Digital Pedagogy

source: pixabay.com

I have worked in one-to-one schools for most of my 17-and-a-bit year teaching career, and I’ve tended to be an experimenter with and adopter of learning technologies. I’ve been known to use online discussion forums to extend class discussion around English and Literature texts and concepts. I’ve used class blogs, wikis, and backchannels as collaborative learning spaces or expansions of the classroom. I use Twitter, Google Docs, Voxer, and blogging for my own learning and development. I have participated in MOOCs (massive open online courses).

I’ve recently been considering digital pedagogy from more of an organisation and systems level, as I look into how to refine my school’s use of technologies as tools for learning and teaching. As I begin a search of what research literature might offer us in this realm (please, if you have a seminal paper or reference here – pass it my way!) I have a couple of reflections. One is that, as technology moves quickly and research moves slowly (from data generation to publication), research on digital pedagogy needs to be treated with caution. Research around technology is emergent and fast changing; by the time it is published, it may be well out of date.

My other initial reflection is that there seems to be a discrepancy between the use of digital technologies promoted by enthusiastic teachers, conferences, and technology companies, and the discussion about education technologies in academic research. The former often promotes the possibilities of technologies for learning as future-building and positive. The latter tends to reveal a more cautious or critical approach to what digital technologies can offer teaching and learning.

It’s not surprising that tech giants promote themselves to schools, but there are some worrying reports that tech corporates, such as Edmodo and Google, use schools and students to collect and track big data. Corporate agendas are something we might consider when thinking about how technologies infiltrate or colonise our schools.

Neil Selwyn (in his 2016 book Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates) points to the limitations of digital technologies, arguing that there is a lack of genuine diversity in the educational opportunities provided by educational technologies, but rather more of the same. He notes that “any ‘individualisation’ or ‘personalisation’ involves fitting individuals around preconfigured outcomes and expectations rather than offering genuinely bespoke education. … an individual is not actively self-determining but conforming to the requirements and expectations of a mass system” (p.161).

I share Selwyn’s cautiousness around technology in schools when it is seen as a shiny new thing or an end in itself. I am more comforabtle when digital pedagogy is about choosing the tool fit for the purpose, aligned with learning objectives. Technology is part of the teacher and learner’s arsenal, not the end point in themselves.

Additionally, while digital pedagogies are often viewed with much hope for their possibilities, the realities seem to be more disappointing. Marte Blikstad-Balas and Chris Davies (in their recent Oxford Review of Education paper ‘Assessing the educational value of one-to-one devices: Have we been asking the right questions?’) show that one-to-one devices are often positioned as having benefits to pedagogical change, development of future skills, and efficiencies and cost savings. (Interestingly, at my school the photocopying bill did not decrease with the move to one-to-one devices.) In looking at three schools (two in the UK and one in Norway), Blikstad-Balas and Davies found some benefits of one-to-one devices, but these tended to be focused on convenience, instrumental use, and functionality, rather than pedagogy. The three schools studied raised concerns including ad hoc teacher enthusiasm and uptake of one-to-one-devices, and teacher scepticism around implementation of digital technologies as part of pedagogy. Students reported feeling either pressured to use devices they didn’t want to use, for purposes they didn’t see as valuable, being distracted from their learning by one-to-one devices, and finding one-to-one devices unreliable. Year 11 and 12 students reported using their one-on-one devices for whatever they wanted (such as social media and online gaming), which was often not what the teacher was instructing. These findings are a sober reminder to schools about the realities of implementing educational technologies.

The educational world is saturated with information and promotions of various digital technologies. The 2016 Horizon Report for Higher Education, for instance, identifies a number of future trends and technologies predicted to influence education. Those working in education institutions need a way to make sense of the digital noise. Selwyn’s 2016 book Is technology good for education? provides useful questions to ask ourselves when considering digital pedagogy (p.24):

  • What is actually new here?
  • What are the unintended consequences or second-order effects?
  • What are the potential gains? What are the potential losses?
  • What underlying values and agendas are implicit?
  • In whose interests does this work? Who benefits in what ways?
  • What are the social problems that digital technology is being presented as a solution to?
  • How responsive to a ‘digital fix’ are these problems likely to be?

