Does our ‘edtech’ obsession get in the way of education?

On 9 July, 2016, I will be taking part in the The Big Homerton Education Debate at the University of Cambridge. I will be debating whether our ‘edtech’ obsession gets in the way of education. This blog is a first, clumsy attempt at considering that question.

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” — Benjamin Lee Whorf

Education is complex field. In it there are folks who specialise in behaviour management, assessment, professional development… And so we have assessment experts, CPD experts and even government appointed behaviour tsars. Hardly anyone would refer to these folks pejoratively as being obsessed with their chosen field of specialism. Oh, but not educational technology. If your field of expertise happens to be educational technology, I have news for you: you’re not an expert, you are a zealot. Get used to it. If your interests lie in finding out about how digital technology can support teaching and learning, this is not a legitimate pursuit, it is an obsession and so you should find a good psychiatrist.

Hyper-puppy evangelists of the new

There are various reasons for this perception. Firstly, we need to consider that digital technology has only made it into our pockets in the last ten years or so. My youngest son is still six years old and he is six months older than the iPad. So mobile technology for academic purposes is still very much wet behind the ears, almost literally toddling its way into our classrooms. The natural conservative — with a small c — approach for many of us is to stick with what we know best, which in most cases is not digital technology. I find this very understandable.

Secondly, there is the gaping, self-inflicted wound of unreasonably high expectations borne out of the promises made during the “paradigm shift” years, when we were assured that the 21st century would “change everything”. You see, “the 21st century changes some things, but quite a lot of other things will remain the same” wouldn’t sound quite as alluring and punchy over melodramatic music. But the revolution never really happened. Like a child high on sugar, it bounced about like crazy for a while only to suddenly fall asleep in an awkward position when the fuel suddenly ran out. John Hattie, he of the effect sizes, is fond of saying “technology evangelists have been promising a revolution in education for the past thirty years. I am still waiting”. And who can blame him.

Thirdly, there are the “hyper-puppy evangelists of the new”, memorably and incisively described by Tom Sherrington: “It is all too easy to be dazzled by bright new shiny things — the latest fad or gizmo that is going to change everything” says Sherrington. “Teachers are often deeply resistant to being sold things — it happens too often; they’ve learned to be cautious. It is a giant cringe to listen to someone rave about their new idea when they appear to be all Enthusiasm and no Substance.” Amen to that, Tom.

A conundrum

But the the conondrum is that, despite all of the above, technology remains helpful. That’s why we use it. All of us. For a variety of purposes. Of course it’s not always helpful, that goes without saying, but it’s helpful sometimes. To some teachers more than others. In some some schools more than others.

Yet, at some point many folks have decided they’ve had enough of hyper-puppy evangelists and 21st century this that and the other, and, instead of taking a pragmatic approach as to when technology works, for whom and for what purpose, they appear to have eschewed technology altogether. The final solution.

And so we have celebrated educationalists in this country who are on record as saying that children would be better off if we “turned all the screens off”, that tablet computers only encourage children to “surf the net and look for photos of Kim Kardashian” or that they “don’t need any technology in their classroom”. In a bizarre and completely befuddling trend, it’s as if one’s expertise in education were directly proportional to how vociferous one was in repudiating technology. The less technology you use, the better teacher you are and the more you learn. Why? Because <insert pseudo intellectual nonsense and cite technological dystopia>.

The thing is that technology is nothing more and nothing less than “the application of technical knowledge for practical purposes”. This knowledge is helpful. Instead of proclaiming the virtue that apparently derives from forswearing technology — as if academic rigour and using computers were somehow antithetical — wouldn’t we be better off by remaining open to the notion that using technology, in certain circumstances, may actually contribute to improved teaching and learning? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to develop teachers’ expertise so that they are able to make discerning use of whatever technology may be most helpful at any given time for any given purpose?

So, I ask you: who is really letting their technology obsession get in the way of education? Is it the schools exploring how mobile technology can potentially support teaching and learning? Or is it those banning it outright? Is it the teachers researching and developing pragmatic strategies so that technology can be applied for practical purposes in their contexts? Or is those who chant just-turn-it-off inside their echo chamber and deny technology’s utility altogether because, don’t you know, “there is no evidence”?

You decide.

Photo credit

Originally published at Shooting Azimuths.