Because it’s there

EverestThose of us advocating new approaches to ed-tech in UK schools need to take the time between now and the next election in May to build a case that does not assume that the argument for technology in education is self-evident.

Two days ago, a UK government re-shuffle removed from their current posts all of the sponsoring Ministers for the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG). The likelihood that this report will now have any significant influence is slim. This might represent a lucky escape because I saw no evidence that ETAG was going to produce any convincing or coherent argument for ed-tech that went much beyond saying we should adopt it “because it’s there”. This is not a position that is going to cut any ice with Ministers of any political party. The following post is copied from an email sent to the ICT Research Network, a reflector originally established by Becta and now managed by ALT and NAACE. It responds to a conversation bemoaning the uneven extent to which schools have pursued “digital normalisation”.

Response sent to the ICTRN reflector

This conversation reminds me of the emphasis placed by Becta on “e-maturity”: the theory that you should have a lot of technology in education because that was self-evidently the right thing to do. The trouble is that this is self-evident only to the ed-tech/ICT community which increasingly talks to itself on lists like this one.

In order to “take a stand” you need arguments and evidence. That means that the introduction of digital technology to schools must be requirements-driven. There are two completely different, legitimate requirements which are met by technology.

1. The teaching of technology (or “Computing”). This actually requires relatively little technology to do – a few standard desktops and Raspberry Pis go quite a long way.

2. The use of technology to improve education (or “ed-tech”). This is potentially a much more far-reaching ambition but the trouble is that there is no serious empirical evidence, as yet, that technology improves learning. And there is no reason to suppose that, if current uses of technology *did* improve learning, such evidence would not have been forthcoming. Until this community faces up to that fact, it will continue to marginalise itself from serious political debate.

There is a third requirement, which I class as illegitimate. It is to use technology as a vehicle by which to change the aims of education, particularly by the introduction of a sort of relativist learning culture, based on an extreme form of child-centred education theories. This is what “independent learning” is all about. I class this as illegitimate only in the context that it is presented as technocratic theory, supported by experts, when it is in fact an ideologically driven ambition and belongs within a political, not a pedagogical debate.

From the UK perspective, the political conversation about ed-tech is looking fragile. Since January, we have had a government consultation running about government ed-tech policy but, in a recent government reshuffle, all three sponsoring Ministers have been replaced. Even before they were moved on, the Junior Minister with direct responsibility for the project was complaining that the case for ed-tech amounted to little more than “anecdotes and war stories”.

It now seems to me to be unlikely that any substantive action will be taken in the UK before the next election in May. Maybe that is no bad thing because I am not sure that the ETAG consultation was going to produce anything particularly persuasive in the time-scale it was given. The community could use the extra time to construct a more considered argument for ed-tech (i.e. requirement 2), based on argument and evidence and not just anecdote and assertion, with the aim of influencing the political programmes of all the major parties as they go into the next election.

This would require the ed-tech community not to “make a stand” but to make an argument—and one that is cool, pragmatic, thorough and evidence-based. I have made my own suggestions for how we should go about doing that. But, from a UK perspective at least, I think we need first to wait for ETAG to report. It would be helpful if ETAG supported such a suggestion, particularly as any recommendation for substantive government action (whether or not the recommendation is a good one) is likely to be ignored at this stage in the electoral cycle.

It would be better to keep the conversation open and make a small but constructive step forwards, rather than to talk about making the big leap, only to fall over backwards.

11 thoughts on “Because it’s there

  1. I think there is a 3rd requirement that is much easier to sell – this is simply to reduce the effort involved in delivering learning in the current model. It probably seems a little lacking in aspiration, but it’s much more likely to be adopted. It’s also a stepping-stone to the 2nd requirement – once a digital environment is normal you can start on the clever stuff.

    Interactive whiteboards demonstrate this quite well. As a young teacher at the time they were being introduced, I saw all kinds of potential. Older colleagues weren’t quite so excited but the whiteboard was a fit-for-purpose replacement – they could write on it. They quickly realised some other benefits – the title, objectives and date could be prepared in advance meaning they didn’t have to hurriedly scrawl it as the class came in. Right now, teachers commonly make much better use of the technology – showing video, creating interactions, sharing flipcharts – but we shouldn’t forget that the entry point was much less revolutionary.

