Fear and the Internet

November 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’m currently researching how teachers interact with their professional peers in online social spaces. My focus has therefore been on ICT use for professional development rather than ICT use in the classroom.  However, as I’ve been sifting through the piles and piles of data I’ve collected over the last year, I’ve noticed a very interesting theme emerging relating to just this issue: the challenges teachers face when it comes to actually integrating technology into their teaching.

In the past, a number of studies have highlighted equipment related, economic and even competency barriers to effective classroom ICT use, although with the significant investment in this area under the Labour Government, these issues are perhaps less relevant.  More recently, studies have highlighted practical and environmental issues as preventative factors.  Selwyn, for example, offers a powerful example of the impracticalities of using state of the art technology in out of date Victorian school buildings.

However, an additional issue that I’ve been coming across a great deal in my interviews with teachers is more structural. It relates to a discourse of fear that often seems to pervade schools, particularly at the administrative level.  This fear generally appears to be manifested in relation to the need to ‘safeguard’ children from the dangers of the Internet, but also as a fear of legislation relating to teacher-student online communications, or even fear of embarrassing media coverage if ‘things go wrong’.

As one might expect, such fear is expressed in control over the ways in which teachers can use ICT as part of their teaching.  However, what has been particularly noticeable in my data is that the fear and control exists in tension with an apparent top-down promotion of classroom based ICT use and heavy investment in hardware.  For example, Melissa (not her real name), an RE teacher from a fairly average secondary school, describes how:

‘most departments have got a set of 30 iPod Touches and there’s now a suite of iPads…  we have all this technology, but we’ve got a policy where we’re not allowed to use anything that might allow a combination of a camera and the Internet together.  So in reality it’s all useless.’

Similarly, Jane (secondary school teacher) discussed problems with her school’s ICT policies:

‘one of the most incredibly frustrating things is we’ve spent thousands on web conferencing facilities and as yet have not found a single project that we’ve been allowed to do because of the concern of safeguarding because we don’t necessarily know who’s at the other end type thing making videos of children.’

These two examples (fairly representative of the 18 teachers I interviewed) illustrate the interesting situation where ICT investment is in conflict with the limiting power of the administrative structural bureaucracy.  As Charlotte (secondary school teacher) sums it up: ‘They’re willing to spend on all the technology because they can see it’s a good thing, but in practical terms they’ve wasted so much money because they won’t let us use it to full capacity, or sometimes even at all’.

The fear, which all participants highlighted as the motivating factor behind the restrictions, always appears to be ill defined with few concrete examples.  I wonder whether it fits into a wider discourse of fear of the Internet that pervades society at the moment: specifically that children online are always in danger.  If it’s not danger from pedophiles, then it’s the risks of cyberbullying, or the issue currently in the media, it’s the dangers of hardcore pornography.

While I would never want to diminish these clearly very real dangers, it’s likely that the any teacher attempting to do anything even remotely innovative with technology will struggle while fear remains such a dominant discourse in relation to children using the Internet.  Perhaps only when it is counteracted with more positive messages highlighting the benefits technology can bring to learning will innovation actually become embedded in the classroom.

James Robson


The timeless concept of books

November 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

So far I have been successful in resisting buying an e-book reader. Companies such as Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony, have been introducing sleek and smart-looking e-book readers into the market over the past couple of years, with more in the pipeline. Whilst the main reason is financial prudence, I also do not feel I am quite ready to move on to e-book readers. I am, however, attracted to the idea of e-book readers, especially its portability and storage capacity. Having just shipped half a dozen of boxes worth of books due to relocation and paid a hefty shipping cost for them, I am enticed by the idea of simply carrying an e-book reader with me onto the plane, and transporting my library of books electronically. Whilst I have not purchased an e-book reader, I have bought several e-books online, some of which are available for free on Amazon. Being able to purchase an e-book with a few mouse clicks makes it more convenient to lay my hands on titles that I am eager to read or are not yet available in print. From the publishing point of view, it is easier for aspiring or first-time writers to publish their work and reach out to a wider audience.

Yet, like many electronic gadgets, e-book readers are not able to withstand the test of time as well as printed books. New designs and functionalities can make old devices obsolete or less appealing within a short period of time. Scratched or cracked screens or low battery life may ruin the reading experience. Although printed books are just as vulnerable to wear and tear, unless there are missing pages, they are often still very much in readable condition, and are less costly to replace.

