We need to talk about the elephant. The elephant in the educational technology (virtual) room that is.
Digital technology is an amplifier. It makes whatever it touches faster, more accessible, and more public. We can publish content to millions, creating internet sensations (thanks internet for Justin Bieber), and we can develop social movements with hashtags: #occupywallstreet #arabspring #blacklivesmatter #porteouverte. We can communicate and interact with our friends and family 24/7 by sharing rich media, like videos or dancing elf Christmas cards. We can 3D print prosthetic limbs and have self-driving cars. We can learn just about anything when, where, and with whom we want. Technology is amazing.
But let’s look at that elephant again.
Technology is an amplifier, and in our schools it is an amplifier of pedagogical practice. Great learning can definitely happen without digital technology, we know that. We also know that we can amplify great learning through the use of digital technology so that we have authentic audiences for our learning, the creation of high quality artefacts, and access to the incredible pool of information out there in the world. However, digital technology in and of itself will not make poor pedagogy any better. Throwing a trolley of laptops or a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy into a class will not automatically lead to better learning and stronger outcomes.
It is great learning design that will lead to better learning and stronger outcomes. So when we are designing, renewing, or upgrading the technology infrastructure in our schools, we need to ensure that pedagogy—the science of how we design learning—is at the heart of our infrastructure decisions.
That sounds like a very obvious thing to say, but the impact of legacy technology and closed systems with low or no customisation can end up influencing the pedagogy, rather than the other way around. The introduction of (so-called) interactive whiteboards in schools over the last decade is a prime example. By default, the interactive whiteboard makes the pedagogical practice of teacher led instruction faster, shinier, and more accessible. Rather than an overhead projector acetate (remember those?), we can present materials that look prettier, and we can even display multimedia; but at the end of the day, the default pedagogical position is a didactic paradigm of the teacher leading the learning.
Now, please do not think that I have anything against interactive whiteboards, per se, all I am saying is that the design of your technology infrastructure should mirror the learning design paradigms you most want to see in your school. In fact, interactive whiteboards can be used very smartly to allow learners to stand around a board and access information, sketch ideas, or solve problems in a tactile and interactive way; but that is not how they are often used. So whilst on the elephant theme, have a look around to see if there are any white elephants lurking in your learning spaces.
So how do we deal with this elephant, and what can we do as educators to ensure that the technology infrastructure in our schools reflects the kinds of learning we want to see?
1. Define the pedagogical approaches you want to see in your school and develop a common language of learning
This will allow you to talk about learning as a community. For example, when you say that you want to develop more project-based learning, make sure everyone understands this term in the same way. When you talk about developing independent resilient learners, define what that looks like and offer ways of designing learning that allows for this to happen. Having a common language of learning that is understood by all is a powerful agent in school transformation.
2. Be transparent about these learning aims and engage the whole community—including parents—in the discussion
The mission of every school is to ensure that all members of its community are safe and are able to grow as human beings, and to design learning which will allow all learners to make progress towards fulfilling their potential (and beyond!). This is why it is paramount to show transparency and engagement when defining the kinds of learning we want to see; it is a whole community effort. Teachers, parents, administrators, and most importantly children, need to know why we are designing learning this way. It also makes the decisions around technology and infrastructure so much simpler.
3. Find a platform that supports these aims and gives you freedom to grow
There are many learning management systems (LMS) around, and it is easy to invest significant resources into a platform that only allows you to design learning in certain ways. Do you need a learning system which distributes content or one which allows collaboration? Can you have both? If you can be clear with vendors or providers about what you want from a learning platform right from the start, you will soon be able to filter out those LMSs that do not match your vision.
4. Make sure the learning platform is device agnostic
Technology hardware changes incredibly quickly. Tablets are getting smaller while telephones are getting bigger, and laptop/tablet hybrids come and go; so it is essential that the learning platform you choose is accessible on the widest range of devices possible. If you get locked into a platform that only works on a particular type of device, what happens when that device changes or becomes obsolete? There are many schools who are now encouraging a BYOD programme, which makes it crucial to have a device agnostic learning platform and red hot wifi!
5. Help all learners, including staff and parents to understand, use, and explore the technology platform in the framework of your learning aims
When the incredible power of technology is democratised, real innovation can be seen in schools. Just look at the makerspaces springing up around the country, the code clubs, and the robotics competitions. Your technology platform should be flexible enough to allow for these innovations and indeed encourage them. The best way to do this is to find a platform that allows for creativity and collaboration as a minimum specification.
6. Review and iterate
Both learning design and technology are constantly in flux and feed into each other to develop new ways to use technology and new ways to learn. It needs to be a constant focus of our self-reflection as schools, and a spring of innovation and celebration. The work is never over.
Every child is different, every school is different, and every community is different; but by connecting and talking about issues of learning and technology with others using the very technology itself, we can keep a focus on learning and share best and next practice in the use of technology in learning design. Indeed, by reading this very blog post, you have taken time to look at other ways of doing things and can now go back to your own context to share, discuss, and develop your own vision and approach. For this, dear Reader, I thank you.
Unstuck Learning Design
Chris Harte is a languages teacher, Google Certified Innovator, and design thinker. After spending 15 years working at schools in the UK and Australia, he is having a rest from teaching by running his own educational and design consultancy, Unstuck Learning Design.