Reflecting on … Transformative Technology – or Not

“Education is on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies; however it has been on that brink for some decades now.”  Diana Laurillard

As a history teacher who still has a blackboard in my classroom, I have always been a cautious, if not downright reluctant user of technology in lessons.  My early attempts were characterised by patchy wireless, crashing computers, duplication of work and the need for a good back-up plan “just in case”.  Having long embraced the label of a confirmed Luddite, I was recently intrigued to learn that my experiences were perhaps more typical than I had realised.  At a seminar by Dr James Robson I was introduced both to the Laurillard quote above and Larry Cuban’s book “Teachers and Machines” which traces the continual failure of technology to live up to its promise in the classroom since the introduction of educational radio in the 1920s.  The experience is beautifully summarised in one simple quote by Cuban “Computer meets classroom: classroom wins.”

There are, of course, lots of reasons why technology has not had more impact that are outside of individual teachers’, and many schools’, control.  The money needed to invest in infrastructure and the difficulties of managing the ‘digital divide’ so as not to advantage those families with high cultural capital and access to the latest technology are two that need a lot of thought.

However, I have not always reflected enough as a teacher to ensure that I got the full potential from technology.  One reason for this is suggested in the SAMR model: Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition.  Very often when technology comes into the classroom teachers use it as a substitute for what they would have previously been doing, or at best to augment what they would have done anyway. Thus I replaced the whiteboard with PowerPoint, a substitute or at best augmentation of the presentation with some flashy graphics.  Interactive Whiteboards, at least in secondary schools, rarely redefined learning but augmented the PowerPoint with a little interactivity.

When we piloted giving Chromebooks to a whole year 7 class for a term and, alternatively, giving a sets of Chromebooks to some teachers for a term we found very similar results.  They were often used as a substitute for other resources, e.g. textbooks, or essays written by hand.  Sometimes they were used to augment learning, e.g. conducting research using a number of sources of information rather than just one, but there was rarely significant change (modification) let alone a redefinition of the learning experience.  In slightly over half of lessons they weren’t used at all.  If this is all they are needed for, they are a very high-cost resource!

However, when we offered better support for teachers to understand the potential, based on peer observation and team teaching with those more experienced with the tools the teachers and students did find them transformative and became very excited about their potential to impact upon learning.  The communication tools supported joint planning and creation of shared work, creating an immediate and ongoing dialogue between peers and teachers I have never found a way to achieve on paper.  Iterative feedback loops which research shows to have high impact but which our students were less engaged with in lower years because they found it ‘boring’ became more accessible and faster paced, securing student engagement.  Online tools such as Quizlet and Socrative allowed for anonymous discussion and quizzes engaging more students in low-stakes testing and maximising contributions. Both are known to contribute to effective learning but can be hard to achieve in a normal, full classroom.

The crucial reflection for us though was the importance of investing fully in development time, shared planning and peer observation in order to maximise the impact of technology.  Teachers need support to modify or even redefine their learning and changing teachers’ practise takes investment in training, support and the opportunity to experiment without judgement.  In that regard introducing technology works like any other teaching development, but sometimes this is perhaps overlooked in the hype and expense.

It is certainly true that technology has often promised more than it has delivered and has rarely been as transformative as the hype has suggested it will be.  However, in recent years, I have found technology to be more useable than ever before with better connections, the “back up” being students’ phones rather than a whole other lesson plan, and certain tools such as Google Classroom, Socrative and, of course, access to a wide range of “Edublogs” contributing to transforming my practise.   However, the biggest driver for me has been colleagues willing to share their excellent practise and innovative uses, who were patient with my clumsiness and willing to listen to what I needed in my teaching and support me to deliver it, rather than imposing new tools from above.  About a year and a half ago I realised I would now be more devastated to lose my Chromebooks than my blackboard.

Questions that have helped me reflect on whether I am getting the most out of technology:

  • Was the learning experience of my students fundamentally any different than it would have been without this tool? What did it deliver for the cost?
  • Where is this technology being used really well? If I can’t find examples, is it likely that I will have the time and skills to use it to redefine my teaching … or will it just be an expensive augmentation.
  • What one tool would I like to master and integrate into my teaching? Am I making the best use of this before moving onto the next tool?
  • What makes this more than a trick or novelty? How does it shape learning?

This JMSReflect Research Project into the use of Chromebooks mentioned in this post was led by David Bate in conjunction with the Oxford Deanery, Oxford Department of Education.

One great article that helped me see the potential of technology in the history classroom was:

Moonen, L. (2015) ‘Come on guys, what are we really trying to say here?’ Using Google Docs to develop Year 9 pupils’ essay-writing skills, Teaching History, 161, pp. 8-14.

And for anyone looking for a longer read and some of the pitfalls, I do recommend:

Cuban, L. (1986) Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Sincee 1920. New York: Teachers’ College Press

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