At my school we are working with a purposeful and transparent frame for making decisions about digital technologies and pedagogies. This frame is based around our strategic intents for our students, and our beliefs around learning, good teaching, and the core business of schools. No matter what the latest tech fad or shiny device, any pedagogy needs to start with the purpose of the learning and the design of curriculum. Pedagogy first. Digital if and when appropriate.

Spider-web connectivity: Technology for networked learning

Nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle. ~ E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

tangled webs of connectivity; image from Helen Kara http://helenkara.com/2015/07/28/data/

tangled webs of connectivity; image from Helen Kara http://helenkara.com/2015/07/28/data/

This image was passed from Dr Helen Kara to Dr Naomi Barnes, after I had challenged Helen with an image for the #blimage (blog+image) blogging challenge (see how messily interconnected that is?). You can read Helen’s post here and Naomi’s post here. You can see my first #blimage post, with an explanation of the challenge, here.

Helen’s image spoke to me. It reminded me that one of my research participants used the metaphor of the spider’s web to describe the school as organisational web. It is reminiscent of the symmetrical black and white webs in my mandala colouring book. Mostly, it speaks to me of connectedness in education, in our schools and classrooms, but especially through technology and social media.

So the image forms the basis of this post about technology which connects.

The labyrinthine tangle of webs are like snow-flake-like in their perfect imperfection. The wintery stems provide angular anchors for the fragile delicacy of the web strands which stretch and overlap. Some strands extend long distances, while others are strung tightly together. There is symmetry and asymmetry. Strength and vulnerability. Flexibility and rigidity. Beauty and disorder. A clamour and a stillness.

These dewy webs evoke my experience of the professional connections I see and experience through technology and social media. My journey through various tools of connectivity as an educator has been one mirrored by others. Often I adapt before educators in my own school environment, but after those in the global spheres. As this blog approaches its first birthday, I am reflecting on how blogging has transformed my use of social media and my connections with others.

mandala sunburst

mandala sunburst

Twitter has been a place of learning for me since 2009. As with most educators, I began lurking in the background, figuring out what might be in it for me, or consuming information. I moved on to curating others’ content, and then participating in education chats. That is where I stayed for a number of years, although the more chats with which I engaged, the more people with which I connected. The chats were a place for me to participate in conversations. In fact, my favourite part of being in a Twitter chat is when a small group goes off piste into their own tangential conversation. These are moments of connection and engagement, which are epitomic of Twitter’s rhizomatic chaos; its tangle of webs. In one Twitter chat Adriano di Prato and I came up with an accidental concept of ‘leaning environments’, showing the unexpected possibilities of connecting via social media.

(I enjoyed this recent New York Magazine article about why the messiness and “vast confusion” of Twitter should be celebrated.)

Last year, I began this blog as an experiment in blogging, and as a way to log and record my fellowship experiences in New York. My continued blogging has shifted the boundaries of my self and my connections.

Not only does exploring my thoughts and ideas in 600-1000 word blog posts allow me to thrash out and clarify my thinking in more than 140 characters, it also opens up conversations with others who might want to engage with me or with the content of my posts. It is this opening of conversation which has expanded me and my network. My spider-web tendrils reach out and curl together with others’. Some connections are tentative while others are strong. Some traverse long distances while others are at arm’s length.

mandala web

mandala web

As an individual, my blog feels like an extension of myself. Colouring outside the lines of my demarcated self, I share parts of my story, my thinking, my experiences, and my teaching, researching or writing practices. These tendrils of me reach out and entangle with the labyrinth of connection and conversation in the blogosphere. I respond, and am responded to. And so I become absorbed, in part, into the often unpretty cacophonous jumble of thoughts, hyperlinks and voices.

More recently, thanks to the encouragement of Andrea StringerI have started using Voxer and I’m loving the immediacy and personal, conversational, collaborative nature of the medium. Right now, I’m involved in different professional learning groups and a doctoral researcher group. Valerie Lewis, who I’ve connected with on Voxer, in this blog post calls her Voxer PLN her ‘Vox Squad’, a kind of A-Team of professional learning and solidarity (‘I pity the fool who doesn’t Vox!’). I’ve introduced Voxer to my students as a collaborative tool for group work, and to my team of coaches as a tool for our collective growth and the ongoing refinement of our practice.

