The High Speed of EdTech

I can’t help but feel that the onus, at least right now, is on the field of educational technology to slow down and listen a bit more, if edtech hopes to enhance areas of study other than itself.


Having a finger in educational technology, in addition to other fields of practice (mainly language learning & cultural issues, in my case) creates an interesting view of the field of edtech itself. I often wonder, in fact, if it’s even a worthwhile field to refer to, separate from subject matter context. The thought of an exclusive edtech themed conference is kind of strange to me – when I was involved in the national language teacher’s association in Japan, edtech (in the form of CALL) was a special interest group of the organization, and this seemed about right. So many practical questions of technology (devices, platforms, methods…) use can only be answered by first asking: What subject are you communicating in?

MOOCs provide a good example of this. First came MOOCs. They emerged out of online learning affordances (basically what MOOCs are, online learning – but this is not a MOOC definition post). They were used initially in successful cases (it’s worth nothing and relevant that initial MOOC subject matter was almost solely educational technology related subjects). They generated interest. They became popular. They became even more popular. Influential people tried to use them is certain ways. MOOC became a buzzword. Educators mocked and shunned their popularity. Educators mocked and shunned their popular representations. People discussed and critiqued them, both in response to their essence and in response to the popular notion of them. They became tired, old cliches. They became memes. They needed to be rebranded. Now, they sit, hopefully, in familiar terms with educators, ready as another option, like other forms of instructional design.  And, all of this within a few years. You could even appropriately use months as a measurement. The progress has been nothing short of astounding, when looking at it from the outside. (It all reminds me of Homer progressing through the five stages of death anxiety.)

Like many fruits of edtech, when I bring up the subject of MOOCs with people in the language field, the strong majority are apprehensive of the concept. Either that or they’re still at the “Sooooo, what’s a MOOC?” stage. Or, they’re both. Based on the speed at which edtech ideas progress apart from context, it’s easy to understand why. From my experience, diving in to tech use for existing educational practice (institutionally and individually) is often intimidating and impractical. I’m guessing this is true for many other fields beside language learning.

Innovation won’t happen from hydroplaning across the surface of learning. Practitioners will need to take innovative ideas and mold them to suit content, and they’ll need the edtech specialists to bridge that gap with the same respect that Research and Practice needs bridging. But, what can we realistically expect when edtech pushes pedal to the metal, seemingly targeted to the high-volume user. This is my impression, looking at it from within and from without.

As a side note – an analogy that I started thinking about lately is how the field of linguistics relates to other such fields as language learning and literature. They both share the commonality of language, and you would think that linguistics would be a direct feed for either, but somehow this connections is not as strong one (or at least I) would think. Linguistic materials aren’t the easiest nor the most practice  oriented materials to engage with. Certainly linguistics is a distinct field, and maybe it’s just an undeveloped thought – but I feel there something there in the analogy between linguistics and edtech. It’s one I’ll be thinking about.

Learning to What Degree Automation Suits

There’s a nice little rant about driverless cars up at the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative (economic blog) today, not that I feel the same as the author about driverless cars (Me? Love highway driving; Hate city driving) but there are a couple of good discussion points coming out of it. One, as I mentioned in the comments of the post, is a bigger question about when technology progresses to a point when it detaches from any kind of ‘naturalness’. This is a question I’ve thought about often lately (which is probably why I see it in places like this driverless car rant) – but I also think is a transcendent question of our times. As some of the commenters note – there are similarities in comparing the progression from horse drawn carriage to automobile vs the progression from automobiles to driverless cars. However, there’s also the point of emergence. The change from horse to car (or any other previous progression) may be distinctly different from the car to driverless car because of significantly less reliance on physical restrictions such as ankle movements, arm movements, and hand-eye coordination. There’s a detachment involved with the driverless car.

Another point that the author brought up in the comments was the nice little line about First World Problems not necessarily being a put-down, but a bit of insight, or a category (as I take it) of problem that is more detail oriented or situation/personally specific. Driverless cars are a good platform for showing this – it’s easy to imagine people not liking them, it’s easy to imagine people loving them, both for reasons of detachment. It’s context specific, and it’s perhaps not the biggest concern for everyone, but might matter a lot for some.

