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  Selwyn, for example, offers a powerful example of the impracticalities of using state of the art technology in out of date Victorian school buildings.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


What’s wrong with being alone?

October 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recently enjoyed watching Sherry Turkle’s TED video on being ‘Connected But Alone’.  This explores the idea, which also features in her most recent book (Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other), that technology can act as a tool of isolation and can actually reduce meaningful social interaction.

In this TED talk, Turkle issues a warning that people’s constant connection via digital technology, (focusing particularly on the example of smart phones) is not a replacement for real conversation, arguing that bitesized communiqués, how ever many one shares, do not add up to a deep meaningful interaction.  She goes further, suggesting that such constant connectivity can actually block real human connection and offers the example of a meal table where parents ignore their children because they’re too busy checking their smart phones.  The implication here is that technology is the cause of isolation and poor familial communications.

Turkle offers more examples and deepens her argument in a fascinating way by discussing the longer-term implications of this kind of technology use for our internal dialogues and self-analysis and our ability to deal with solitude.  However, here, I want to discuss very briefly the main point of the video: that technology blocks and reduces real world interaction.

Taking up Turkle’s example of smart phones, I absolutely agree that they can be used as tools that inhibit face-to-face dialogue. I have failed numerous times to get a proper response from someone because they have been too engrossed in their phone.  More often, I’m sorry to say, I have been guilty of being engrossed in my phone myself.  However, Turkle expands on this and places her arguments within a discourse of moral panic about technology and, in doing so, assumes a causal relationship between technology and poor social interaction.

The image of parents ignoring their children at the dinner table is an excellent example of the morality she introduces.  Here the smart phone is immediately portrayed as the cause of the break down of tradition family values: a child’s desire to reach out and communicate with the older generation is ignored because traditional modes of meaningful conversation have been replaced by mobile phone screens and an addiction to shallow quick hits of controllable digital data.  The image is so emotive that the technology is immediately cast as a causal villain and an instant condemnation is demanded.

However, what goes unsaid is the fact that parents have been finding ways to ignore their children long before the invention of smart phones.  If not newspapers, books or even 1000-yard stares, it’s been cultural rules relating to children being ‘seen but not heard’. This intergenerational conflict is wonderfully described by Waugh (in Brideshead Revisited) where the dinner table becomes Charles and his father’s battleground with the printed word being the weapon of choice.

In fact people have been finding ways of avoiding social interaction for years in a number of contexts that extend far beyond familial interaction: on the bus, the train, the tube, the street, work, the gym, the pub etc.  It’s true modern technology is an excellent tool for doing this, but it is not the only one and historically has not been the only one.  It is part of a long list of, to modify the meaning of Foucault’s term, technologies of power, which have been used to control social interactions – reading, writing, whistling, praying, blankly staring, or simply frowning have all been used as methods of excluding external intrusion.  Perhaps, then, rather than technology causing the break down of social interaction, it’s use as a tool to socially isolate the user from what’s going on around him/her should be thought of as an expression of a basic human need – a need, at times, to have a break from the people we are with.

The roles that modern digital technologies and social media play in our lives are highly complex and far more nuanced than the idea that they cause social breakdown (and far more nuanced than my light hearted idea that they are an expression of a basic human need to occasionally socially exclude – although that may be one important role that they play).  I think the place of technologies in our lives is fascinating and should be thoroughly researched and discussed.  However, I’m inclined to think that moralizing about technology’s evil effects and reduction to cause and effect does more to hinder this research agenda than progress it.

James Robson

From BBC Micro to Raspberry Pi: computer literacy in schools and at home

July 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

The arrival of the Raspberry Pi has been heralded by some as ‘the new BBC Micro’ in terms of how it has the potential to revolutionise computing in schools. Whereas the BBC was a game-changer by being made available in every school, the Pi aims to be available for every child to take home. This is mostly due to its cost, at only around £25 for a fully-functioning computer, but also because each one is about the size of a credit card (excluding keyboard, mouse and monitor — the Pi is designed to connect to a family TV). It also comes with several child-friendly programming environments installed, such as Scratch, to address the concern that computer programming is disappearing from schools (unlike the BBC Micro, where programming in BASIC was an integral part of using it).

With this in mind, the National Archive of Educational Computing have released a rather timely report on the success and long-term impact of the original BBC Micro and the Computer Literacy Project, including lessons learned and key recommendations for the success of similar future projects. These include the importance of supporting learning outside the classroom, and in reaching the home as well as the school, so it will be interesting to see how well-placed the Pi is to achieve this. The report is well worth a read, and is freely available from Nesta.

