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How do teachers construct their understanding of “digital technologies”?

School and Learning with Technology

This question is the starting point for my research – but how have I arrived at a point where this seems like the right question? Introductions to research are usually written in formal terms: situating your research in the previous literature and making a case for its practical or theoretical necessity. This approach can make it seem as if your research questions and approach was obvious and always there just waiting for you to come along and articulate them. The formal positioning of research is essential in establishing the warrant for research. But it’s not necessarily how we identify the questions in the first place and doesn’t make transparent our own personal choices in asking these questions, in this way, at this time. For this reason, and also because my research is asking questions about the stories teachers tell about digital technologies, here I am telling a story about my personal and professional experience that situates my research questions in a personal narrative.

Transforming education through technology

I worked as a researcher for five and a half years for Futurelab – a not-for-profit research lab exploring how technologies might enable different kinds of learning and the implications of a digital society for education. I was involved in developing and trialling prototypes for using new technologies to support learning – including exploring social software, locative technology, and distributed “speckled computing” in schools, museums and informal learning situations amongst others. As part of this work, I involved myself not just in the ‘academic’ literature and research about technologies and education but in the wider “ed-tech” field: a somewhat cliquey, loosely defined, but identifiable grouping including commercial companies, educational technology suppliers, industrial developers, policy-makers, non-governmental organisations, academics, enthusiastic educators and a growing number of consultants.

Amongst these circles there was a lot of enthusiasm for the opportunities and potentials of technologies to transform learning for the better. “Transformation” and “innovation” were the watchwords of this grouping. Futurelab itself was implicated in the promotion of digital technologies to usher in a brighter future for education. The chairman of the board of trustees described the lab’s purpose to become “the Hollywood of education”; reflecting both his background in the film industry and his vision for educational technology to be as engaging for young people’s learning as blockbuster films.

Hope in the potential of digital technologies to ‘transform’ education and generate ‘innovative’ solutions to long-standing problems appear to be the common foundations of the ed-tech community. Technologies are cast as creating a need for educational transformation: education needs to adapt and keep up with the demands of a digital society and economy. Technologies are also seen as bringing a necessary disruption to education systems that are so problematic that incremental improvement will not suffice.  Paradoxically, as well as disruption, technologies are also cast as providing the fix to a wide variety of educational problems.

Few people would actually argue that all you have to do to bring about significant change in education is introduce digital technologies (though see the recent exaggerated claims about OLPC in Ethiopia). This sort of crude technological determinism that places all agency in the technology itself tends to be replaced with a  more subtle claim that it is the characteristics, or ‘affordances‘, of technology that make possible new kinds of activities, which allow for transformation. Nevertheless, the technology-plus-human-action explanation still makes grand claims about the possibilities of educational transformation through technology.

Hype, barriers and the messy reality

Yet there seemed to be a disconnection between the transformational rhetoric of the ‘ed-tech’ bubble and the realities of technology-use in schools. One of my earliest research projects in 2005 tracked the introduction of wikis to a classroom. Inspired by the advent of social software and the example of Wikipedia, the class teacher and I had become excited about wiki software’s potential to support collaborative learning. But what I found was that the technologies made little change to the underlying logics of the classroom, which were based on individual work and assessment, and pupils actively resisted involving themselves in each other’s work. My experience seemed to fit into a wider pattern, whereby technologies, when they were widely used in schools, tended to be integrated into existing logics and patterns rather than ushering in widespread transformation or disruption.

One response from the ed-tech world to the question of why technologies seem to have not had a transformational effect on education has been to identity and then remove ‘barriers’, as if once these had been removed, then the benefits of the technology would automatically ‘flow’ (1). A lot of the barriers identified were levelled at teachers who were caricatured as fearful of new technologies, unskilled and in need of re-training, and even as just being too old to understand the power of new technologies. Outdated teachers and schools were blamed for their failure to allow technologies to achieve their transformational potential without taking seriously the real reasons why technology might not be enthusiastically adopted or might not be used in the transformative ways envisioned by enthusiasts (2).

While I was working with teachers I found that they often had different ideas about the potential uses of technology than I did. When a teacher I was working with described how he hoped that the technologies would allow the school to have greater control of children’s out-of-school behaviour I realised that we had fundamentally different views not just of what our project was about – but what education was about – and this helped explain our different views about how technologies should be used. At the time I didn’t know how to respond within the research project. But it strikes me now that these differences of opinion need to be understood and explored, not just written off as teachers’ outdated views about the technology-use.