This second point ties in with my first – an emerging skill in education (and the networked world) is learning to what degree automation suits yourself and in which situations, no matter how small the detail. Because small details matter and detachment from the physical world matters.

A Synchronous Definition

I’ve been writing something of late, and much of it hinges on the definition of the word synchronous, or better yet, how the word is used.

When we use technologies like skype, google hangouts, and even telephones, these are generally referred to as synchronous communication. They have synchronous abilities in them however they also have several asynchronous functions that can override the synchronous features. In skype, we can shut off video or audio and use chat that can even expand communication over a period of days or weeks. Ditto with Google Hangouts, except this is more integrated to all of google services, I guess. With telephones, we can hang-up on people, effectively ending our presence in a conversation. And, with all such asynchronously-enhanced-synchronous-communication, there are elements of body language, delay, facial expression, and accepted norms that do not translate from face-to-face synchronous into digital synchronous.

Something about the asynchronously-enhanced-synchronous-medium amplifies the spoken word – my language students have always commented about how much more challenging it is to use target language over a telephone than it is to use over a table.

This would appear to be a recent distinction, because individual access to real-time media has emerged only in the past few decades. Is it that the common vocabulary just hasn’t caught up with technology? Or, are there two kinds of variables at play here (a sync/asyn divide and an analog/digital divide)? Or, is it something else?

I tend to think that the asynchronous-enhanced-synchronous-communication isn’t actually synchronous communication, but rather approaching synchronous while still being asynchronous.

It may seem like a small matter, but such small things matter these days. Distinctions of kind are not distinctions of degree.

To Trade Pencils for Tablets

I came across this article earlier today, and while I agree with the spirit of the article, I can’t say that I’m that fond of the message.

The even gutsier educational leader is the advocate for technology that says “wait – all in good time”. There are a lot of phrases in this article (including the title of this blog post) that contribute to a tone of digital technology is our new-foundation, lets toss away the old.

Ken Eastwood sounds like an amazing educator, leader and insightful about technology, but for me foundational education doesn’t include such a large focus on current digital technology. Here are a few examples of what I see as the foundational skills that I can pass along to my own children.

The History of Technology – This is something I’ve recently started taking with my 6 year old about. Not framed in history lesson style facts, but making a point to talk about “the old days” (either during my lifetime, or earlier) and how people communicated and used technology. Then, guiding our conversation to comparing it to technology she’s familiar with, while looking at the similarities and differences.

Language – Technology often doesn’t replace, but adds to. It’s tough to find a technology, or a mode of communication now that isn’t based in language in some way, to some degree. Many are based in and built on mother tongue. Learning about language is important for kids as it is a technology they will use all their life. Learning a second/multiple language is also beneficial (foundational, for me as a parent) because it is easier done at a younger age, provides my child with useful skills, and it introduces and embeds an ‘outside perspective’ culturally and technologically that is a transferable skill.

Greetings – I’m tempted to say “manners” here, but such a topic often gets too unnecessarily formal. Greetings are an essential skill for kids to learn, and too many North American kids do not have this skill. It’s an important skill because it teaches children about the existence of others, it forces them to acknowledge others – and if we’re going to be a technology dominated world, in which this technology gives us individual control over networks and environments specific to the individual, then we need to ensure that people do not forget that their actions don’t actually only affect themselves. Greetings are ethical in a way that manners and using the correct soup spoon are not. Read Sturgeon’s More than Human for a great story that explains the role of ethics in being human and using asynchronous connectivity. Also, Why American Kids are Brats.

Reading – Books will never die simply for the fact that kids love children’s books. Time alone with a book is often a child’s first time spent alone, engaged in an activity that is under their own control, free to explore. They develop patience. Reading to kids, in books with extravagant and engaging static pictures, is great parent/child time – time where the parent is forced to be the dynamic element, not the technology.

