The edtech “Ban/Not Ban” Discussion is Misleading

The underlying origin of any edtech “ban/not-ban devices” question out there is the gap between what is taught in elementary and middle school, and what is expected that secondary and post secondary learners ought to know. The gap being the digital literacy skills that many people feel should be taught at a young age, similar to reading skills, study skills, and even cultural norms like “how to behave in a classroom” and the ever-vague “socialization”.

If one believes this, that elementary kids need to learn digital literacy skills, then this is a question of what needs to be included in education goals and curriculum. There is not much worth in bringing it into the ban/not-ban question, which is a useless question to ask or answer.

A flat ban on devices ignores technology’s impact (let alone many learners’ access to content and preferred literacy), and conversely a mandate that teachers must use devices because it is “best” is technology infatuation that prioritizes digital literacy as a class goal over whatever the subject matter is. Both are wrongheaded, and both fail to consider the situation.

An educator designing their course needs to look at each activity/lesson and decide whether to include modern technology or not. It may be that one day devices are useful for that activity, the next they are a distraction. Devices are often superfluous, when technologies like pen, paper, desks, and spoken word are more suitable. If educators want to teach learners “self-regulation” then they should practice and model it in their class design.

(Furthermore, and I say this because I don’t see it enough, the first question to ask when deciding about technology/device use is “What is the content?”)

Interchangeable People

It is difficult to talk, think, or write about anything these past few days that isn’t directly involved with the disturbing events in the USA right now. It’s also difficult to know what to say, as a non-American. This is just one small thought I’ve had recently.

When people talk about other people in categorical terms, such as “the left” “the right” “SJWs” “Conservatives”, the individuals being referred to become interchangeable.

There are times when it’s necessary to do this, like when referring to someone as a “refugee”, however unless steps are taken to balance this categorization with a personal lens, the result is that people are belittled.

Some modern educational approaches have fallen into this trap. Online and massive teaching methods tend to treat students as interchangeable (even when delivered in blended and non-massive contexts – it’s just the mindset that some teachers teach with). These approaches, unbalanced with the power of intimacy and individualization that current technologies afford, have done damage to the field of education and those course participants.

Technology for Friction

From Evgeny Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here“, a description of a certain type of technology that aims to create friction:

tech seen as 1

tech seen as 2

This seems to me a blueprint for education. EdTech spends a lot of effort on making technology seamless, easy to use, and never technology for the sake of itself. What if educators tried using edtech more for itself, to create friction and perplexity? I wonder if such a strategy cold become mainstream.

Dewey was big on perplexity:

We may recapitulate by saying that the origin of thinking is some perplexity, confusion, or doubt. Thinking is not a case of spontaneous combustion; it does not occur just on ” general principles.” There is something specific which occasions and evokes it.

Why bother using technology to create perplexity?  Many of our habits are established though technology (machines, and devices) – Through habit, we become our machines (Says Wendy Chun). Perhaps a little friction caused by these habit forming machines may encourage thinking and reflection about such habits, which often lie under the touch-screen surface of daily life.

 

 

Education Analytics

Taking a break from preparations for the oncoming and inevitable infrastructure wars of the 2020s, I was reading about Big Data and Education today. I love the question quoted below, in which the they question what it means to ‘learn’.

Big data-driven platforms such as learning analytics aim to ‘optimize learning’ but is it always clear what is meant by ‘learning’ by the organizations and actors that build, promote and evaluate them?

The article goes on to quote some educational science data, cognitive science, neuroscience, etc. Read the entire article here, it’s a great article for provoking questions about learning analytics, at least for novices like me.

The flipside to the answer though is to question what is meant by ‘education’. The article, like most I read, tends to use ‘learning’ and ‘education’ as interchangeable terms. What do Big Data driven platforms mean by ‘education’?

An aspect of ‘education’ distinguishing it from the concept of ‘learning’ is the intentional decision of what to learn about. Whether this is done by a government, society, industry, institution, culture,or an individual, in education there’s some choice involved about the subject matter surrounding the learning. In this case, if we were to “optimize learning” does that include optimizing that choice? In other words, will big data help me (or whoever is making that choice) make better choices about what to learn about?

