Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Is there hope (and depth) beyond the bandwagon?

A few weeks back, the Sunday Star Times ran a piece lamenting ‘Classrooms flooded with devices’ (Dudding, 2014), along with the observation that "the latest and greatest" technology has been repeatedly touted as the solution to whatever ails the education system, with mixed results.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the article directly compared devices with very different affordances, as Skinner’s ‘Teaching Machine’, a drill and kill rote learning device designed by the prominent Behaviourist was compared with today’s digital devices. This is an indictment on how modern devices (iPads, Chromebooks and the like) are sometimes used in schools and homes – for repetitive drill of low level skills, as a time-filler to entertain and reward, and as glorified word processors.

To be sure, there is a mountain of rhetoric and corporate interest surrounding everything Digital. But surely there is also something more than what Kentaro Toyama (cited in Dudding’s article) dismisses as “the superficially appealing argument that digital education is essential because digital skills - emailing, copying files, making a Powerpoint presentation - are needed in the modern workforce”.

Digital Skills? A notion that has been surpassed by ‘Digital Literacy’ surely. As the sign on my office door reads “Digital Literacy is about mastering ideas, not keystrokes” (Gilster, 1997). The examples related in Dudding’s article are cringe-worthy, and barely make it into the digital realm – email, powerpoint?! Is that all there is to it?!

What does it take to move beyond a focus on devices, drill and low level skills?

What does it mean to elevate our thinking, learning and teaching so that new possibilities are realised?

And what might this look like in practice? 

According to one school of thought (MoE, 2002):

Learning ABOUT ICT means learning what a device can do and how to work a program, etc.

Learning WITH ICT means using ICT to supplement and complement the usual ways of doing things - so the same learning is occurring, but with digital technology rather than a previous approach

Learning THROUGH ICT means using ICT to bring about new ways of learning that surpass anything that would have been possible without the technology. This is where the innovative potential exists and where real benefits occur that lead to deeper learning and justify the expense and trouble of working with ICT.

Another way of thinking about this is the SAMR model

Examples of learning through ICT that go beyond email, copying files, powerpoint, rote learning and word processing:

1. Students at schools such as Point England primary in Auckland have broadcasted book reviews via student-generated podcasts since 2005 (Burt, 2008). Students communicate and publish on the web to an international audience and receive constructive feedback from listeners.

2. Interactive and collaborative possibilities occur where students connect, via the technology, with other people from diverse cultures and contexts. Examples of this occurring include epals/electronic penpals, electronic mentoring and online discussion/chat, or video/audio conferencing with people from near and far.

3. Collaborative Internet projects, in which students and teachers collaborate with others from around the world to share information and learning, and to create joint products. These projects take a range of forms, such as those devised by Silverman, and iEarn, where students are involved in ‘learning with the world, not just about it’.

4. Web Quests, or research activities requiring use of Internet sources, often completed by students working in groups, where each has a role or specific area to research.

5. Inquiry-based learning, where students identify their need for information, formulate research questions and search for information strategically, using a range of complex search strategies to navigate electronic databases and sources. Students use higher-order cognitive skills to analyse, evaluate and synthesise information, and to apply it to the creation of new meanings and ideas. Students then communicate, publish and disseminate their findings to authentic audiences via such means as blogging, vlogging (video web logs), podcasting (audio episodes subscribed to online), and vodcasting (video episodes subscribed to online).

6. Digital artefacts and legacies, where students produce learning materials to demonstrate their own learning and to share and teach peers. For example, at Kaipaki School near Hamilton, children in the senior school carried out a survey to ascertain the mathematics learning needs of their younger peers, and used the findings to design a range of apps and videos for use by teachers and learners in the school. For a powerful example of a gifted young man using video to teach maths concepts to fellow students, see Tristan Pang’s Learning Hub

What is noticeable about the examples in this latter category is the use of a social constructivist learning approach, rather than the behaviourist approach of Skinner. These examples are based on principles of inquiry learning, information literacy, and higher-order thinking and involve a range of technologies with students sharing their work with authentic audiences. In these examples, students learn through ICT and with others.

Notions of "building the plane as we fly it" (Kate, DP, in Dudding article) are similar to those about "lab rats" and using children as Guinea Pigs. Isn't this what innovative, responsive educators do? All the while, formatively monitoring and adjusting to children's needs. Teaching as inquiry, along with  research partnerships between academics and schools, should ensure that the evidence base is growing. After all 'building a robust evidence base' is one of the strategic priorities highlighted by the Future-focused learning report (May, 2014), cited in the article. This is not to suggest that evidence is unproblematic, or that causal links between technology and achievement can or should be established. The picture is far more complex, but that might have to wait for another post.


  1. So much food for thought here, I had never heard of SAMR before. It would be fun to experiment with it and see how the students respond to it. Of course it also depends on the school as well.

    1. Thanks for your comment Debbie :-) Schools are increasingly picking up SAMR and using it in conjunction with other helpful planning tools like Bloom's taxonomy to ensure students are challenged at a higher level, and to think more deeply, critically and creatively. When you say 'it depends on the school', it is certainly the case that schools are at different places. However, schools are comprised of teachers and teachers need to show professional leadership by directing schools toward frameworks like SAMR. It is up to teachers to become informed, try out new ideas, share with colleagues and create quality learning and teaching environments. Even a beginning teacher can make a valuable contribution in this respect, coming fresh from study and ready to share new ideas.

  2. Unfortunately there are still many digital migrants who are still in positions where they can limit the progression of learning through ICT in classrooms. Perhaps attitudes won't change until digital natives take over those positions. Why is there so much resistance to the possibilities that ICT can offer in classrooms for students?

    1. I guess this depends on what we understand digital natives to be Kelly. I find it is not age-related, as many younger people seem to have quite traditionalist ideas about learning through ICT. Perhaps it is more related to digital literacy and digital fluency. Check out Prensky's more recent work about digital wisdom, which has grown out of and replaced the digital native notion. See:

  3. So I have joined Twitter as my social media challenge. A real learning curve for me but pleased I was able to find something and someone familiar. ��

  4. So I have just joined twitter...well I think I have lol a little bit out of my comfort zone but this is going to be my social media challenge so will see how it goes. Nice to find a familiar name 😀

    1. Good on you Judith. Do make use of our class hashtag in Twitter too #PROF211