At conferences with other people in the ed-tech world it often seemed as if we were part of a shared movement that agreed on the benefits of technology use and the task in front of us was to demonstrate those benefits in order to persuade policy-makers and teachers to take technology seriously. Yet, as Lisa Phillips discovered in her Masters research into ‘innovation’ there were actually diverse, conflicting visions of what a technologically transformed education system might look like. An excessive focus on the ‘tools’ of technology rather than the ‘ends’ of education concealed contradictory messages about what exactly we were trying to transform and why.

By way of illustration, some of the different visions that I think I can identify in the ed-tech community so far are:

  1. Keeping Up with Change: Our society, culture, politics are changing in the wake of widespread use of digital technologies. This means we need to learn new things to be ready for the wider world, and in turn we need to learn them in new ways. Digital technologies inform what we need to learn and how we need to learn it.
  2. 21st Century Skills and employability: Education steeped in technologies is required if we are to educate our future workforce in the skills demanded by businesses including teamwork, communication, problem-solving, innovation as well as proficiency with using digital technologies.
  3. The Knowledge Economy: retaining our global competitiveness in the face of the rising nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China will require highly skilled knowledge workers; a technologically-skilled population is crucial to national competitiveness.
  4. Participatory Cultures and Digital Literacies: In order to fully participate in our society, politics and culture we need to learn to communicate, create and critique through digital media; education therefore needs to equip all young people with these skills.
  5. Voice and Democracy: Technologies can facilitate the expression voices of those who might otherwise not be heard; young people can more easily express themselves, have their views taken into account in matters that concern them and engage with others through new media forms and with lower barriers to publishing via the internet
  6. Social Justice and Digital Divides: The most advantaged in society are able to reap the benefits of access to and use of digital technologies and so education has a responsibility to make sure these opportunities are available to all.
  7. Access to Education: Technologies can extend educational opportunities to those who would otherwise be unable to access them; including those excluded from traditional education by disability or illness; those in regions where school access is unavailable. It is argued that access to knowledge no longer needs to be restricted to institutions and some question the need for schools altogether.
  8. Increasing Achievement: Technologies offer new tools to aid cognitive development and enable more effective forms of teaching and learning traditional content.
  9. Motivating Learning: Children and young people love using digital technologies (in particular games, social media, mobile phones) so education should make use of this motivating power, harnessing it to traditional educational aims.
  10. Educating future consumers: A vision that may not be publicly expressed very often, but is a driver for technology-use in schools, is the need to educate children in the necessity of digital technologies for daily activities, and even specific brands, in order that they then persuade their families to purchase those technologies and become lifelong consumers when they grow up.

Each ‘vision’ is very crudely described here. It is of course not an exhaustive list, and each vision is not mutually exclusive of the others (do add more in comments!). However, neither do they necessarily sit easily alongside another. I am also not making judgements about whether any of these aims are ‘right’ or not; certainly very few people would describe any of these visions as completely worthless. There are, however, very different views about which might take priority – and these decisions about whether it is more important to use technologies to increase motivation to learn or to express a democratic voice are ultimately political decisions.

Unpicking the discourses of the ed-tech community like this shows that the visions of educational transformation promised by technologies may actually have very little to do with technologies themselves. Instead it seems that technologies are recruited to play particular roles in different political visions about the purpose of education.

With this understanding of how technologies are implicated in visions of educational transformation, it makes much less sense to ask why teachers are not taking advantage of the assumed obvious benefits of technology in their classrooms. Just as the visions listed above recruit technologies to play a particular role in educational narratives, teachers’ uses of technologies may be better understood as a result of how they position technologies in their narratives of education – and how in turn these narratives help construct their ideas of what digital technologies are, and what they can do in education

1. Selwyn, N. (2012). Making sense of young people, education and digital technology: the role of sociological theory. Oxford Review of Education38(1), 81–96

2. Perrotta, C. (2012). Do school-level factors influence the educational benefits of digital technology? A critical analysis of teachers’ perceptions. British Journal of Educational Technology, (Early View, 1–14. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01304.x

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