Monday, 15 December 2014

Our final 2014 post: Looking ahead - the year of Digital Smarts, 2015

Digital Smarts: a new book heading your way

Dianne and I are co-editing a book tentatively called Digital Smarts: Examining digital agency in New Zealand educational settings. This will be an electronic, Creative Commons Licensed, freely available e-book, also downloadable in pdf format by April 2015.
        This book arose from our realisation that colleagues were engaged in fine work in the digital educational space but without an outlet for these research endeavours that would reach those who might find the work useful in their own settings. Quite often, research is disseminated through academic journals that are not readily accessed by educators in the compulsory schooling sectors. So, we took the plunge, inviting co-workers to contribute chapters, interpreting 'digital smarts' to their chapter's focus.
         This has been a two-year gestation process of collaboration in as much as authors shared drafts in progress at regular monthly meetings, leading to an open peer review of others' chapter drafts. This open review phase had a twofold purpose: to share and develop emerging ideas into something cohesive; and for newer research colleagues to learn the reviewing process, a key quality assurance aspect of academic writing.
        Through this access to each others' work, authors could better see how their own chapter fitted the wider scheme of things and assisted in refining their chapters, thus contributing to a greater cohesion of the book as a whole. 
         A final step in the revision process was drawing on our international academic networks to provide external, blind peer-reviews before the chapters were finalised. We are now readying chapters for formatting and final proofing before handing to other colleagues who can turn the text into a range of digital formats for open sharing.
Partnership, trust and integrity are implicit in a book development since this one is growing out of a unified and shared context. We hope it provides readers with an opportunity to compare their own educational contexts with those described in the book. The book is a partnership on many levels - it's a partnership between Dianne and me as editors, with and among our chapter authors, and the eventually the book's readership. Our colleagues have also had to trust us in the mentoring and leadership of this project, and that it would see the light of day. We also hope that the work is trusted in the sense of having a quality assurance process that stands up as rigorous and befitting an academic text. Our integrity as editors is on the line!

Where did it come from?

The book's inception was heavily influenced by international colleagues' books in both distance and teacher education where they too have collaborated with academic colleagues within their own institutions. This kind of collaboration provides multiple perspectives on a given topic of inquiry that brings a distinct, shared, institutional understanding to the scope of the book. This process, while using rigorous quality assurance processes, means we have control over the book rather than a traditional publishing house. 
Digital texts, and the social networks developing for academics (eg ResearchGate, can mitigate some effects of distance, population and price, but this also means digital texts need to be freely accessible. Current publishing arrangements through traditional academic publishers, as noted above, can be obstacles for teachers, with access prevented unless a library subscribes to the text/journal, or a reader is willing to pay for an article. 
These constraints have led us to choose a digital format for the book, with a Creative Commons Licence. As academic workers, we are expected to publish but seldom benefit from royalties for this work. Instead, we sometimes even have to buy the book our work is published in. Through an open source format and making the text as available as possible, we hope to share the text widely, contributing to debate about the value of digital technologies in educational contexts.
We have been influenced by the spirit of the simplicity and generosity of examples where book editors gift the work to readers anywhere through open access publication formats. These formats support equitable access and the wide dissemination of research ideas, contributing to the field, discussion and critique. To that end, we cannot thank WMIER enough for providing us with the means to pay for the major costs involved, that of professional proof-reading, graphic design and digitising.

Why 'digital smarts'?

The concept of  ‘digital smarts’ arose when Dianne and I were brainstorming a working title. The term ‘smart’ has stayed with Dianne in particular for some time and links to an early statement by the New Zealand Ministry of Education in 2002 with talked about the ‘smart use of ICT’ in educational contexts. Over time, that sense of agency that the word ‘smart’ has for both learners and teachers has disappeared, with more recent MOE statements about e-learning focusing more instead on describing the potential influence of the technologies on the learning, not the learning on the technologies and how they are used. (see Pachler et al for their exploration of agency, culture, appropriation, and the idea of the 'mobile complex'). 
We want to reclaim the word ‘smart’; it has multiple meanings, making it easy for our chapter contributors to interpret the term for themselves. For example, ‘smart’ can refer to ‘smarting’ - in the sense of being hurt, either physically or emotionally; it can also refer to creativity in the products that can be made through digital means; it can also refer to the degree of agency one exercises, such as in working smarter, not harder; a further interpretation refers to ‘smart’ as an acronym for something that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. 
These chapters are the products of some SMART thinking by the authors. What we are producing is specific (for it traverses individual education sectors, and is interpreted for the specifics of the chapter), measurable and attainable (in that the research has produced findings that have been collected, analysed - in a sense ‘measured’ - and attainable, in that the themes and ideas the data generate are arrived at through a rigorous process of investigation), relevant (in that they focus on digital technologies in education when we are on the cusp of all New Zealand schools accessing unlimited, uncapped and robust connectivity), and timely - for now is a good time to explore and share what we know is happening and suggest possible inferences for pedagogical practices across education sectors. In other words, ‘digital smarts’ represents intelligent, pedagogically-oriented and strategic uses of digital technologies to benefit learners of all kinds.