I will now be spending the rest of my day reminiscing nostalgically about the BBC Micro and showing my age terribly… kids of today will never understand the joys of spending an hour loading a game from a cassette tape…

Has the Ed Tech Bubble already burst?

April 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

Today I read an excellent editorial by Neil Selwyn, soon to be published in Learning, Media and Technology (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439884.2012.680212), in which he criticizes academics working in the field of educational technology for being content with restricting themselves to specialist publications and inward looking communications often via the very technologies they are vociferously advocating.

Selwyn argues that there is a significant gap between the ed tech rhetoric and the realities of the technology users on the ground, propagated by intra-mural dialogue and a lack of healthy inter-disciplinary exchange.  A major contributing factor to this gap, he suggests, is the fact that ‘many of the discussions taking place within the educational technology community about social media are actually being conducted through social media’ (2).  This leads to an ‘ed tech bubble’ – a skewed self-referential world view which has little communication with or affect on the outside world of education.  This bubble, he argues, needs to be burst.

I am, of course, acutely aware of the irony of the fact that I came across this editorial via a Tweet from the Selwyn himself and that I am discussing it on an ed tech blog.  That aside, broadly speaking, there are three main strands to Selwyn’s critique: that ed tech fails to engage properly with wider academia at an inter-disciplinary level; that ed tech fails to engage with wider society beyond both itself and academia; and that ed tech is too eager to uncritically enthuse about the transformative promises of technology.  I think these are extremely important points to make and whole-heartedly agree with them. However, I suspect the situation may not be quite as bleak as he suggests.

Firstly, the problem of a lack of inter-disciplinary engagement with wider academia (and the wider world in general) is certainly not unique to ed tech – as Selwyn acknowledges himself.  It is a problem that plagues all disciplines and one which regularly causes intra-disciplinary angst.  While ed tech is certainly a guilty party, I very much doubt it alone can find a solution.  Inter-disciplinary collaboration is necessarily a concerted effort by all disciplines involved – all disciplines involved in inter-disciplinary engagement must be engaged.  To a certain extent this engagement is taking place across many universities, as divisions increasingly emphasize the need for inter-disciplinary collaboration, and grant-giving organizations demand it.

Secondly, in the UK, it’s arguable that the discipline is still recovering from the shock of losing BECTA.  This was a formalized way for many academics involved in ed tech to communicate with both policy makers and a wider more general audience.  At present its loss has left a vacuum, and Selwyn is right to emphasise the need for different avenues of public engagement.  However, it would be wrong to overlook the fact that in the recent past the discipline (or parts of it at least) has been actively involved in public outreach.

Finally, while Selwyn is right that it is all too easy to find a large amount of literature enthusing about the promises of new technologies, there’s also a growing trend in research coming out of places like the IOE (unsurprisingly), Oxford, Manchester (and many more) that analyzes and engages with technology critically.  This can be seen in the upcoming student conference hosted by Oxford University Department of Education’s Learning and New Technologies’ Research Group – ‘Losing Momentum: Current Challenges in Learning and Technology’ (http://www.losingmomentum.org/).  This conference aims to explore the nuanced realities of the use of technology in an educational context and Neil Selwyn will be delivering a keynote address.  We’ll blog about it…

I think Selwyn is right to highlight the problem of the ed tech bubble, but would like to think that, with the emergence of new critical research approaches, it may already be beginning to burst.

James Robson

Educational values and asynchronous learning

April 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

I recently attended a two day conference on asynchronous learning at a teacher education college in Mumbai. The whole experience was a delight – hospitable, lively, wide-ranging – but I have to say that the immense pleasure everyone took in presenting their work and debating the ideas, and in being together all in one place in order to do so, did not entirely signal a heartfelt confidence in the benefits of working asynchronously, at a distance, in isolation and in your own private time.

One of the speakers (Ms Sunita Britto), a member of the college faculty, gave a clever and enjoyable paper in which she suggested that maybe asynchronous learning could try to build on the educational values that were found in the ancient Hindu educational context of a gurukul, where the guru/teacher and shishyas/disciples lived together and shared all mundane aspects of their lives, the students working for and learning from the guru, in an educational context that was holistic, demanding and social. And resolutely synchronous.