I hope any learning analytics system wouldn’t be designed to help me gloss over the natural variation by which I decide to learn about things. Let’s not kill curiosity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tech Blind Spots

enabling platform

 

There’s something to be said about the decision of where to spend large amounts of money on infrastructure and on (as Andrew Keen states in the quote above) ‘public projects’. There would be even more to say on who should makes these decisions.

Education in recent years has had it’s own balancing issues between What vs the How. This quote from John Seely Brown:

What do we mean by “social learning”? Perhaps the simplest way to explain this concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning.

What society decides to make matters for what it will become, and what individuals decide to learn matters for who they will become.

Everyone working in EdTech knows that you’re never never ever supposed to choose technology for technology’s sake – I read stuff, I wonder how large the blind spots are in our culture’s technology infatuation.

Language Natives – It’s Complicated

I recently read “It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens” by Danah Boyd, a book I sought out because I have two children of my own who will become teenagers a lot earlier than I want and will be prepared to deal with. The book is excellent, Boyd succeeds in providing exploration and explanation of the subject from the teenager perspective. This perspective creates understanding more than critique. I recommend it, even if you don’t have kids.

In one of the final chapters, she tackles the concepts of digital natives and digital immigrants. These two terms were popular a decade ago, but haven’t really stuck around since the initial meaning for these concepts haven’t really held up. From the book:

It has become popular in public discourse to promote the idea that natives have singular technical powers and skills. The suggestion that many take from Barlow’s proclamation is that adults should fear children’s supposedly natural born knowledge.

Boyd spends time dispelling but also exploring this idea, and almost shifts the discussion from natives and immigrants to a discussion of literacy. Which I wish she would have. Another quote brings up language and language learning, only to focus back on the native vs immigrant divide:

He [Rushkoff] metaphorically describes the differences in linguistic development between older immigrants and children who grow up in a society who’s dominant language is different than their parents native tongue. He uses the concepts of immigrants and natives to celebrate children’s’ development in the digital age.

The word ‘literacy’ has probably evolved in meaning during my lifetime, and this is where the real distinction lies when we think of how children develop in the digital age – there’s a certain degree or culture of digital literacy that many youth are born into. However, similar to how children learn language incidentally, ‘literacy’ is something that must be learned intentionally. Even still, ‘being literate’ says nothing about the degree to which that literate person can use language.

People learn mother tongues in daily life, starting from before birth. But does this mean for these ‘language natives’ that literacy development will take care of itself? No, because not everyone can write like a novelist or a journalist, and not everyone can give speeches like a sports team coach. People need to learn these skills. The same could be said for digital literacy.

It’s probably true that the concept of digital natives doesn’t offer very much. Digital literates and degrees/specializations of digital literacy might be a better concept to explore.

Distance as Center

I just finished a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It’s a book from the early 1980s that takes a television specific look at how technology and media influence North American society. The book may be a bit dated in that TV is no longer the apex of mass communication that it was 30 years ago, although from several other perspectives many of the ideas in the book transfer well to other technology and media contexts. I love these types of books – books on tech that are just a few decades old – because they present ideas about the effects of tech and media on a simpler backdrop.

The book ends (the last 2 chapters) with some strong ideas, one of which is that education curriculum is bending toward the particular affordances of television. A related point that Postman makes is that because television is so prevalent in everyday life (he states that teenagers watch 16,000 hrs of TV by High School graduation) schools have simply forgotten to question television’s character.
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Looking back at this claim from 2015, we can easily see the limitations of mere television broadcasting. And we now know that it is much better to unquestioningly prepare our educational systems for a “21st century world” in which digital technology, asynchronous communication, and social learning are the real tech and media powerhouses that the next generation will inherit. Right?
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No, not right.
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Despite being written in 1985 and focusing specifically on television, the 2nd last paragraph of the book provides a timeless quote:
 
“…it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the center of education.”
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