‘Technology doesn’t always make education better’
What are the key questions that educators should ask when assessing new edtech?
One of the great myths the edtech industry tries to sell us is that it invented personalised learning.
Edtech companies trumpet the promise of using computers to teach, with students able to move at their own pace through the material in an individualised way, seeing exactly the content that they need to learn at precisely the right level for them, at just the moment they need to see it.
The problem is, it’s not new – and it’s not really personalised.
Edtech's history can be traced to the 1950s and the work of BF Skinner, a Harvard behavioural psychologist. He certainly built ‘teaching machines’ but he's probably best known for his work in training pigeons.
Sadly, he argued that training pigeons was akin to teaching students. He thought that if we just reduced content to the smallest possible object and presented that object a little bit at a time to students so that any time students moved through a lesson, they were always getting the answer right, the constant positive behavioural reinforcement would lead to success. Sound familiar?
The appeal of personalised learning is clear, but what it often does is take the required curriculum that is still standardised and still the same for everybody, and simply presents it to students to work through at their own pace.
Real personalised learning would take you on a different learning journey – perhaps, "Hey, you seem to be interested in pigeons. Let's develop a curriculum around ornithology. Let's help you enhance your understanding of bird sounds, you could do bird recognition, perhaps pick up some water colours or explore environmental studies."
From individual learning to shared experiences
With the focus on individualised learning, it becomes easier to ignore that which society is lacking right now – shared social communal experience.
We need to spend more time sitting with one another, understanding how each other is thinking about the world and seeing the world, helping one another, thinking through things together, learning how to work together, learning how our ideas coincide and develop together. Individualised learning is not going to enhance that.
The original vision that Tim Berners-Lee had for the web was for a scholarly technology. It was a way for scholars to be able to disseminate and share information – and that is really powerful.
As a result, many big technology companies are very interested in us not being on the web. They want us to use their apps - to move to their walled gardens, so they can track our data. Unfortunately, I think that edtech has followed that model.
One of the most important things educators can do is encourage students to have their own website or blog – a digital presence where they can build out their space and think about what that looks like for them, not just as future academics but as future citizens.
All students are scholars, whether they're four or 40, and they have the potential to contribute and build on great knowledge. That's what happens when you're in shared conversation with other people intellectually: you're always building knowledge.
By putting their work online, it shows students that they're scholars and it helps them understand that's how scholarly networks and scholarly knowledge is built. It's not a person working in isolation alone. Instead, we're always in conversation with one another and the web is a very powerful way to facilitate those conversations.
Change is always possible
One of the damaging stories that's told about education is that it hasn't changed. But it has always changed. It's changed profoundly. Students and teachers have been wildly successful in making classrooms better and more inclusive, in raising questions about how things are taught, the way classrooms are arranged, what's in the curriculum.
People have always resisted edtech when they see the kinds of change that certain people want as being antithetical to their values, in terms of what the future should look like.
Resistance is always possible. We have always refused to use some technologies, not because we are against doing things differently but because we want to do things better, and the technologies on offer aren't always the way to get us there.
Four key questions to ask of edtech:
- What happens to the data? What's collected, what gets stored, what gets used and how? What can students see of that process?
- What’s the teaching philosophy behind the edtech? And what exactly is the tech supposed to do? A lot of tech is caught up in efficiency – how do we make something faster for cheaper? Is that the right model for education? What is the model? And what are the values behind it?
- What kind of pedagogy does this tech imagine the ‘classroom’ looking like? With the physical classroom, teachers recognise that even though the architects of a school building imagined what the teaching and learning looked like, there are changes you can make. You can rearrange the chairs, for example, to make it look less teacher led. Chairs in a circle will really change the dynamic. But with tech, it's almost impossible to get under the bonnet of proprietary software, even for programmers. When you adopt a piece of technology, you're usually adopting the teaching practices that the people designed it for – and they may be awful.
- Are inclusivity and accessibility built in? Too often, technologies match the worldview of the designer. Clearly, there's a large and insatiable market of middle class, well-educated white men who are disgusted by their legacy LMS, but it doesn't mean they've all redesigned it to provide the teaching or the learning that matters, or have used universal design principles.
Audrey Watters will be giving the closing keynote presentation on day one (8 March) of Digifest 2022.