Are #ResearchEd and #EdTech at odds with each other?

The Twitter debate between Progressive and Traditional pedagogies has been raging with the intensity of a well fanned forest fire for several years now with most teachers choosing their camp and sticking firmly to it.  Personally, I fall firmly into the “whatever is proven to work” camp. I know my way around a decent Cognitive Science blog but I’m also no stranger to a little immersive learning too. If it works, it works. I tend to avoid the debates as much as possible with a very large exception.  The biggest casualty of this bitter pedagogical feud has been educational technology.

The Background

I started teaching in the early 2000s so remember very clearly having to print acetates for the Overhead Projector and book time with the TV and video trolley for a class.  At one point, I figured out how to export my laptop display via s-video so it would display on the TV but this was short lived. I was therefore unsurprisingly keen to be front and centre when the Interactive Whiteboard revolution hit the classrooms.  I remember taping a webcam to a metre ruler stuck to the side of a desk so I could put a book under it and show it on the big screen to my class. I could see the opportunities that technology presented, I knew the problems I wanted it to solve and I understood the technology enough to make it do my bidding.

Within a few months of my first IWB being installed I got into a little trouble.  Apparently, I wasn’t allowing students to use the interactive nature of the board to move things around on it so I was therefore not utilising it to its full potential.  Cue a slew of lessons where students walked out to the front to add a scribbled annotation to a text themselves or a card sort that would have been equally bad if it were done on a desk with actual card.  In short; I buckled. I let my beliefs and my own observations of what worked be subverted by corporate rhetoric and sales pitches filtered to me through school leaders that had bought into misguided ideologies.  But that’s what most of us did back then right? How would Learning Styles, Brain Gym and Growth Mindset permeate our profession so deeply if we had started questioning things we were told?

The Rhetoric

Now here is the problem EdTech faces today.  The rhetoric surrounding EdTech has been owned by corporations and not classroom teachers for too long.  Teachers THINK they own it. But they don’t. They amplify it, they contribute to it and they even do some to develop it but they definitely don’t own it.  It should come as no surprise that the loudest supporters of “student centred” learning and “learning by discovery” seem to also be the loudest proponents of education technology.  There are several very good reasons for this but the main one being that these pedagogies are easy to hide an absence of learning behind a veil of engagement using technology. Those with an online course or a new bit of kit to sell will boast of the “engagement and motivation” power of their product loudly and completely overlook the lack of learning that accompanies it.

The cognitive science and research informed practice supporters are generally not trying to sell you a product (with the exception of the odd book here or there and maybe some CPD work thrown in for good measure).  The studies and evidence on offer don’t come attached to a shiny new device or flash bit of software at $X per month. They come attached to solid scientific research with quantifiable evidence that the approaches and strategies work.

So does this mean EdTech and Research Informed Practice are at odds with each other?

Absolutely not!

It means that we, as classroom teachers, need to retake the rhetoric from the corporate and social media machines and reclaim education technology as a vehicle of learning.  There are too many empty solutions looking for nonexistent problems within the EdTech sector and far too many consultants looking for consultees. These all need to create a justification for their products and therefore buy into and develop a narrative of their own.  If the current educational climate doesn’t quite justify their product being invested in, they will often point to some uncertain future where it will be. “The future will be filled with robots so buy our robotics building kit and get your students future ready with 21st Century Employment skills!”  If you’ve ever been around the trade floor at BETT or seen a TedX talk about coding you will know what I mean. What we have ended up with is a system where bedroom hobby projects are launched into classrooms as the Holy Grail of learning and are justified using the feel good concepts of 21st Century Learning.

But that’s their rhetoric.  They own it. It serves them.  The corporate messages aren’t the rhetoric of learning even though they sound a bit like they might be.  The damaging thing is that it is all too easy to become caught up in these narratives and forget to apply evidence based approaches.  When things don’t work we then point at the tech as being at fault when in actual fact it was most likely our application of it.

The Examples

I received a response to a Tweet recently regarding Minecraft where the colleague, whose views I respect greatly on Twitter, had tried having students build different land formations caused by river erosion.  His students could recall very little of the geographical knowledge used even a week later and he was therefore deterred from using Minecraft again. Now there are a thousand tweaks I could make to this lesson to help it work but that isn’t the point.  The point of it is that this teacher had very misguidedly taken the corporate message of students creating things and tried to make it work. It’s Minecraft right? Students should be creating or what’s the point? Had he applied some recall and retrieval practice to the mix it may have had a different outcome.

Another example I want to offer is the beating that Interactive Whiteboards are taking of late.  I use mine interactively in every single lesson I teach. Just because I have a visualiser (which I also use extensively) doesn’t mean I don’t need to quickly switch between programmes, add a quick annotation to a pdf or even just swipe a document up or down.  The interactivity of the board makes my teaching more fluent and the learning more fluid. It saves me time and therefore increases the time I can spend doing other things in the lesson like checking understanding. Could I use a mouse and keyboard for this? Probably.  Would it be as effortless and fluid as the touch screen is? Definitely not!

The Bottom Line

The rambling point I am making here is that technology is not at fault for the problems that permeate the EdTech sector.  WE are. We allow ourselves to either become indoctrinated by the corporate rhetoric that follows the technology around or we allow the rhetoric to taint our view of the technology and set ourselves against a whole swathe of incredibly useful innovations.  As a profession we need to take a step back from where we perceive to be the cutting edge of innovation until we understand the core basic principles of what learning actually is and how it happens. When we have grasped that and firmly fitted those lenses to our view on the classroom, only then should we look towards technology for solutions.  Those lenses have a pretty decent glitter filter inbuilt and will remove the desire to grab the next shiny thing with both hands.

I have had a bit of a break from blogging recently but am now very much back in the saddle.  Over the coming weeks I will be exploring the technology I use, how I employ it in my classroom, and perhaps most importantly, how and why it works so well for me.  I hope you will join me on my little journey through what works in the world of EdTech.

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