    My point is that you have to deal with the reality which, in the UK, is a workforce wary of change. The product they will jump on is the one that is easy and uncontroversial to adopt (probably an exact electronic version of the analogue method). Then you build trust and confidence – demonstrating how things are easier and reliable. Only then, should you expect them to invest effort in real change.

    • Hi Nic,

      Thanks for the comment, with which I completely agree. Though I did not make this a separate category as it seems to me that being more effective and making the job easier are two sides of the same coin.

      Since Michael Gove lost the job of education secretary, apparently for being too provocative, I have been thinking about posting on the politics of ed-tech. The fact, as you say, that it has the potential to make teaching easier should make this a win-win: introducing more rigour, better pedagogy, better monitoring, while also making things easier for front-line teachers. An attractive mix for any future education secretary.

      And if ed-tech makes the job harder, then it seems to me that it is no more likely to be adopted than water is likely to flow up-hill. Yet I have been to talks, e.g. on e-portfolios, at which enthusiasts tried to sell the proposed pedagogy on the grounds that it did not involve more than one hour’s extra work per night.

      The need to make things easier for teachers is one of my arguments for interoperability. This is the technical prerequisite for automation – e.g. for passing marks from an instructional activity back into a common mark book; or some creative product back into an assignment management tool.

      Thanks again, Crispin.

      • I like your optimism about interoperability. I personally think technology should be introduced in discrete parts that are linked up later – and only if there is value in that. This may not be the most efficient way to develop, but it’s easy to innovate and find out what works if systems don’t need to work together. The danger with standards is that they limit thinking (even when they are intended to be very adaptable). This is the rut that corporate learning got stuck in – everyone bought SCORM-conformant LMSs and everything had to fit inside the wrapper and report in quite basic ways.

        • Hi Nic, Why I think interoperability is important from the outset is that it enables infrastructure – content relationships. The software infrastructure that I think is essential in education is between a platform that is going to manage launch and reporting and the instructional content. Without integration with such a platform, I am not sure that much instructional / activity-based content is really viable. The reporting side of this loop is required to harvest learning outcome data and enable learning analytics; while the launch side is required to enable use in a controlled, assignment-driven environment. There are many examples of where the existence of such an infrastructure-content relationship is a key enabler of innovation (e.g. computer operating systems, music formats etc). When viewed from a pedagogical/process perspective, such an infrastructure-content relationship looks like the slide at https://edtechnow.net/2013/11/10/wheel/#slide_36.

          I agree with you on the fact that SCORM limited the sort of reporting that was possible; and with your identificaton of the paradox that standards are required for interoperability and yet limit innovation beyond the standard. I described this paradox as “the standards impasse” in my presentation at https://edtechnow.net/2012/04/03/what-do-we-mean-by-content/ (search for “standards impasse” and you will find a short series of slides describing a spanner in the wheel scenario). This is why the BSI committee that I sit on is agreed that we need robust pre-standardisation processes which enable innovation in the data specs and prevent capture by a particular, lowest-common denominator data model.

          The US group that I was actively involved in between 2008 and 2012 came up with the concept of a “Data Model Definition” language – a sort of schema language – that would allow for the extensible definition of different data models, while sharing common transport mechanisms. In my view, such technical solutions need to be matched by commercial and political initiatives, which is what I have proposed in my paper, Stimulating Innovation in Education Technology at http://bit.ly/1lYA6EP.

          I look forward to your thoughts. Crispin.

          • I simply think the value standards bring in launching/reporting is modest – the potential for personalisation and big data is some way off. The requirement for schools to own and maintain some infrastructure is an unnecessary hurdle (and schools are justifiably sceptical of this type of technology given past experiences).

            Right now, it would be more realistic to find solutions that work independently. For example, learn-pads use QR codes to get kids to the right content. It’s not perfect, but it’s realistic.

            What it comes down to is that a good ed tech resource is one that meets an immediate learning need with minimal hassle. I think there’s plenty that can be achieved right now and, also, that this may well change what is desired from a standard going forwards.

            • Nic, Well, we don’t agree about the value of the launching/reporting interface. In my view, it is a fundamental prerequisite.

