Tag Archive for edtech

Determinism in Academic Technology

Week 1 of E-learning and Digital Cultures has focused on technological determinism and its corollaries, social determinism and uses determinism. Technological determinism is the idea that technology itself causes personal and social change. The theory is reductive, simplifying the cause of complex social and cultural changes to a single factor. Expressed in different sub-forms, technological determinism insists that technological advancement is inevitable, affects all parts of society, and operates outside of our control. Technology gains anthropomorphic qualities.

Uses determinism takes a similarly reductive approach but give sole agency to people and their activities. People, not technology, cause social change and shape technology itself to their ends. Social determinism suggests that political and economic factors shape technology. One may see social determinism expressed in terms of digital divide and political power theories for the evolution of technology.

I find this perspective incredibly helpful in clarifying current debates in listserv discussions, education technology conferences, and faculty meetings. Technology is often portrayed monolithically, a single concept that can be described in one word. Technology determinists appear on opposite sides of the debate. Technology evangelists, particularly those who sell technology products, spread powerful messages that the evolution of information into digital form by itself transforms society. The world is now flat, we live in a technology revolution, and our future is impossible to predict–all because of undersea fiber-optic cables. Techno-critics portray technology as a false god, leading us to distraction and consumerism. Our society is in decline. For both techno-enthusiasts and techno-critics, neither individuals nor organizations or society have agency or can shape technology. Neither side of the debate rings true for me.

Most education technologists are uses determinists. In contrast to technological determinists, they assert that technology itself has no independent agency. It is “just a tool” that can be used for good or evil. They feel that master teachers can bend technology to their will, directing it entirely toward the service of teaching and learning. In this view, teachers should first identify learning objectives and then select the technology tools that will best support them in a straightforward, linear process. While this view is helpful to appropriately place technology within a school, it can also be used to control technology or keep it out of the classroom. It also does not do justice to the challenge of artfully using technology, which requires a nuanced understanding of how a technology-rich environment is different from a technology-poor environment.

Social determinists argue that countries and corporations use technology to control others, brainwashing us through media to further their ends, exacerbating the divide between haves and have-nots. In this view, although anyone can learn to program, CEOs rule. Twitter does not cause revolution; rather, governments flip a switch and cut it off when it suits them. In this view, technology companies are seen as having huge power to dictate school program through product features, terms of service, and licensing requirements.

Where does the truth lie? Probably somewhere among all three of these ideas. Social and cultural change is too complex to be affected only by single factors. The interaction of society and technology is multifaceted and changing. Individuals, societies, and technology all have some causal agency and are all affected by the others. We have the power to exert some control over our environment, while at the same time, our environment changes us to some extent.

Two extreme positions dominate much of the national debate on education technology. At one end, technology determinists argue that if only schools had more computers, the positive effects on education would emerge automatically. At the other end, both techno-critics and skeptical teachers argue for keeping technology at arm’s length, limiting its effect on the classroom as much as possible. School leaders can move such conversation to a more productive place by both acknowledging the partial validity of any deterministic viewpoint. Some truth exists to any of these perspectives. At the same time, any education discussion is incomplete without balance among the different determinist viewpoints.

Some leading education technologists focuses largely on positive uses determinism. Some have even written books to say so. Let’s take a look at three authors who explore uses determinism to different degrees. In Hamlet’s BlackberryWilliam Powers explores individual agency in a technology-rich world, suggesting that people have faced similar crises of technological change and information overload for all of human history. Powers’ explanation balances the different determinist views, accepting that new technologies have an effect on society, while in time, society responds and shapes technology to serve its ends. The key, Powers argues, is critical thinking and attention — building the discipline of mind to unplug, keep perspective, rediscover the self, and act intentionally in our busy world.

In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold also keys in on attention but advises that we build our mental discipline while using technology rather than by stepping away from it. He ascribes more agency than Powers to the individual and less to technology. Rheingold suggests simple techniques to pay attention to your use of technology, such as setting a timer to remind yourself to check your attentional focus, practicing meditation and yoga breathing techniques, and getting better at filtering useful from useless incoming information. He proposes that attention and mindfulness training become part of the required school curriculum, a 21st century literacy, if you will.

In Now You See It, Cathy Davidson takes attention mindfulness one step further, arguing that the very definition of focus is changing from an industrial-era concept of single-minded attention to an interactive, interpersonal kind of attention more appropriate for a highly connected age.

School leaders who understand the different determinist extremes may better navigate the hazardous waters of education technology change in schools.