We would be really thrilled to know who's reading our blog and what you think. Please feel free to add comments and/or email us your thoughts.

Our best wishes for a cheerful, safe and refreshing Christmas/New Year break. See you in 2015.

Monday, 8 December 2014

In the face of obstacles, why would teachers persist in using digital technologies in classrooms?

Dianne and I will shortly be having a break from this blog for a number of reasons - first, it's almost our holiday time; second, our university shuts for a couple of weeks, and three, our heads need time to reboot. We intend, as a result, to create a shared blog post as our 2014 finale.

In the meantime, I thought I would talk about an article that has just been published in Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice. I have to fess up though - it's one of mine. I'd like to be able to share the actual article with everyone, in order to generate debate about the ideas, but copyright with the publisher makes that difficult.

However, the basic premise is that There are a number of models that focus on technology uptake in various contexts - such as The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM), which is used in industry and sometimes in education to explain uptake of technology by individuals. Then there's the continuance theory model that hinges on TAM as a foundation. It focuses on satisfaction and ease of use as determinants of continued use, and also began life as a focus on commercial uptake to get the job done. Then there's the SAMR model which is also a kind of continuum but sees this in relation to whether or not the user appears to appropriate it for their own uses, or just adopt it as is. I may be taking liberties in my summary of them, but you can be the judge of that.

These got me wondering, and asking - so are these the reasons teachers will keep going, even in the face of wonky wifi, school policies that obstruct rather than enable, or in contexts where no-else seems to experiment with thee things? My argument is that ease of use, satisfaction with the tool or even whether a teacher adopted or integrated use are not enough for persistent use. Teachers care about whether their students are keen to learn and achieve learning success. When they tell the teacher "this is cool" or that  "this doesn't feel like learning", then teachers will do it again and build on that success, whatever the tool or pedagogical approach. When the two align and students dig into a task, concentrate for long periods and want to produce fine work, then learning is magic.

Extending continuance theory to education therefore, must be predicated on what happens with students. It isn't enough to talk about tools or the teachers themselves - great teachers will make decisions based on the impact on their learners. All power to them, I say!

Monday, 1 December 2014

Are digital technologies really transforming classroom practice?

I've heard a lot (and often) about the idea that digital technologies transform practice in classrooms. It can be trotted out as a truism, when in fact these technologies are still relatively new, and we're still getting used to how we might use them to help learning. I want to have a look a quick look at this notion of transforming practice. It is many-layered, as Wong, Li, Choi and Lee (2008) suggest:
Those schools which have realized changes in classroom practices are characterised by ICT-pedagogical innovations. To make this happen, pedagogical innovations must be rooted in teachers’ experiences of moving away from a teacher-centred approach to one that is more student-centred. Leadership and the climate for collaboration and experimentation are fundamental to the integration of technology into pedagogical innovations
Their comment indicates that change is a complex undertaking with multiple, simultaneous levels at work. For a start, those used to the sage-on-a-stage didactic style of teaching may be deeply challenged by a student-centred model of teaching and learning when they design lessons where students take control of the technology. These teachers might feel a lack of control, causing some levels of anxiety. Others might balk at the idea of having other adults in their classrooms while they teach, yet collaboration and reflection with peers is important, suggesting some kind of in-school buddying system of experimentation and inquiry. It means they will sit down with you later to pick through what happened and why in order to evaluate the experience. And here, I'm talking about f2f (face-to-face) classrooms; online classrooms are a whole other matter, for the physical cues of interpersonal relations have to be accounted for differently, and digital tools are the basis of such learning contexts.  There is a greater open-endedness when what constitutes a classroom is no long bounded by physical walls, and the notion of audience has expanded.