              You mention past experiences, which I agree with you have not been good. But it is worth pointing out that past experiences have never included having common launching/reporting infrastructures. I wrote a letter to Charles Clarke in 2002, commenting that without such an infrastructure his emphasis on learning content (supported by Curriculum Online and BBC Jam) would not work. I think events proved me right. The BBC certainly agreed with me because they developed their own infrastructure platform for BBC Jam, even though the conditions under which they were operating explicitly forbade them from doing so. As a consequence of my letter to Charles Clarke, the DfE set up a Learning Platform Stakeholders Group, which worked for two years before being closed by Becta in the autumn of 2005. Becta then launched the Learning Services (aka Platforms) procurement in 2006. But the thing about Becta’s Learning Platforms was that they were closed systems, collections of tools, not platforms at all. So whatever went wrong in the past, it does not prove that launching/reporting interfaces are not important. Though it is hard to prove a negative, it tends to suggest the reverse.

              I agree with you entirely that teachers need to be able to meet immediate learning needs with minimum hassle. That is exactly what a launch infrastructure would provide. Without one, there will always be hassle.

              You mention the difficulty of owning and maintaining infrastructure. I completely agree. But there is no reason for teachers to do either with respect of a launching/reporting infrastructure that was provided as a cloud service. Indeed, I think cloud computing is a game changer with respect to the viability of ed-tech for precisely the reasons you allude to.

              There is hassle, of course, in developing the software in the first place – but that is a hassle for the industry – it is not something for teachers to do. School data would need to be loaded automatically from the school MIS. So I do not see the need for some great upheaval in school in order to enable this stuff to work. There would just be a launch & reporting interface available to teachers who wanted to use it, with the option to “plug-in” extra components, as these because available on the market and teachers decided they wanted to use them. Integration with the platform would occur automatically as part of the installation procedure.

              The point about abstract launch protocols is that it would support different launch scenarios. Your QR code scenario only works, it seems to me, with a child-centred set up in which the child initiates a learning activity. There are two very common use cases which it does not support:

              1. Real-time teacher assignment at the head of a class: I drag an icon on the teacher interface and everyone is the class is doing the activity I have set – I don’t think this would be supported by QR codes.

              2. Automatic sequencing – e.g. for personalised, adaptive learning systems.

              You may say that these are too ambitious. I am more optimistic. But whether this stuff happens in 2 years or 10, I think it is really unhelpful to introduce short-term solutions that will need to be torn up in a few years time. In China, when they build a new railway, they make the platforms twice as long as required at the moment, to cater for growth in capacity. We should be taking the same long-term view.

              A second point about the QR code suggestion is that we need to distinguish between the User Interface (e.g. how the command is given) and the way that the command is passed from the command interface and the program being launched. The QR code is really a UI device, sitting on top of interoperability provided by standard URLs.

              The problem with bog-standard URLs comes when you look at the amount of data that needs to accompany launch (e.g. about the current student and their past or related performances, learning objectives etc). This often cannot be included on the command line and so a dedicated communication pipe needs to be established in order to launch a properly contextualised activity. For this, the URL is not enough.

              So while I understand you position, I do not agree that in this case pragmatism means taking small, incremental steps. I would argue that we already know what is achieved by stand-alone educational software and it is not much. If I am right that a launch-reporting infrastructure is a basic prerequisite (and we may disagree on that one), then pragmatism means putting in place the fundamentals, which will support the basic use of ed-tech in the classroom now, as well as innovation and expansion in the medium to long term.

              Crispin.

