From under or above the table? Where does educational technology come from?

November 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Very 'Small' People Talking to One Another Under a Massive Table

What a Scary Picture!

The core idea of this post is that the constitution of an educational technology can be informed by implicit values (i.e. from ‘under the table’), just in the same way it can be (or, more specifically, can be claimed to be) informed by explicit values (i.e. from ‘above the table’). Before going into this, however, I should confess that I got this idea while dreaming about my doctoral research – I wish I could have an on-off switch fixed in my mind so that I could force myself to stop thinking about such matters (i.e. my thesis) while sleeping! So, this blog is dedicated to those who spend daytime dealing with academia and night-time escaping from it!

The ‘dish’ I want to present to you today is the so-called ‘educational technology.’ Educational technology can essentially be seen as the ‘product’ of ‘messy’ and heterogeneous social, cultural, economic, political, tactical, organisational and managerial ‘ingredients.’ In other words, an educational technology can be shaped by a ‘cocktail’ of values that might go beyond,  above  and even against the often educationally, pedagogically and technologically oriented considerations we might expect. So what? Three ‘take-home’ messages can be drawn from the previous two sentences. First, the shaping process of an educational technology should be democratically informed, meaning all actors, stakeholders and shareholders have a seat at the planning table on educational technologies, thereby being able to negotiate interests and needs and ensure that power and control are fairly distributed among these groups. Second, ‘the academic tribe’ should be keen to provide critically ‘context-rich’ (rather than ‘context-free’) analyses of educational technology constitution and use, thus ‘digging up’ those hidden values. Third, the ‘consumer ‘ (i.e. the user) of the ‘ready meal’ (i.e. the already constituted educational technology) should seek to do ‘detective work,’ checking carefully and in a politically astute way those ingredients used to make the technology. In conclusion, have a safe meal!

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.

Filtering as a Political Tool

October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

In Saudi Arabia, public access to the Internet was delayed until 1999, by which time an elaborate national system had been established to filter out any inappropriate and unwanted content. This filtering, irrespective of whether it is seen as a positive or a negative step, indicates a degree of political wakefulness by the authorities. Such wakefulness should clearly also be seen at the individual level. That is, individuals as cognitive beings need to be politically wakeful, practising a kind of filtering to sieve inputs and to shape them for their needs and interests.This filtering is crucial if individuals are to stay in a good healthy condition. That is, if individual citizens continue to act as consumers of information without applying any kind of filtering, they may end up being mentally unfit, suffering from information obesity and turning out to be merely politicised objects. Such filtering, which can be regarded as a kind of life-long learning, is an ongoing process of transforming information into knowledge and generating knowledge from within knowledge. Such filtering, which can be done individually, collaboratively and/or collectively at a micro and/or macro level, differentiates those fluent in ICTs from those who are merely ICT-literate. It is, moreover, a privilege of the upper class in an information society.

Personal filtering can conflict with wider filtering. Luckin, in speaking of the ecology of resources, suggests that the proliferation of ubiquitous and pervasive technologies necessitates looking beyond the resources officially available. The practice of choosing from this ecology is a type of filtering. In Saudi universities, however, choices seem to have been already made for members through what is made ‘officially available,’ imposing one way in which things are to be done. Blackboard, for instance, is what is official and readily available. This very accessibility may discourage members from taking the time and/or trouble to look beyond this official filter and select another resource. This may also discourage members from practising any kind of critical reflection and gradually transform them from professionals into merely practitioners.