Sandboxes – Not actual sandboxes, but activities where kids are free to explore the natural world. Have you ever watched a 3 year old play with containers in a bathtub or at the sink? This is them learning about physics, about how the world works. If we shift this focus to ipad swiping (or something equally human created) we’re teaching them technology use at the expense of learning about the world around. Save it for later – technology will change, gravity doesn’t (at least not in human time).

Cooking and Nutrition – Both of our kids are active in the kitchen and help out in preparing dinner and making things like bread and cookies. They love it, it’s a process of creation in a way that the final product is more than the sum of its parts way. We’re active in talking about what we eat, and choosing what we eat – neither of our kids had much sugar before the age of 3 (largely thanks to my wife’s efforts). We have no way of knowing how this will translate into eating habits when they are teenagers or older, but we do believe that it will at least make our kids think about what they eat – which is the main point in discussing and promoting healthy nutrition with them: make them cognizant about how they fuel their body, then they can make better decisions later.

Prescribed Word Order and the LMS

The usefulness of Learning Management Systems are lost on me. I know why institutions use them, at least I think I do – to fence-off content, to organize their own institutional processes, to guard the privacy of students, and perhaps to make it easier for non-tech teachers to use tech. They are used as LearnER Management Systems, endpoints in themselves rather than the starting points that would better serve learners, and because of this I feel that the bad outweighs the good that they provide. What they don’t do is much more glaring to me, especially because what they don’t do seems largely to go either unnoticed or ignored.

With all the chatter about Change in Education (This video, for example) and preparing students for the practical skills of the futuristic future, you would think that more people would be concerned that the use of LMSs falls short in preparing students for communication in digital spaces. As a separated process, they climatize students, and educators, for one single system of communication that’s likely not going to be the one single system that they use once they leave enrollment status, in the unlikely case that any graduate of any school would use only one single digital space. LMSs train participants for one single type of digital literacy, while delivering content. What LMSs don’t do is prepare students, and educators, to create their own learning environments and to seek out contexts that best suit them.

As an example, I’m learning a new (to me) LMS at work, because this is the LMS that the institution has chosen, because institutions have to choose an LMS. I ask “Can we do this?” and support answers me “Unfortunately, no. The LMS wasn’t designed with that feature.” Fair enough, we all have to work within restrictions of technology, except that the particular thing I want to do can be done very easily outside the walls of the LMS. This thing that I want to include in my course design is similar to a skill like setting up a blog – a skill which, in my opinion, is the exact type of thing that advocates of the “Everything is Changing and we have to keep up or we’re failing our students” tagline should be worried about. Instead, working within and thus learning an LMS is considered a foregone substitute for skills like learning how to establish an online presence, learning how to manage information abundance, learning how to discern credible information.

The more I think about it, the more I hope that LMSs are just a unique side effect of the transitional era the world of education is currently undergoing – a result of a large population of adult practitioners that have not grown up with current technology, and thus need a highly structured, psychological classroom to guide them through digital content delivery.

Digital Literacies involve new and unfamiliar environments for many people that have to use them, and for many people they lack a familiar context. LMSs provide this context by taking geographically based structure and imposing it in a digital environment. A few centuries ago, people studying English (a young language at the time) would impose the structure of Latin on to English. This promoted the idea that languages fit some sort of ideal structure or set of standards, where reality is that Latin and English are two different sets of technologies, with different affordances and obligations. With LMSs, many institutions are making a similar mistake – imposing the structure of one medium onto another.

“Clearly, ‘natural’ is very much a matter of geography.” – Guy Deutscher on the idea of a “natural” word order for language. His point is that the Word Order of any given sentence depends on where you are and what language you speak. It depends on geography, as he says, or context.

Learning in digital environments separates geography from context. Yet, the way LMSs are used seems to impose a context into the learning process – they prescribe word order in the grammar of digital communication, so to speak. It’s not a fluid context, it’s not a context that allows for learner control. It’s not a context that originates in the learner. It’s a context because many people need a context given to them…which would be fine, if the context were to ween itself out of the picture, thus creating less reliance on that context. But, LMSs don’t do this, they pack gravitational pull, they command and teach a particular perspective. Everything’s not Changing, apparently, everything’s just shifting context.