A school culture, if those leading it want staff to continually develop their pedagogy, will need to embrace trial and error and be able to deal with things going wrong as they inevitably will when staff try new learning things. This suggests that leadership will embrace and support change and uncertainty from the bottom up - no easy feat. Another factor is the willingness of staff to use their classrooms as 'change labs'. Experimenting with resources, pedagogical approaches and digital technologies can be difficult when imperatives focus on students passing exams. This push is about content reproduction, while experimentation in the classroom is about uncertainty,  a focus on learning and process. So, transformation? It's a big ask.

One site argues that 'training is key'. It begins by asking the following questions:
What do we know about successful pedagogical strategies utilizing ICTs for teaching and learning. What is known about effective teacher professional development? What do we know about the impact of ICTs on teacher performance? What do we know about the impact of ICTs on teacher motivation?
So how would 'training' solve those? Dianne and I have already argued that 'training' is entirely the wrong concept for education. And it can turn those who would otherwise be entirely competent, into dependent learners, always waiting to be 'trained' before trying anything. We surely want independent, adaptive help-seekers in education, don't we? One way to answer the question What is known about effective teacher professional development? is to go to the New Zealand BES report on teachers' professional learning. That synthesis indicates that professional development which takes place as close to the classroom as possible, but with the support of someone else, has the most traction and likelihood of 'sticking'. The other person can observe, ask questions, feedback ideas and help the buddy evaluate their practices and experiments with pedagogies and digital technologies.

The World Bank, remarkably, also questions the hype about digital technologies transforming pedagogical practice:
It is generally believed that ICTs can empower teachers and learners, making significant contributions to learning and achievement. However, current research on the impacts of ICTs on student achievement yields few conclusive statements, pro or con, about the use of ICTs in education. Studies have shown that even in the most advanced schools in industrialized countries, ICTs are generally not considered central to the teaching and learning process. Moreover, there appears to be a mismatch between methods used to measure effects and the type of learning promoted. Standardized testing, for example, tends to measure the results of traditional teaching practices, rather than new knowledge and skills related to the use of ICTs. It is clear that more research needs to be conducted to understand the complex links between ICTs, learning, and achievement.
This statement suggests that the World Bank is hardly endorsing the idea that transformation has happened. Perhaps we can find answers when we can refer to, for example, a blog post that cites Orlando's (2014) 5 year study in Australia, highlighting that changing pedagogy with or through digital technologies results from a long-term and complex process, often initiated by a problem or puzzle of practice. A key factor in this shift is teachers' reflective practices - their ability to critique their own performances in the light of evidence from others, particularly their students and colleagues. Finally, using digital technologies can be highly individual, since their use is based on specific  classroom contexts. Mishra and Koehler's TPACK framework argues, for example, that the closer to practice the digital technology is explored, the more likely it is to become part of the teacher's professional knowledge and practice. Perhaps that's also why the New Zealand Curriculum exhorts Teaching as Inquiry as a process for teachers to develop an evidence-informed reflective practice. It keeps the new learning close to the place in which it needs to develop, and makes it easier for teachers to contextualise new thinking. A ZPD moment perhaps?

The length of time it takes for pedagogical change to happen is also emphasised by Hennessy, Ruthven and Brindley. The idea of 'transformation' is therefore a long bow to draw as hinted at at the start of this piece: instead, change is often incremental. Voogt and Pelgrum, for example, outline how the changes to an 'information society' might affect curriculum content and classroom practices as the orientation shifts from the teacher to the learner. They suggest that "The design and implementation of curricula that are aimed at contributing to students’ lifelong learning competencies is one of the major challenges of curriculum change and improvement efforts nowadays" (p. 158). In other words, they imply that it is curriculum knowledge that might need the greatest overhaul, yet that is seldom mentioned in the hype about practice.  This contrasts with a BECTA report on a review of the literature about ICT and pedagogy, saying that there is a "pedagogy of ICT" (p. 7).  Pardon?

But it also begs the following questions:
  • What if a teacher already has exemplary practice (characterised by openness to ideas, creativity and practices) when they start using digital technologies? 
  • Will their pedagogy alter if they already practice co-constructive learning, and design student-centred approaches? 
  • If a teacher already deliberately includes metacognitive tasks in the work they design for students, will that teacher's practices alter much? 
  • Where do issues of copyright, ethics, privacy and digital safety now feature?
I am keen to hear others' views on this.