Are we being blinded by technology in the classroom?


We’d like to start today’s blog with a quote… a rather long quote granted… but we wonder if it resonates with any of you?

“In the 21st century economy, science fiction technologies are becoming everyday realities and this new, knowledge and innovation driven economy requires not only new skill sets but an education system that focuses more on critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and initiation and less on knowledge acquisition and regurgitation. The idea that we need a paradigm shift in education is not new and it has long been recognized that at the heart of this shift lies a return to more creative ways of learning and teaching. Mobile technologies provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to achieve this by allowing us to develop new, flexible pedagogies that provide students with diverse, rich learning environments in which the creativity of the student as hacker / maker can flourish and in which learning is no longer confined in time and space. It is within our grasp therefore to move towards a more dynamic, mobile way of teaching and learning that has the potential to transform curriculum delivery, enhance student learning and see a return to creativity in the classroom and lecture hall, whether these be real or virtual.” 

We wrote this a while ago, and as maker educators still passionately believe this to be true… BUT… are we maybe being blinded by technology?

It seems to us that in educational circles it’s pretty much taken as read these days that using technology in the classroom is a good thing. It’s considered to be innovative, it’s what gets teachers noticed and it’s what students want. But is this really true?

For a start, what technology is it that we are all talking about when we use the phrase ‘technology in the classroom’? And, what is it exactly that we’re trying to achieve with all this technology? Are we in danger of just using technology for technology’s sake?  Take for example, physical computing. We love our Arduinos, we really do, and there’s no doubt that students develop skills in using them that will make them stand out from some of their more traditionally taught peers…BUT… in building a data-logger to record temperature, or making a range-finder, are we not in danger of Rube Goldberg-ing? Over engineering something simple to make a point? And what point? We do after all have thermometers and rulers that will do the same thing?


Tech makes lessons more engaging, doesn’t it?

Perhaps we’re just trying to make certain subjects more engaging? Let’s face it, it’s more FUN to build your own data-logging device than simply whip a thermometer or ruler out of a drawer. But then what IS engagement really? How do we measure that? And is there really and any demonstrable relationship between engagement and learning?  It seems like one of those implicit assumptions again… greater engagement leads to greater learning. But does it? Really? Sure your classes may be more popular and you may get better feedback from your students and their attendance may be great but do they learn any better? In theory, surely there are at least four kinds of students in this respect (i) those who love tech and do great when taught using it, (ii) those who love tech and don’t do so great, (iii) those who hate tech and yet do great anyway and (iv) those who hate tech and do badly? So where exactly do we get this idea that more technology and more creative ways of doing things is invariably a good thing? Is it really any better than any other teaching method? Are we not in danger of falling into the trap of replacing one teaching system with another? In our experience, one size never fits all, so why is technology being heralded as this panicea for all our educational ills?


Kids are techy aren’t they?

Then there’s the assumption that all kids are techy and so we SHOULD be using this stuff. Really? Well yes, they USE their tech…many of them (but not all!), but using it is very different from being techy, or tech-savvy. Besides, when exactly do we teach them how to use this tech for learning? Don’t we just assume that in sticking something on an iPad will somehow magically improve their learning? Why? But you hear this all the time… this school is seen as ‘cutting edge’ because it gives all its student pads and it has a 3D printer, this teacher is ‘innovative’ because they use Raspberry Pi. We’re not saying they’re not, but surely it’s not the mere investment in tech that makes teaching innovative, it’s how it’s used by a school or a teacher? Are we maybe all becoming just a little bit blinkered?


Who is technology for?

We were at an education conference recently in which technology was championed as being ‘the way forward’ – it’s what students want! And, we found plenty enough students there to back this view up! Enthusiastic was not the word…BUT… let’s step back a second here. Who ARE these students? They are the kind of students who go to educational conferences. Does that not tell us something? They are the same kind of students who become student reps and ambassadors. They are the bright, engaged, turned on, proactive students. They are not ALL students. They are not even the majority of all students. Neither are they the voice of the majority. So why is it that we seem to ignore this when formulating our technology driven educational agendas? Is technology for the geeks or the masses?


Burn the witches…

Some would say it doesn’t matter. It’s good for them all…it’s skills they’ll need. They should all be using tech. We have heard this a lot!  And there was a time we believed this. There was a time when we thought that the difference between students who engaged with tech in the classroom and those who didn’t, was simply one of readiness. They’ll get there eventually, they’re just not ready yet. They’ll see the light. Not any more. If we have learned anything from our forays into all things tech for teaching and learning, it’s this… there is a strong case for didactic teaching! Yes, you heard right… as a couple of self-proclaimed geeks doing their bit for MakerEd… we believe strongly in the case for keeping low-zero tech didactic teaching too. We are clearly heretics… burn the witches!

A case for didactic teaching…

Here’s why, despite our love of tech, we believe it’s not the be all and end all of 21st century teaching and learning. First, our experience in HE has shown us that the majority of students starting their degrees are incredibly risk averse. How do we know this? Because we have given them choices about whether they wish to learn didactically (traditional lectures, worksheet, instructions, ICT workshops etc) or creatively (no lectures or worksheets, focus on problem solving, making, projects, autonomy etc) and asked them about their choices.

Second, it’s THEIR learning, not ours. Every student has their own aspirations. They have their own lives to manage. They have their own baggage to deal with and a great many of them need a lot of support. Not all of them want ‘firsts’ or even ‘2:1’s and so who are we to tell the that they should! This does not make them lazy. This does not make them hopeless. This simply makes them in need of a more structured way of learning and for most, this means a more didactic, low tech approach. A colleague of ours said recently, “Surely though to make the most of their degrees and get jobs they need tech?” Ah, that old walnut… Let us just say this, we really do NOT want our pharmacist being creative with our prescription drugs, nor do we want the girl in charge of the nuclear power station down the road thinking, ‘Now I wonder what would happen if I pressed this button…’. Let’s not forget that there are plenty of scientific careers out there (@ka81 and I are scientists as well as educators) that really need people who can follow instructions, do it by the book and not go all autonomous on us!!!

Third, all singing all dancing creative techy teaching may be fun, but can we really fit it into our curricula? How many school teachers out there already struggle to fit in everything they need to teach? How many of you start lower down the school with lots of hands-on, creative learning, with practicals and demos, with a smattering of tech, only to find that as exams approach that these get abandoned in order to get your students through the written tests? After all, it is the results students get for these tests that will determine their immediate futures and against which teachers will be judged isn’t it? There are no marks for tech-based, innovative teaching when it comes to exams, is there?