Perhaps, claimed the speaker, those same educational values might be reborn by focusing on the opportunities enabled by asynchronous learning for timely feedback, online social interaction, and learning at one’s own pace, in the process of trying to meet a demand for learning that would have been unimaginable back in the days of the original gurukuls. It was an argument well worth exploring, and I thought it was a great contribution to make to a conference that was not always – with good reason – wholeheartedly behind what it was ostensibly advocating. The argument that perhaps online distance learning could provide new ways of embodying those ancient values of the gurukul suddenly made asynchronous learning appear like a solution worth pursuing. That was quite an achievement in itself.

The Networked Mind

April 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

In David Lodge’s 1988 novel ‘Small World’, a professor explains why he believes that the elite university has become obsolete:

‘Information is much more portable in the modern world than it used to be. So are people….There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years…: jet travel, direct-dialing telephones and the Xerox machine…As long as you have access to a telephone, a Xerox machine, and a conference grant fund, you are ok, you are plugged into the only university that really matters- the global campus.’

The professor had a point, but he overemphasized the technologies of the 1980s. Two decades after his words were written, they have been superseded by e-mail. Digital documents, Web sites, blogs, teleconferencing, Skype, and smartphones. And two centuries before they were written, the technologies of the day- the printed book, and the postal service- had already made information and people portable. The result was the same: a global campus, a public sphere, or as it was called in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Republic of Letters as Lodge stated in his novel.

Any 21st century reader who dips into intellectual history can’t help but be impressed by the blogosphere of the 18th. No sooner did a book appear than it would sell out, get reprinted, get translated into half a dozen languages, and spawn a flurry of commentary in additional books. Thinkers like Locke and Newton exchanged tens of thousands of letters; Voltaire alone wrote more than eighteen thousand, which now fill fifteen volumes. Of course, this colloquy unfolded on a scale that by today’s standards was glacial- weeks, sometimes even months- but it was rapid enough that ideas could be criticized, amalgamated, refined and brought to the attention of people in power.

The jet airplane is the only technology of Lodge’s small world of 1988 that has not been made obsolete by the Internet. This also reminds us that sometimes there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. Airplanes can bring people together, but people who live in a city are already together, so cities have long been crucibles of ideas. Given enough time and purveyors, a marketplace of ideas cannot only disseminate ideas but change their composition. No one is smart enough to figure out anything worthwhile from scratch. As Newton conceded in a letter to a fellow scientist, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The human mind is adept at packaging a complicated idea into a chunk, combining it with other ideas into a more complex assembly, packaging that assembly into a still bigger contrivance, combining it with still other ideas, and so on. But to do so it needs a steady supply of plug-ins and subassemblies, which can come only from a network of other minds.

The networked mind is the new mindset we all require in the 21st century. Given the proliferation of Web-based technologies such as blogs, wikis and social networking tools in our daily lives, these technologies have become  a cause for all praise, scorn and worry. What would it become and what would be the cultural ramifications of its pervasive use? Were we indeed headed for the vision of Lodge’s small world, or was the web merely a littered cyberspace of pornography and bad design (Levinson, 03)?  I have heard many people articulate their technological anxieties, describing how they are “behind” the curve. My response is always, “Aren’t we all?” In this century, chance favors the networked mind; so let’s take the opportunity to continually remain students ourselves, testing and sharing best practices for new forms of engagement.

Leaving a mark: can you learn from a digital mistake?

February 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

Around my parent’s home you will find a impregnable burnt patch on my cooker where an attempt to make desert went badly wrong having been distracted by the football; there will be an peculiar dull  stain on a lightly coloured carpet where something spilt as a consequence of me driving a remote controlled car onto an Uncle’s toe; stitches on a patched up teddy bear whose head and body parted company after a heated sibling argument turned slightly barbaric.  These artefacts surround us – as dents on our cars, broken or damaged things all around our houses, even on ourselves through accidents or fights – reminding us of mistakes or blunders we might have made, hopefully prompting us to learn and not make the same mistakes again.

Interestingly, the underlying nature of digital technology does not allow for us to learn from our mistakes in technological endeavours in the same way.  As technology becomes more and more prominent in our day-to-day lives, the more it seems to provide backups and redundancies to ensure we can always “go back” – a digital luxury which I hope does not become an expectation outside of our digital environments.  These worries I agree do in some ways sound farfetched and possibly exaggerated – perhaps it could be argued that these issues will only become a real concern if we quite literally live and breathe in binary.

However, if take into account real facts – the lowering minimum age of technology users, and the increased usage of technology as a social medium – will future generations grow up thinking problems or wrong doings, both inside and outside of digital environments, is a just a “Ctrl Z” or “Respawn” away?

Bhaveet Radia