Every man in the journey of life takes … advantage of the ignorance of his fellow travellers, disguises himself in counterfeited merit, and hears those praises with complacency which his conscience reproaches him for accepting. Every man deceives himself while he thinks he is deceiving others; and forgets that the time is at hand when every illusion shall cease, when fictitious excellence shall be torn away, and all must be shown to all in their real estate.

Samuel Johnson

Mark Anderson (That’s @ICTEvangelist to you!) asked me today whether I’d mind answering some questions on the role of technology in education.

Here are his questions and my answers:

What place, if any, has technology got in education?

There are perhaps two distinct roles for Technology in education. Firstly, it should support learning. Secondly, there may be a valid need to teach pupils how to understand and best use technology. But it shouldn’t be an end in itself. I’ve kinda gone full circle on this – I’ve tried using iPads in the classrooms and find them, on balance, a pain in the arse! The more dependent a lesson is on technology, there more likely it is to go wrong. I’m generally happier with a white board and a marker.

What’s your favourite edtech tool for learning and why?

Visualisers. They’re one of the few genuinely beneficial edtech tools that can support the classroom practice of ordinary teachers. Making pupils’ work visible is hugely useful in modelling and deconstructing excellence.

What are your thoughts on students using mobile devices in the classroom?

I’d rather they spent time in lessons learning. Mobile devices are, on the whole, a distraction and I would much prefer to see the teacher utilised as an authority source of knowledge. Although I can see justifications for asking pupils to read electronic texts and to publish their work on blogs, there is always an opportunity cost; time spent on these kinds of stuff is time that cannot be spent on higher impact activities. As far as I can see, the research on edtech is fairly neutral. That said, if individual teachers feel passionate about the use of technology, I wouldn’t want to stand in their way – though I would fiercely resist attempts to compel teachers to use technology for its own sake.

Having thought about it bit, I have a few things I’d like to add: it’s a bit of swizz! I realise that may sound somewhat contentious but it’s probably one of the most expensive outlays schools make – and as such the products we buy are pretty much un-researched. We have very little idea about whether an investment in the latest shiny toys will have much in the way of impact of pupils’ learning, and as such I’m convinced millions is wasted every year. The problem is, we’ll always have people seduced by the cult of the new, regardless whether or not it’s any cop.

It’s mainly gimmickry

The fact that ‘kids love it’ is not an endorsement I’m prepared to take seriously. I mean, kids like One Direction; who are they to judge? And gimmicks are distracting. Time spent using tech can often be time spent focussing on the technology instead on the subject needing to be learned. And we remember what we do – if all we do is fiddle about with mobile devices – that’s what we’ll end up remembering. Additionally, using tech in classrooms can have the result of assessing how well pupils are using the interface rather than how well they’re learning. It’s difficult to beat a pen and paper for intuitive control.

The sunk cost fallacy. 

We have an irrational response to having wasted time, effort or money: I’ve committed this much, so I must continue or it will have been a waste. I spent all this time training my pupils to work in groups so they’re damn well going to work in groups, and hang the evidence! In a school which shall remain nameless, the leadership team were faced with a difficult decision. The Deputy Head had been a passionate advocate of one-to-one devices and believed that the best way to transform pupils’ experience of education was for everyone to have their own wireless tablet. Protests from parents and staff had been swept aside and the school outlaid a huge sum into a wireless network which would be sufficient to support over a thousand devices at any one time. The future was bright, shiny and encased in brushed aluminium.

Then the Deputy Head left. No one else on the leadership team believed in the project, but all the discussions were about how to roll it out in the least damaging and intrusive way. When one member of the team suggested that maybe the best decision would be to cut their losses and abandon the whole thing as the bloated white elephant it was, they were shouted down. The head made it clear that they had gone too far, that too much money and credibility had been invested to simply pull the plug. So, even though no one thought it was the right choice, the juggernaut rolled on. Parents were asked to lease tablets for their children and pupils in receipt of free school meals had an iPad paid for by the school. Teachers were trained in how to use various apps in lessons and further resources were committed to ensuring the project was a success. And the result?

Predictably enough, tablet devices were merely a distraction from teaching and pupils were often instructed to keep them in their bags in order for lessons to proceed. Staff members were cynical, parents were resigned and pupils were delighted with their new toys. I’m not dissing all technology – as I said in Mark’s post, I like visualisers – I’m just expressing a soupçon of caution.

But on a lighter note…

Related posts

Neck deep in the Big Muddy (the dangers of the Sunk Cost Fallacy and windmills) by James Theobald