Stop frightening the children

October 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

On the surface of things, it would seem difficult to object to an organisation whose chief aim is the protection of children. But not everyone is sorry to see the back of Jim Gamble, who has just offered his resignation as head of CEOP (the Child Exploitation and Online and Protection centre). This was in protest at government plans to merge CEOP with the new National Crime Agency. His argument is that it will lose its distinct identity. Many people in the Internet industry are quite glad, though, to see him go because they see him as “an extremely aggressive person” and a “loose cannon” who “loves the media spotlight”.
CEOP’s approach to the whole business of young people and the Internet was vividly demonstrated by the scare-mongering performance of a Gamble supporter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week, who talked about the “unimaginable evil” that is waiting for children on the Internet in shocking terms: “children being raped, .. sex with babies, children being tortured or forced to have sex with animals”. You can’t help wondering whether throwing around such notions on national radio at 7.30 in the morning in such an uncontrolled manner might not constitute a rather more disturbing invasion of young minds than anything most of them might encounter on the Internet. It was the kind of thing you would also often hear from Gamble’s own media performances.
I have observed some of the CEOP guidance being offered to a group of looked after children when being presented with their very own laptops (through the last government’s Home Access Targeted Group programme) last year. By the time they had been shown the appalling CEOP movie clip called “Where’s Klaus?” and heard a whole litany of truly dire CEOP warnings about what was waiting for them online, most of these already vulnerable children looked like they would prefer to leave without their lovely new laptops after all.
There is a confusion of roles here. CEOP is a police agency, and was set up in 2006 to find and convict paedophiles, a serious and important task. Since 2006, it has safeguarded 624 children by arresting sex offenders and breaking up networks, which is clearly an excellent achievement, as well as an accurate representation of the specialised scale of the problem. At the same time, it has also placed itself at the centre of discussion of how the vast majority of young people should use the Internet. But it is not an educational agency, and shows little understanding of how to help and encourage young people to benefit from the Internet in positive ways. By relentlessly demonising the Internet, CEOP has led the way in unnerving parents and children alike, to the extent that young people are in danger of becoming unnecessarily fearful and tentative in their uses of it (something increasingly evident in our own recent research). Maybe a change of leadership and identity might in fact prove very timely.

Call for a Political Theory of Educational Communications Technologies (CTs)

September 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Although CTs as artefacts are logically neutral, they do not make themselves or exist in a vacuum. Instead, they are constructed and fragmented by powerful and powerless interests. However, it is the powerful interests, of course, that tend to be the ones sitting at the planning table and deciding how the product is planned. Our HEIs, which are supposed to have education as their top priority, however, should strengthen powerless interests. This strengthening can be done by viewing the process of planning and developing educational CTs as a political activity in which all stakeholders collectively negotiate interests and needs. Such involvement by stakeholders should be regarded as an integral part of education if we want to inculcate a culture of critical reflection into our graduates and wider society. This implies that all members of HEIs should be trained to be politically literate and reflectively critical, aware of processes at the forefront of their consciousness. This suggests the establishment of a new field of research that views educational CTs through a political lens.
One may express serious reservations about how realistic the suggestion of stakeholder involvement is, arguing that conservative academic societies must be pushed into technological developments to embrace them. Besides, stakeholders who lack intimate and practical comprehension of organisations and technologies must not be supplied with power. These two arguments, to an extent, have their own logic. Thus, the involving of stakeholders should not mean authorising them to freely determine a syllabus or policy. Instead, it should mean using stakeholders to reach a more nuanced picture of conceptual contrast and, in turn, to make informed decisions. This is important, since effective organisational conceptualisation, development and creativity are likely to come not simply down from ‘the top’ but also up from ‘the bottom.’ Stakeholder involvement enhances understanding, acceptance, ownership and responsibility. However, this involvement is also likely to raise consciousness and, in turn, to ignite a possibly dormant battle. Such conflict, however, is not in itself undesirable, since it is an important mechanism for spreading a culture of critical reflection throughout society.

Keep Moving Forward

August 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The most creative use of technology  I have seen in a school in a very long time was in a local special school, where the headteacher and his staff makes sure that every child, no matter how severe their learning difficulties, are enabled to use sophisticated equipment freely and inventively. The sorts of thing that Charles Arthur was arguing for in his Guardian article last week on the closure of Becta, when he asked where, in our schools, is “the encouragement to use computers to create pictures, or films, or video games?” I think he was quite right to suggest that there is not enough of this in mainstream schools – and quite unfair to blame that on Becta.

Playing about is not high on the agenda of any school, any more than it was high on Becta’s agenda. But encouraging creative and productive uses of technology certainly was, as was trying to ensure that all young people – not just those in schools where technology had committed advocates – benefited from stimulating experiences of technology in their learning lives. Becta was a government quango and could be quite irritating at times, especially when it came to keeping its government masters happy (much good that did it). But the present government is quite wrong in claiming that productive uses of digital technologies are now sufficiently well embedded into mainstream schools to require no further expert intervention or advocacy.

Becta consisted of people who believed that technology can make learning more engaging, more productive, and more enjoyable. Those people did all they could to encourage and communicate positive developments in mainstream education, in the education of vulnerable children and of those with special needs, across a range of settings. Given all the negative stuff that often surrounds young people’s uses of technology, we might find ourselves missing Becta’s concerted and upbeat efforts quite a lot in the years to come.

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