Despite the attractiveness of e-books, I am still drawn to conventional printed books. To me, there is nothing like spending half a day in a library or a bookstore, browsing through the massive collection of books, flipping through the pages, then making the decision on which books to buy. Perhaps it is the materiality of books that I am attracted to – its cover, its spine, its lettering, the type of paper and font, etc. I can do without my collection of vinyl records, cassette tapes and CDs, and can live with having my albums digitalised, so long as the quality of music is not compromised too much. However, I cannot imagine not owning printed copies of my favourite books.

I suspect it is more than just the materiality of books that I am drawn to. Perhaps it is the overall sensory experience that one may feel when reading a book. Perhaps it is the “soulfulness” of books that makes them so attractive. I cannot say for certain. But I am reminded of a book written and illustrated by Lane Smith, titled “It’s a book” (A video clip of “It’s a book” can be viewed here). This tongue-in-cheek book tells a story of a donkey’s encounter with the book “Treasure Island”. The story begins with the donkey asking his friend, a monkey, about what he is reading. The monkey replies nonchalantly, “It’s a book”. Still not understanding what it is, the donkey goes on to ask a series of questions such as “How do you scroll down?”, “Does it need a password?”, “Do you blog with it?” and “Can it text? Tweet? Wi-Fi?”, to which the monkey gives the same answer, “It’s a book”. Exasperated, the monkey hands the donkey the book. Taking a first glance at the book, the donkey still does not seem convinced of its appeal, and even says there are “too many letters”. It is only when he reads the book that he become captivated by the story. In the next few illustrations that follows, the reader sees the donkey transfixed by the story. He pores over it for hours before saying “I will charge it up when I’m done” to the monkey. Such is a wry testimony of what a book can provide us. It may not be able to do the fanciful things like blog, text, tweet, but it does what it does best in a simple yet elegant fashion, that is, to tell a captivating story. That, I believe, is the timeless concept of books. Regardless of its form, whether printed or electronic, the essence of a book lies in its text. The medium is secondary. For now, I am happy reading printed books. I am not quite ready to move on to reading e-books, but I think I may do so in time to come, when these devices become more affordable, or when the technology becomes more ubiquitous.

Time is Money. It’s Time to Get our Money’s Worth?

November 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

You can earn money but you cannot earn time.

                                    (Kevin Hung, 2011)        

 When a friend of mine uttered this statement, I couldn’t agree with him immediately, as I was already trying to come back with a winning argument. But I couldn’t. It’s true: Once time has passed, one cannot earn it again.

Having this discussion with my friend made my think about the purpose of using technology to enhance learning—to make time more efficient in a more systematic way. For decades, many technologies have been created and tailored for this particular purpose, but how many of these educationally-orientated technologies have really succeeded? In other words, from how many technologies have we really gotten our money’s worth?

On the 7th November 2011, I attended a seminar in Oxford, ‘An impact to the idea of restructuration’ by Professor Richard Noss from the Institute of Education. His talk focused on how technological tools can help students shape the meaning-making process in mathematics, particularly discussing how the participants’ new and prior mathematic knowledge were developed and integrated by using these tools. His study showed that students were able to achieve what the tools intended to teach them—in other words, the tools were successful. However, one could argue that the lessons taught by these tools could just as easily be taught with a pen and paper. The only convincing reason to argue for the use of the tools was that they reduced the students’ recording time (counting numbers) while they tried to figure out the intended distributed meaning. So are these tools worth it? Why spend a large sum of money in investment in a digital interface to enhance learning when this ‘learning’ can simply be achieved by a cheap method?

Many educationally-orientated technological tools or games were invented to ‘make time’, but too frequently, it is difficult for students to understand the purpose of the tools. In many cases, technical problems or overly complex interfaces made learning more difficult, or else students have to ‘make time’ to fully understand the purpose of the tool. In a way, when designing an educationally-focused tool, it is important to understand its purpose and how practical it can really be. I suppose that, as a consumer, money is always well spent if a purpose is achieved—in this case, because learning was actually accomplished, it was.

Here comes the Internet

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Internet democratizes knowledge, allowing us to fetch information from most newspapers, magazines, or books anywhere in the world. It provides choices. It is convenient; it spreads newspaper stories all over the Web, multiplying the readership. It opens lines of communication to bloggers and readers with valuable information and provocative opinions.  Thanks to the proliferation of Internet into our daily lives, we are racing through a revolution comparable to the one ushered in by Herr Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth Century. The outcome is as unclear today as it was then. “During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points,” NYU professor Clay Shirky wrote on his blog. He continued:

“The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment…When someone demands to know how we are going to replace the print, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution…They are demanding to be told that the ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to….We’re collectively living through 1500, when it is easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.”