Choosing Consolidations and Detachments

From time-to-time I log into my daughter’s facebook account, with her at my side, and we cruise through some of the features as I help her use it to communicate with the few people that have friended her. When we moved across the globe last year, I thought it was a good opportunity for her to use a site like facebook to keep in touch with people who have been a major part of our daily life, but would now be too far away. I also thought it would be a good opportunity to teach her about things like facebook, and more importantly, digital communication.

Here’s an excerpt from our last facebook session:

Me: What do you want to say to everyone?

Her: I dunno, just “how are you?”

Me: ok, well, you tell me what to say and I’ll type it as you tell me. go.

Her: How are you? Write me back if you want.

Me: Good. Now I’ll type this in here, hit enter, then all of your friends can read it….er…I mean “facebook friends”….uh…

Her: …

Me: You see, on facebook they use the word “friend” but it doesn’t actually mean friend, well, it’s kind of a friend but it’s just someone who can see your…well, some might be friends, but some might just be people you’ve met…or people me and mommy know. It’s…the word “friend” can mean many things…

…and I probably babbled on like this for a few more minutes, trying to explain a definition of “friend” that is different from what she already knows – a definition of the word that brings a wider range of trust that what she is used to….dangerous to her, because she might assume that the term “friend” carries with it a certain level of trust, rather than the other way around.

One thing that jumped out at me from this exchange is the changing definition of the word “friend”, or even better, the expanding meaning of relationships that exist in the world. What was once “friend” now needs to be qualified maybe as “close friend” or “information feed friend”. Curse you Facebook for hijacking the word – couldn’t you have used something better suited, like “follower”.

Upon deeper reflection, something else jumped out at me in this exchange with my lovely daughter. She instinctively wanted to include the statement to “Write me back if you want” in her message – a message not necessary, since the way facebook works carries with it this message in itself.

I once had a friend, new to facebook, who would sign his status updates and wall writings, unaware that his profile made this signature unnecessary. It’s the same sort of thing with my daughter, except she’s only 6…apparently growing up with this technology, a digital native, unlike my real-life-friend using facebook who was around the same age as myself.

Do we distinguish between print natives and nomads? Yes we do, but the distinction comes when someone somehow has reached adulthood without learning how to read or write. Because print literacy is so embedded in many of our cultures, to mature without a strong sense of it seems unnatural.

And, in one sense, this distinction is unfortunate – it shows the bias of print language and the privilege that we place on it: if you don’t have print literacy encoded into you, then there’s something wrong with you…you are defected. If you come from an oral society into our own western one, it’s going to be difficult.

Children aren’t born with print literacy, they learn it. And for centuries, they have learned it at such a young age that the bias of language and especially printed language has been very difficult to understand in our selves. It helps communicating, for sure, but embedding print literacy at so young an age also hinders other types of non-linear communication…

…anyway, I don’t mean to argue against print literacy here, that’s not my point – there are enough ways to continue to teach children all types of literacy, or an open mindset on literacies, at the young age that we do. This is my point, that there seems to be a push for digital literacies to be the new bias that we embed into our culture – that we need to rush to “prepare children for their future, not the one we grew up in”. That instead of realizing our biases (which our western society has actually done a lot of over the past century) we are now ready to just trade old biases for new ones.

It’s a liberation of communication tools our society in undergoing in recent times, not a shift. Hopefully.

I love the fact that my daughter wanted to include “Write back if you want” in her social media message. I don’t like how the edtech world seems pointed to a future where we have digital illiterates who ‘have something wrong with them’. Life is a continuous process of consolidation and detachment…and the greatest separation feat of all is when someone manages to gradually free oneself from the grip of unconscious culture.

That ability to control our consolidations and detachments, my blog-post-reading-friends, is the more essential skill that we need to embed into our children. The skills of choice.

*The consolidation and detachment line is adapted from: Hall, E. T. (1989). Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books.