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. 

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