Teaching and Learning (remember them?)

Thankfully, edubloggers are writing about the lack of classroom representation in the most widely read online conversations about educational technologies. Brian Cosby and Clarence Fisher bemoan the lack of teachers at NECC and classroom examples in NECC presentations. He draws attention to the Educational Technology Professional Development Manifesto, which urges presenters at ed-tech conferences to get specific and provide enough detail that others may implement one’s ideas in their schools.

Nancy Bosch suggests that including classroom examples in ed-tech presentations may not be sufficient. Bosch writes:

I spent ten years presenting (as a full time teacher) around my state and district. I also presented for 5 years at NECC and IMHO I was very good at it, bringing hundreds of examples and projects from the classroom to share with the participants. I then suffered from tech overload and frustration because, no matter how much they “oh-ed” and “ah-ed” at workshops, I saw little technology integration in the classrooms throughout my large district.

At the same time, Chris Lehmann feels that edubloggers need to start an organization in order to effect educational change, Will Richardson wonders how to broaden the impact of powerful learning with technology that he and others have witnessed.

On the positive side, Gardner Campbell acknowledges that critical mass grows slowly but offers one institution’s history as a light at the end of the tunnel. Campbell writes:

I was struck by the commonalities with my own experience, as well as with the stories I’ve heard from similar groups: early adopters, early resistance, the slow growth of a critical mass, the difficulties with communication and cooperation and resource allocation that come with all large organizations, the successes, the professional networks, the immense satisfactions.

This leaves me to wonder: what will it take for teachers to more widely teach effectively with technology? I don’t have a single answer, but I think I can see one important missing piece. Edubloggers and teachers are not involved in enough discussions together that address teaching and learning with technology in ways that serve both populations. I have participated in so many discussions with teachers in which we spend a lot of time just to move beyond the idea that teaching with technology means trying a new tool in the classroom. It takes a substantial effort to move the discussion back to the teaching and learning objectives for a unit of study and to bring pedagogy to the forefront. If we really believe that technology is a tool, then the discussion must center about pedagogy. Changing the tool is most the most effective way to improve curriculum, but it does directly change how students interact with curriculum. Pedagogy addresses the creation of learning environments in which students interact with curriculum. Technology tools make it possible to differently implement time-honored pedagogical strategies (group discussion, for instance) and sometimes make possible new pedagogical frameworks (e.g., connectivist environments).

As I enter a new academic year, I hope to collect and present more examples of effective technology integration in the curriculum at my school. Some of it lives within the curriculum integration category of this blog, but if you want to go further back in time, you have to select an archive first and then select the category again — not the best way to navigate this content repository. I would like to draw particular attention to technology uses that are particularly effective at supporting progressive, constructivist pedagogies at our school. For example, our lower (elementary) school Spanish teacher has students creating and revising their own presentations by sitting alone in front of an iMac with video camera. In the middle school, English students write a song about post-Civil War Reconstruction, share it with their classmates to hear, transcribe the lyrics, and then have a discussion about it, all online. In the upper (high) school, a history teacher plans a new Election class for the fall, hoping that students will create their own theories about the roles of new media in this election, using new media tools to investigate the question. The best example from my past is the ChemSense project, in which students create simple, 2D representations of chemical processes and structures and discuss them in an online space. In each case, students construct their own knowledge, and the technology tool makes the process easier and more powerful.

I am convinced that theorists and teachers having more conversations about effective technology support for specific pedagogies can only lead to greater adoption in the classroom.

Our lack of a common vocabulary for new, technology-infused pedagogies works against us. Other new educational ideas, such as small schools and learning differences, have developed this common vocabulary and more quickly make sense to more teachers. In educational technologies, the only common understanding is a false one: that educational technologists simply want teachers to use more technology in their classes, and that this alone will lead to better teaching and learning. Unintentional, unplanned technology integration that uses loads of resources is counterproductive.

The lack of common vocabulary hurts us in another way — Google searches. A teacher using Google to search for technology in the classroom will easily find ‘blog,’ ‘podcast,’ or ‘Web 2.0.’ She won’t just stumble across a discussion about ‘constructivist uses of technology,’ for example. Our good writing about effective technology integration gets lost in the vast pool of ed-tech buzzwords that exist out there. Teachers find plenty of support for the misconception that technology integration is just about the gadgets.

We need more cross-pollination between educational technology and teacher conferences, but we also need new, more clever strategies to make this happen. This year, I succeeded in encouraging our middle school world cultures teacher to submit a proposal to the K12 Online Conference. Now, I hope that the selection committee will accept his proposal, and both ed-tech theorists and classroom practitioners can benefit from viewing his ideas applied to the classroom.

