage on what learners already do authentically, seamlessly, and without boundaries.

I often reflect on how we might leverage on technology in the contexts of schooling and education.

But what might technology (aided by change agents) leverage on? Unfortunately, the unfortunate. Disasters of different types, be they weather-driven, geopolitical, or other, are problems seeking solutions.

Several years ago at a conference, one speaker shared a story of how he finally managed to implement e-learning in Thailand. Floods had forced the shutting down of schools, but the idea of “business continuity” appealed to decision makers.

Earlier this week, I read this article on refugee education in Kenya. The refugees prioritised their phones for both life and learning, and this forced refugee educators to rethink platforms, delivery, and interaction.

Tech companies have flooded this space with possibility—new apps, online learning portals, libraries. But, often lost in this rush to help, the best ideas may start very simply and originate within refugee communities.

What were some general principles of technology integration that worked in this context? The Kenyan case study revealed these:

  • Ground-up: The teachers decided what they would use and how, e.g., using Facebook groups for feedback on essays.
  • Authentic and logical use: Teachers there already used Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to communicate. They extended their conversations to discuss teaching topics and challenges.
  • Seamless use: The teachers did not seem to have an “either/or” approach, i.e., either face-to-face or virtual; no-technology or technology. Their use was not based on distinction by medium or tool, but on a seamless application of “and”.
  • Going beyond classroom walls: Recognising the need to change social norms (e.g., sending girls to school), face-to-face classroom discussions with males were continued in WhatsApp outside the classroom.

The principles that emerged from a refugee camp in Kenya are generic enough to apply to a “first world” context.

Technology and change agents might leverage on what teachers and learners already have with them and what they already do. Learners value their phones and they already use them authentically. Design for that instead of our preconceived notions of what schooling should look like.

If you live under a rock, watch this video first.

Video source

If you do not, you know that everyone and their grandmother watched it and had something to say about it.

This is what I saw and say from an educational technology perspective.

Technology integration
This was an example of technology integration, not just technology use. While the effort was just a recreation of a face-to-face interview, it would not have been possible without the video conferencing software.

One alternative would have been to find some other expert nearby. But the BBC either did not have one or know one.

Yet another alternative would have been to fly the expert over, but this would have been costly and probably would have lost its impact by air time.

Technology integration makes the edtech indispensable, not just good to have. It is necessary, transparent, and practically indistinguishable from the strategy.

Managing the environment
Good technology integration is just as much about managing the environment. In hindsight, most people might have wondered why he did not lock the door.

In a subsequent interview, the expert revealed that he normally locks the door. The day he forgot, his kids took advantage.

Video source

Technology integration looks effortless only if it is planned meticulously, rehearsed diligently, and when the environments are managed skillfully.

The environment might include the physical (e.g., lighting, temperature, noise), infrastructural (e.g., availability of tools, access to electrical points, reliability of wifi), social (e.g., individual space, group space, reflection space), pedagogical (e.g., instructional tools and platforms, strategies intertwined with the previous elements) and so much more. All must be considered, balanced, and managed in when contexts change.

Keep on keeping on
When novices try and fail, it is easy to give up due to the unwanted outcomes like embarrassment, poor participation, or negative feedback.

It is critical not to give up during and after something like this happens. The professor in the video soldiered on and he had the timely support and intervention from his wife.

He behaved professionally. He shared his burden with someone else. He reflected on the experience. He showed he was human.

No matter WHAT you teach, it is ultimately about WHO you are trying to teach it to. Making that human connection — in this case, it was family and kids — is what learners remember. Those are arguably more important lessons than what is in the official syllabus.

I had a few reactions to this tweet.

I see what it is getting at, but left critically unchecked, it can do more harm than good.

I disagree with the tweeted thought both at face value and after digging deeper. Learning technology is:

  • learning about technology
  • learning from the technology
  • learning with the technology
  • not just about the pedagogy

Compared with the other items on my list, learning about technology is the lowest order skillset teachers need. But it could also be the most important mindset barrier to breach because without it the rest are not likely to happen.

Learning from the technology is what teachers new to technology might expect. The technology use is relatively superficial and either augments or replaces what the teacher can already deliver. Vendors love delivering on delivering and teachers might appreciate being partly relieved of a burden. But this is still a low-hanging fruit because it does not shift the focus from teaching content to learning how to find and process it.

Learning with the technology is where change starts to happen. It is:

  • uncertain but authentic
  • less teacher or school-controlled but more student or  co-managed
  • not just about content but also about context

Such technologies include social media, augmented reality, and mobile games. They are not created by education companies but are co-opted by teachers and students to reach and teach, and to learn not only just-in-case, but also just-in-time.

Learning with technology necessitates a paradigm shift in mindsets. Technology is not just used, it is integrated. It becomes so essential as to become transparent because it just-works and it is practically impossible to learn when it is not present. Such technology is viewed less as a tool to be used sporadically and more like an instrument to be embraced constantly.

Learning with technology is not just about pedagogy, although that is important. The pedagogies, like problem, case, team, or game-based learning are mediated by technology. But pedagogy is not the only driver: There is the nature of content and the context of its use.

There is another reason why pedagogy cannot be the sole driver. Pedagogy tend to face backwards and changes very slowly; technology faces forward and changes very quickly. One of the slowest and least effective pedagogies is didactic teaching. A didactic-focused pedagogy can make technology improve or optimise what a teacher does, but it does not necessarily focus on learning nor guarantees it.

If you do not help yourself, someone will sense an opportunity, offer their help, and charge you for it. That is what I thought when I read this tweet and the embedded article.

You can help yourself. You should help yourself.

There is so much information and so many resources you can get for free or for a low fee. Much lower than a provider would bilk and milk from you over an extended period.

But you say that it takes time to learn? I say make the time.

Then you say it is too difficult? I say everything is difficult the first time round.

You say you would rather just pay someone else to do it and then not worry about the issue? I say it does not work like that.

Web filtering is not just about tools and protocols. It is about setting expectations and parenting. It is about discussing and rationalising.

Now be just as savvy when it comes to learning how to be a better person or worker. You can help yourself. You should help yourself.

If you are going to pay someone else to help you, first make sure that this is about something you absolutely cannot do yourself. Then make sure that the other party can actually help.

My hunt for an elusive video brought me to the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Facebook page.

While I did not find what I was looking for, I found a series of images. They served as a helpful reminder of what teachers should stock up on to prepare for the new year.

What MOE teachers will use in 2017...

It was also a stark reminder of the mindset and expectations of teachers. The technologies are not current. If they were, there would be reminders to change passwords, renew VPN plans, update software, check digital archives, etc.

The call to arms was: You will be needing these and more to make a lasting impact on that one student. I get that message and stand behind it because it is a call to individualise, difficult as that will be.

I hope that teachers read this as reaching out to more than just that one student because all students are that one student. However, this task is impossible with the traditional tools and methods because they are largely about centralisation, standardisation, and control.

The newer tools are about decentralisation, individualisation, and self-regulation. This will only happen if school leaders and teachers change their mindsets and expectations about which tools to focus on and how to use them.

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