Shirky is correct, I believe, in general, yet wrong about the unimportance of the printing press.  A good knowledge resource- regardless of being online or offline- should be like a supermarket with a variety of choices.  No one is forcing readers to pull items down from shelves. But they ought to have available to them all the information they need to be well-rounded, informed individuals.

In the digital age, technology alters the playing ground, just as it did in World War II.  As NYU professor Clay Shirky points out in his provocative book “Here comes Everybody”, German tanks were equipped with a technology the French tanks lacked; namely the radios. These radios allowed commandeers to share intelligence and make quick decisions, leaving French commanders standing still and guessing while German tanks moved in concert.  “The French regarded tanks as a mobile platform for accompanying foot soldiers while the Germans understood that the tank allowed for a new kind of fighting, a rapid style of attack…” The technology provided Germany with an advantage, but   so did a superior strategy that allowed Germany to prevail.

At this point, with regard to the strategic use of technology, it might be relevant to take into account the famous scholarly debate between Huxley and Orwell.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. On the other hand, in Huxley’s vision, people will come to love this oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think…. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. At a time, when especially Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries convulse toward becoming a democracy by integrating social networking tools into the process of revolution, can we talk of passivity any longer? As Orwell rightly claimed, maybe the citizens should worry about those who banned the Internet. Or shall the governors fear those individuals empowered via technology? As in the case of the printing press revolution, we’re collectively racing through it and only time will tell us about the outcome.

Why was the Christ the King school an Epic Fail?

January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Neil Selwyn of the Institute of Education has a very useful 9 point list of things that help make research into educational technology persuasive. It should be a starting point for anyone involved in trying to ensure technology plays an appropriate role in developing high quality education systems.  If Neil reduces his list  to 7 points and writes a book called ‘the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Education Technology Researchers’ he might even make his fortune. In the meantime, the considered use of technology is still not seen as a core issue in education policy making. Usually the issue is trivialised and educational technologies are seen as either a total distraction from ‘proper’ teaching and an embarrassing/expensive one at that – Christ the King school (in Huyton, Liverpool) being a prime example; or a cure-all for teaching students about living in a highly connected world, where showing eight year olds how to create a Powerpoint slide is seen as ‘embedding ICT in the curriculum’.

Christ the King school  was built as part of the previous government’s Building Schools for the Future programme and was jointly run by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches with the aim of being a ‘palace for learning’. It replaced an existing but poorly performing school. Classrooms were designed as flexible learning spaces which would encourage a variety of styles of learning and teaching. The school itself had a curriculum heavily supported by digital technologies such as downloadable learning packages and teachers acting in a mentoring role. The initial cost of the school when it opened in 2009 was approximately £24 million. It is likely to close at the end of the school year as only 500 of its 900 places have been filled.

There are many reasons why the school didn’t work out in practice, and, despite the hysterical reaction in parts of the media, the ideas behind it are potentially promising. I think the fundamental reason why this school failed so spectacularly was that the ‘technical fix’ became the main design aim. The ideas behind the architecture and the role of digital technologies in bringing learning opportunities to students were all radical for the world of education but actually fairly standard for many large service-based companies.

The failure was in not creating an environment that everyone who used it would feel was a real school. The enrolment figures started off low and then continued to decline. This failure to place the technology and associated physical environment into something that the outsiders who mattered (parents) would recognise as a school that they wanted to be part of, but to direct all the attention to the vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty of whizzy technology will cost over £150 million in total. That, if nothing else, shows why educational technology research needs to be more considerate of Michael Cole’s recent observation that “massive change will only occur when…policy makers and the general public… fear for their lives if assembly line schooling… is allowed to continue”.

The school was a brave idea but not enough design effort was aimed at parents;  an understandably risk-averse group who are less interested in big ideas than in an educational environment that mirrors their own conception of what a ‘proper school’ should be like.