I plan to start a small, professional learning community at my school this year to more frequently engage in regular discussion of the pedagogical applications of computer technologies in the classroom. I hope we will meet both in person and online, and that enough teachers will be sufficiently interested in the concept to give it momentum. In this way, I hope to reclaim the dominant conversation about educational technologies.

I also need to build my own personal collection of web sites that present examples from the classroom in a way that clearly explains the pedagogy underlying the technology. Nancy Bosch has done so. The Apple Learning Interchange, notwithstanding the corporate organization, seems to churn out podcasts and videos on this topic every day. Subscribe to their RSS feed. (I wish they provided more of this content as text.)

Some of us eagerly anticipate the start of Building Learning Communities this week. Others have already begun their work at the Lausanne Laptop Institute. I hope that the recent surge of interest in teachers and classrooms in widely read educational technology discussions continues and becomes permanent. We have completely addressed the broad justifications for this movement. Now, it’s time to get specific and applied.

Web 2.0 At Two (BAISNet meeting)

I spent a productive and exciting day at Marin Country Day School, attending one of the occasional meetings of the Bay Area Independent School Technology Network (BAISNet). The day focused on Web 2.0 in schools in two sessions, a morning group meeting and then several breakout groups. You’ll find the meeting outline and notes at WikiSpaces.

Edward (Bay School, formerly of KQED) and Michael both focused on student and teacher use of wikis at their schools. Michael referred to wikis as “bulletin boards” within his school, a helpful use of an old metaphor to explain the function of a new technology. I regularly wrestle with the competing values of reducing our intranet to a small number of tools and providing the best tool for each purpose. Both WikiSpaces and MediaWiki do a better job of keeping the discussion forum close to the wiki than do either Moodle or Drupal.

Barbara focused on VoiceThread, which I was happy to see for the first time. MCDS elementary students posted photos and drawings of themselves and various subjects and then commented on them with audio. I like how Voicethread supports multiple source media, so that users may post content in the media they happen to have or best fits the subject matter. The Voicethread team also seem to have paid very close attention to adjacency in their user interface. They cluster the icons for submitted comments closely around the original post and display user tools just underneath.

Hoover, Joanne, and Tracy from Sacred Heart focused on their use of Moodle. SacredSF has over 200 Moodle courses, an impressive rate of participation in taking courses online using this platform. Hoover also demonstrated that they have teachers using Moodle at a high level — one was making use of at least six different types of Moodle objects. Discussion forums at SacredSF also seem very active.

Barbara encouraged people to join the Independent School Educators Ning (ISENet) as a way to extend our network beyond the friendly confined of BAISNet to an international audience. It’s quite possible that the launch of ISENet will answer my longstanding question of where are the independent school bloggers. Though still small in number, it is helpful to forge connections with the leading national figures in one place. I have great hopes for this social network, even while no relishing the need to judge whether to post a blog entry to my blog, the Ning, or both. Perhaps I will use it only when seeking feedback on specific questions.

I also hope that the new BAISNet Wikispace that Barbara started will really take off. It is well past time to build documentation and hold certain discussions in a wiki rather than all via email. It’s time to end the practice of starting the annual email-based discussion on “topic x.”

I was pleased to receive positive feedback to my use of connectivism to demystify the appeal of Web 2.0 tools to a small number of wildly enthusiastic educational technologists. Hoover questioned whether connectivism is just a different word for social constructivism, and I pointed him toward the idea that constructivism, even within a social context, finds the source of learning within the individual. Connectivism posits that learning takes place beyond the individual, within the network itself. The network learns, primarily by taking over the functions of information storage and retrieval from the individual.

I was also pleased that a dozen attended a roundtable discussion entitled “Take your web site to 2.0 with Drupal.” In a complete shift from three years ago, we now have a critical mass of school technologists frustrated with the limitations of commercial school web site providers and seriously considering open-source alternatives.

BAISNet meetings happen serendipitously, usually when email discussion on a particular topic reaches a new high, or when someone realizes that the group has not held a meeting in many months. Flying down from Portland for the meeting was totally worth it, both for the specific knowledge I gained today, the feedback I received on my new ideas, and the reminder that the Bay Area has a truly valuable concentration of independent school technologists who understand how to share information for the good of the group. Kudos to Barbara for organizing this meeting and Hoover for shepherding this group for many years (and driving me from the city to the meeting and back!).