Mark Griffiths - 22.11.2012
The following blog sums up a presentation I gave at the Whole Education conference this week:
It has been claimed that the history of technology and education is one of overselling and underuse. Which feels about right to me, but, given that I am an optimist about what technology can do for learning, I owe an explanation of what has gone wrong in the past.
I think there are two answers, which also then hint at the shape of the most promising ideas out there.
My first explanation, bluntly, is that too many products disappoint from a learning point-of-view, which surely is what ultimately matters. Taken as a whole, the products that we have available play to a repertoire of learning practices that is too narrow and comfortable.
For instance, Nesta has published an excellent report from London Knowledge Lab and the University of Nottingham, called Decoding Learning , which usefully presents eight well-evidenced learning practices that span the range from learning from and with others - for example, experts or peers - to student enquiry and making. What's clear is that if you lay this map against what is offered by the commercial players, there are big gaps. Much of the stuff available is really disguised flash-cards, or drill and practice exercises. Too many e-books are simply physical books put behind glass. It's good that these lighten a student's bag, but it's not clear to me why we should expect more learning to take place.
In short, we need more ambitious products, and we need to be more demanding. A very simple question would deflate the claims of most products - what evidence have you got that this works?
The second explanation is that we haven't properly recognised that any technology can be used in more or less effective ways. For example, when I talk to teachers about technology and learning I often get asked for an opinion on whether they should purchase some iPads, or what I think about Khan Academy. And as schools have spent £1 billion on learning technologies in the last few years, it's not an unreasonable question. Unfortunately, the honest answer to these questions is: 'it depends', and it depends on how the technology is used.
For instance, I think Khan Academy is great. At no cost, any student can access well-crafted materials to learn about computer science, Pythagoras' theorem or art history. And I think Udacity is even more amazing - through a scaffolded set of free online lessons, students can make, and achieve, extraordinary things - like building their own search engine. And it's not difficult to see why people create all manner of reasons why they really, really, do need to own an iPad. I justified buying mine by saying it would be useful for my son's learning - although he is only nine months old, and is allowed nowhere near it.
However, the thought of displacing what already goes on in a classroom with rows of students sitting in front of banks of computers, only watching videos, is very depressing to me. Even if they are watching the videos on their iPads.
But, imagine so-called 'flipping' where students watch Khan videos at home, and then practice what they have learnt in online exercises, so that we can free-up valuable classroom time for well-structured student enquiry, peer-to-peer teaching or the deeper learning that takes place when students work on the great tasks produced by the likes of Nrich. Similarly, imagine students using their iPads to learn physics through the flight patterns of albatrosses (a real app), to mash-up data, share and collaborate. That's the type of learning I want to see.
Same product, different use - and very different results.
So, despite its increasing sophistication and intelligence, for me, technology for learning gets really exciting when it is integrated into great teaching and learning practice. To take an obvious example, analytics on what a student is learning are only of use if a teacher adjusts a student's learning journey in response to what the analytics tells us. That's why Dylan William argues for the term formative assessment, rather than Assessment for Learning. The formative part is key. The technology by itself is only a tool, but when added to the craft of teaching it can be amazing. Too often though, we are seduced into thinking that buying the kit, or purchasing the license is enough.
Given all this, I think the most exciting ideas for technology in learning convincingly answer three questions:
i) What does it make possible that wouldn't otherwise be realisable?
ii) What evidence have we got that it works? Or at least, is likely to work in the sense that it is supported by what we know about how learning takes place?
iii) What view do we have on how it should be used effectively, and how well resourced am I do to that?
The Decoding Learning report offers many examples of products/practices that fair well against these questions, and I've already given other examples, like flipped learning. Here are some others, sourced from the most convincing study I know of into the iPad educational apps that are currently available (Murray and Olcese, Teaching and Learning with iPads, ready or Not?).
Looking ahead, but not too far, we should soon see a generation of smart, adaptive technologies that promise to be as effective as one-on-one tutoring, but cheap enough to be realisable at scale. These are already emerging for maths, but soon we should be able to see the same technology applied in other areas. And serious work is going into ways of integrating learning across different on-line resources, and between learning that takes place online and learning that takes place in a physical location.
Some of this work doesn't involve technology at all, for example the work being done in the US to articulate and test models of so called blended learning. Others involve creating a technological infrastructure that tags learning content, and allows assessment data to be shared across applications - and made useful.
So, signs of promise, lots of potential and plenty of optimism. But we do all need to keep in mind the lessons from the past. Technology has a tendency to over-dazzle, and that leads to disappointment and under-use.
Read our report looking at the impact of digital technology in the classroom.
Download Decoding Learning