Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Assumptions about digital technologies' impact on teachers' pedagogy

I've been thinking a lot recently about the following assumptions regarding digital technologies and education:
1. That teachers' pedagogies are transformed when digital technologies are used in classrooms
2. That 'old' teachers resist using digital technologies
3. That the presence of digital technologies 'changes' teaching and learning.

1. That teachers' pedagogies are transformed when digital technologies are used in classrooms
I want to debunk both as myths. In 2010, I wrote a literature review for the Ministry of Education, and noted that an emerging trend in the literature I canvassed was that teachers were noticing how thing were different in their classrooms when they used these cultural tools. I also cautioned that this trend may also be a symptom of the Hawthorn Effect in action (Sonnerfeld, 1985).  I'm really pleased that I included that caution, for the more I work with teachers experimenting with mobile digital technologies, the more I see that these same tools can also serve to reinforce existing practices.

Asserting that digital technologies have already transformed education, is, I argue, a fallacy. What may be transformed are things like: reducing teachers' workload, including marking (see this blog post and video for an example); reducing preparation time, because things are easy to find, adapt and share; making communication with students or other colleagues easier (blanket posts via email or social media or through an LMS); access to information and more online tools than you can poke a stick at. Teachers can therefore conduct their work more efficiently. This does not mean that pedagogically, there has been any marked change.

When I visit our graduate students on practicum in local secondary schools, I still see replicas of classrooms that were familiar sights last century. It is the industrial model of education still in action: kids in rows facing the front; teachers doing the chalk-and-talk with PowerPoint; students copying notes (for heaven's sake); students working individually; notices banning mobile devices on the school grounds (although, to be fair, this kind of notice and policy is fast receding); teachers saying that it's all right for subject X to use digital technologies, but they don't belong in my subject...

David Parsons (Massey University) for example, talks about a 'paradigm shift' - but what does that mean educationally? Are teachers really teaching in a whole new paradigm, or do they and students just have better access to information and ways of producing more? The European Union also talks about digital technologies transforming education, but I had a hard time finding evidence of this, and even the same site's digital agenda talks about the technology, not the learning. The Horizon site also trumpets the transformation of classrooms, but again, there was little evidence of pedagogical practice being altered - but a lot of talk of technology. What is being used as learning resources may be changing, but pedagogical practices?  I think this is smoke and mirrors.

And even more recently, is the report from Pegasus Bay schools in Christchurch  This set of schools had to reinvent themselves post earthquakes. The report is called Disrupting the boundaries of teaching and learning: How digital devices became a resource for transformative change in a time of crisis. I read that report and was struck by the assumptions which seemed to precede the analysis of any data - that this WOULD be about transformation. An earthquake is definitely disruptive and would certainly precipitate creative thinking and decision-making, but I didn't find out what had been transformed. Instead, I read a report about human resilience, willingness to make things better, and a determined effort to help learning happen for as many students as possible. The digital devices and broadband provisions facilitated the rebuilding education in those schools process more easily than if they had been absent. And they certainly made it easier for students to connect with each other and their teachers, to participate in meaningful learning and feel satisfaction in learning, but was transformed? Teachers talked about being more aware of learning from their students and being more open to being a teacher and a learner, but does that signal disruption? transformation? I think it signals that teachers, students and caregivers found more effective ways to connect with the learning process than they might have, had there been no earthquake. It is a story of good will, creativity and determination (from teachers, school leaders, caregivers ad those charged with helping this education community get back on its feet) in the face of huge upheaval. We have to be careful what is called transformational.

2. That 'old' teachers resist using digital technologies
The more I work with teachers in schools, the I'm convinced that it's the experienced teachers who are ready to experiment with digital technologies. Over four years ago, I worked with teachers in an Auckland secondary school who were experimenting with using cellphone sand other handheld devices (before the iPad hit the scene). All of these teachers were experienced - most had taught for more than 10 years at least. And I'm currently working with three teachers in another school who also have been teaching a long time. All of them were comfortable with trying things they didn't yet know or had never yet used in a classroom. All of them were keen to experiment with using digital technologies. All of them also argued that they would never have contemplated doing these things while they were in their first three years of teaching, because they would have been concentrating on betting the hang of classroom management, how the school functioned, their own time management, and the nuances of their curriculum subjects.  They also admitted that in those first few years of teaching, their pedagogical practices were not yet secure enough for them to cope when things went haywire, as technology has a habit of doing. They were now quite prepared for the 'pain of failure' as one teacher said because they had the experience and pedagogical content knowledge to have a Plan B if necessary.  Sometimes, Plan B morphed further along the alphabet before a semblance of order was restored.

3. That the presence of digital technologies 'changes' or 'transforms' teaching and learning
There is quite a bit of hype around digital technologies in education contexts. Sure, they can help students concentrate on task longer, and be more keen to complete tasks and present higher quality work, but there still appears to be the view that the mere presence of these devices is transformative of teaching and learning. Cleborne Maddux hit the nail on the head about this when he argued that 
We do not ask whether simply exposing children to books, teachers, or much of anything else in the educational environment will improve teaching and learning. Why then do we design studies in which the implicit assumption is that merely exposing children to technology, regardless of what that exposure entails, will facilitate learning? It seems clear that mere exposure to technology carries no particular benefit, and that it is how, not whether technology is used that is critical to student outcomes.(Maddux, 2009, p. 183)
In other words, he's arguing that carefully designed learning is as important as it ever was, and ascribing positive outcome to the presence of the device ignores the parts expert pedagogical design and professional learning facilitation play in any educational outcomes. And it belittles the highly important role a teacher plays in classrooms. 

We must always be mindful that separating out one thing (a digital device) as the game changer for learning, when it is one of many variables in a classroom, is dodgy at best. Variables to acknowledge in classrooms include: how well the technology works, the mood of the class (both individuals and the collective), the time of day (before or after lunch?), the quality of the learning tasks, the lesson facilitation, and the quality of the resources associated with the learning (did it mean students were learning from unseen, challenging texts, for example?). 

In the end, we must always be mindful that learning is not a straight line, nor is it straightforward, or untainted by complexity. On the contrary, it is messy, imperfect, and often emotionally charged. We cannot continue to accept others' assertions that the mere presence of a digital device will transform teaching and learning. 

References not already linked in the text
Sonnenfeld, J. A. (1985). Shedding light on the Hawthorne studies. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 6(2), 111-130

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