Quick Response required

November 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

A couple of years ago I remember a colleague telling me about a new technology that was going to be used everywhere in education and would change things forever. My normal response in these situations is to tune out for a few minutes and rejoin the conversation when they have stopped telling me about “the next big thing”. Thus it was that the QR code passed me by, until last week when one of my students asked if he could use them in a project he was doing for his Foundation Degree. After some quick catching up I almost , but not quite,regretted my less than evangelical take on every new technology I am told about. The great thing about QR codes however  is the ease with which they can provide access to a variety of information types, especially from a smartphone. They look a bit like this:

Image of QR Code

Oxedtech Blog QR Code

If you have a smartphone, and have downloaded the QR code reader app from your favourite app store, then you can scan this code and find your phone’s browser taking you straight to this blog. They are basically 2 dimensional bar codes and are thus easily reproduced and easy to copy onto a wide range of physical objects.

Although some research of their potential for use in education has been carried out (JISC have produced a number of informal case studies  at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearning/ltig/qr.aspx) they are not a mainstream tool yet. The Horizon Project annual report feels they are still 2-3 years way from entering the mainstream of educational technologies  (http://wp.nmc.org/horizon-k12-2010/) although this may prove to be an optimistic assessment.

In terms of usefulness then a range of possibilities in areas such as museum education, where QR codes can add significant information on artefacts without needing expensive in-situ technology, are early candidates. There are also more prosaic but extremely useful applications such as the assignment cover sheets now being trialled at Bath University. These allow for fast processing by administrators of student assignment submissions and provide instant confirmation for students of submission. It has speeded up the process whilst reducing the number of potential errors. Although not always viewed by researchers into educational technology as an area where learning and technology interact these types of administrative system help improve the speed of availability of feedback.  This plays a valuable role in providing students with a richer learning experience and gives lecturers early notice of students who struggle to hand work in on time.

I don’t know if QR codes are a technology that will be part of classroom life in the future but I can certainly see them creeping in to the education system slowly and incrementally as more uses for them are uncovered. When they were first developed for the car industry by Denso Wave (a Toyota subsidiary) I doubt they thought they would be printed on plates used in conveyor-belt sushi bars, but they are such a resilient and flexible data storage medium that a little imagination might yet see them becoming a core technology without anyone realising. That makes them one of my favourite types of innovation.

To Touch It or Not: Inserting Technology Into Museum Learning

October 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

In recent years, the adoption of several hands-on interactive technologies has taken many ‘Do Not Touch’ signs out of museums. These tools have made so-called ‘boring’ and ‘unapproachable’ documents and displays more accessible and available. In some cases, however, they can overshadow the authentic objects they are designed to make appealing, leading visitors to ignore the significance of the actual artefacts and making museums somewhat like an educational theme park. On the other hand, one can also argue that this is hardly a bad idea. Museums are places many of us visited as children, and places to which we return when we have children—like Disneyland, only with shorter queues and fewer nausea-inducing rides.

The imbalance in museum budgets—particularly the large expenditures on technology—has been discussed and debated in many museum-learning studies. How does one increase young visitors’ engagement with a museum, anyway? The traditional kid’s activity handout pales beside an interactive interpretation station—after all, which would the average ten-year-old prefer, a word search about a naval battle or a computer game giving him the chance to sink his classmates’ armadas? There is no disputing the fact that we live in a digital world, but one persistent question is whether we employ technological devices to their full potential as learning tools. Several large public museums, such as the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, the Natural History Museum of London, and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, have spent enormous sums on reconstruction and renovation, including millions budgeted for technological innovation and collaboration in an effort to ‘update’ the museums and increase visitor attraction. But how much of an impact have these changes rendered, and how much do visitors learn from these devices? Many researchers have remained sceptical that technological devices can fully enhance authentic objects—if you can be inside a real spaceship, they argue, why go to the fake one?

Of course, not every museum has a real spaceship, and even those that do may not permit visitors to play inside them. In many museums, new technologies make it possible for visitors to virtually interact with artefacts unavailable to the public. For example, many artefacts in the Churchill Museum in London are far too delicate to touch—consider the damage that could be done to Winston Churchill’s school report, letters, and childhood photograph if visitors were allowed to handle them. What the museum did was create a huge digital table consisting of document from Churchill’s life, thereby allowing visitors to safely browse through them. Thanks to technological innovation, the doors to the old ‘cabinet of curiosities’ can be opened and its contents examined, if only virtually.

At the end of the day, the question is not whether a museum should use technology or not, but rather how technology can be best employed, which depends on the collection, the exhibit, and the curator. Learning in museums should be informal and experiential. Museums are not places to test one’s memory, nor simple theme parks, but research institutes. Still, research is most effective when shared, and sharing this knowledge with visitors by using technology somehow still seems more exciting

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