  2. I very much agree Crispin and Nic. When I first became an ILT Coordinator back in 2001, I wrote a piece introducing my new role to the managers and staff of the college I then worked at, this piece talked about how the overall aim was to reduce workload and bureaucracy by improving what I then called the administration of learning, rather than the pedagogy (which would be left to teachers). This was exactly what you describe, IWBs to enable out of class prep and shared front of class resources, online repositories of hand-outs to avoid the learner excuse “I lost the hand-outs, so I couldn’t do the work” plus some new tools such as online discussion forums to allow out of class interaction to take place. Within a year I had realised that a majority of staff would simple resist these things on the simple basis that, they didn’t have time to learn them or they were seen as not worth the effort.
    What I realised about the time constraint was that it came from the business systems that wrapped around teaching not from the teaching itself, it was the myriad of NCR forms that needed to be filled in, the record of meeting with learners, the schemes of work, the transfer and withdrawal form, and most of all the assessment tracking systems built on page after page of grid line on A4 paper. The result was that I went to my then manager and told him that the best thing he could do with technology for learning and teaching would be to forget it and focus on business process analysis and the application of ICT to streamline all of the College’s business processes. What I was told was that there was no funding of buzz linked to that, so it was not going to happen… now go away and train the staff how to use the Smartboards and WebCT like I’m paying you to.
    The issue I feel is that as Learning Technologists, we are drawn into the pedagogical theory system and try to justify EdTech from within it. I now consider myself to be more of an education business analyst, looking for the opportunities to solve the problems of learners, teacher and of the business that they work in. A pedagogical awareness is necessary in this, but not at the very centre of it.
    The overall aim for me is to use technology to create more time for teachers and managers to innovate and most importantly educate.

    • Thank you, Neil. I think that is a really helpful case-studyette, which not only focuses on what makes the difference in real classrooms, but also on how ed-tech has had so little effect because it has been driven by hype and buzzwords.

      I have quoted Diana Laurillard extensively on this blog. She is well known for saying that “teaching is not rocket science – its much more complicated than that”. And she goes on to to analyse that complexity in terms of transactions, in the same way that you might analyse a business process. It is because of the highly interactive nature of teaching, particularly when combined with the scale of modern education, that the transactions involved in education are so complex and numerous.

      That leads me to my second point, which is to ask what we really mean by “pedagogy”. It is a question I made a quick stab at answering last year (https://edtechnow.net/2013/05/12/pedagogy/) but to which I hope to return again soon. The answer I would give now is to say that there are three high-level components of teaching: 1. subject knowledge, 2. personality (including inspiration & role modeling), 3. management of process, which could be explained as the design and sequencing of learning activities and the management of feedback. In my book, pedagogy really refers to the third of these three elements: the management of process.

      Where I am driving is that the impression I get from your comment is of teachers getting on with good pedagogy in their own classrooms, with an unwelcome accretion of bureaucractic form-filling imposed on the top of that.

      Its not that I disagree with that picture, as it reflects the current situation. But I question how effective most teachers’ grasp of pedagogy is in the privacy of their own classrooms (see my “Why teachers don’t know best” at https://edtechnow.net/2013/08/27/blind/). And if we are to give teachers the tools to enable them to improve their pedagogical practice, we will give them the tools that enable them to handle what is essentially a management of process. The administration of education then becomes not a bolt-on, with senior managers and bureaucrats constantly hassling teachers to fill out irrelevant forms, but core to the practice of what the teacher is doing in the classroom.

      I don’t think that this conflicts with anything you say. It rather emphasises how good your advice was. I think you would not only have saved time by streamlining the bureaucracy – you would soon have found that you were improving the process control of what was going on in the classroom itself – which is in my view what pedagogy *is*.

      I don’t know whether you would agree with that or whether you think that in streamlining administration, tech should largely stay out of the classroom?

      Crispin.

      • I like the business-process analysis approach but there are practical problems. Talk to NHS people who’ve had an external consultant analyse their tasks and you are likely to get a tirade. The NHS is full of processes where care was reduced because of poorly conceived optimisations.

        The answer is to educate the end-users of a process. Make them angry that so much of their time is wasted on activity that doesn’t add value. Then you have an self-optimising system (and demand for ed-tech).

        • I second that — bottom-up every time.

          It’s why I think we should be suspicious of initiatives that identify leadership as the key lever for change. It is a call that almost always comes from people who think of themselves as the leaders, if only everybody else would do what they were told.

      • I agree Crispin and you add much to my little vignette on my experiences, I’ve seen plenty of evidence that teachers don’t know best and that good pedagogical practice is not always the norm within the confine of the classroom. That said much of this, I feel, is due to the conflicting views, policies and bureaucratic process that are imposed from the outside, be that government, mangers or whomever.

        Tech in the is a good thing and I advocate it… as long as the purpose is clear and it genuinely helps the business process, whist not harming the pedagogy. It is that last point which can create the most controversy, as it is the teachers prerogative rather than mine, but rather than leave it to the teacher to decide to let the tech in, I typically challenge them to tell me why it should be kept out.

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