To finish this reflection on connectivity, I’ll leave you with a very different web, as a contrast. Below is a picture I took in Richmond Park when I lived in London. A solitary dew-jewelled web at sunrise. This image doesn’t speaks of connectedness in the same way that the first image of webs does. It shows a beautiful but lonely structure, tenuously clinging to the solidity of the fence posts.

Richmond Park spider web at dawn

Richmond Park spider web at dawn

Which would you rather be? The solitary web or a web in a mess of other webs? A lone voice or one of a cacophony of voices? Are we better alone or together? Can our individual voices be heard in amongst the noise of social media?

if the web were perfectly pre-set,

the spider could

never find

a perfect place to set it in; and

if the web were

perfectly adaptable,

if freedom and possibility were without limit,

the web would

lose its special identity. ~

A. R. Ammons

* Note: this is what happens when I am in the middle of tough PhD work. Lyrical, metaphorical musings and colouring-in become my creative antidote to the hard systematic work of thesis revision.

Viva la boredom? A #blimage challenge post.

This blog post is part of the #blimage (blog-from-image) challenge recently set by Steve Wheeler and Amy Burvall. You can learn more about it on this video https://youtu.be/-7K8cA-Iub8. This particular image was set by Steve in this post.

*         *         *

The past is for learning and letting go. You can’t revisit it. It vanishes. ~ Adele Parks

photo by Steve Wheeler

photo by Steve Wheeler

At first this image, provided by Steve Wheeler, sparked thoughts of learning environments. Here is a graveyard of old wooden desks. Scratched. Graffitied. All bunched together in some kind of storage space. Left. Forgotten. Abandoned. Past their used by date. The sad scrawled face in the bottom right corner, a symbol of the kind of soul-crushing 50s -industrialist schooling that Sir Ken Robinson champions against.

I thought about how the classroom of today has changed, and was reminded of my thoughts around flexible, comfortable learning spaces.

But when I look at this image what I really get is a rocket back to my own schooling. Wooden desks engraved by compasses and ball point pens, with lift-up tops revealing stationary and lunch boxes and gum and whole pieces of fruit.

I’m reminded of how my fellow students and I would sit, listen, mess around, or tackle boredom. There were no smart phones, no apps, no laptops, no Smart screens, no texting. We passed notes on actual paper. We looked out of the window. We scribbled onto or carved into the rough wooden surfaces of our desks which lay in rows, etching them with our individual markings, evidence of our existence.

Recently my husband and I drove more than 800km in one day to this spectacular place, with Mr 3 and Mr then-4 in the car. We could have taken a dvd player. We could have hooked them up to please-keep-quiet digital devices most of the way. But we chose not to. We made a conscious decision that the very very long car trip (about 9 hours) was to be spent mostly old school. We sang songs. Listened to music. Talked. Played ‘eye spy’ (for the 3 year old we mostly played by colour instead of letter). Snacks, notebooks, a couple of monster trucks. C-o-n-v-e-r-s-a-t-i-o-n. It was a retro road trip.

There were 2 occasions in each car trip (we had to do the return 9-hour journey, too!) when we let them have an iPad. For 20 minutes they were able to have 5-minutely turns, so 10 minutes each; 20 minutes each all up per session. Sharing. Waiting. Practicing patience. Being grateful.

Parents might ask: Why would we do this to ourselves? Teachers might ask: Why aren’t we immersing our children in available technologies?

The answer is that we think it is good to be bored. Or rather, to have the self-capacity to figure out what to do with our selves or our brains when we are bored. Without a screen.

While I am a literature nerd who loves to read and smell books, and use old school tactile technologies, I’m also an educator who uses BYOD, the back channel, OneNote, virtual classrooms, discussion forums, Voxer, Twitter, personal and student blogging, podcasts, vodcasts, student created content, online surveys.

So when I look at Steve’s desk-graveyard image with its tactile wooden shapes and the student-made markings, I’m taken back to a classroom where a student’s main technology is their brain. With maybe some paper, ball point pens, and a compass.

It makes me think about letting the learning, not the tech, guide us. And ensuring that our children and our students see their brains as the best tech at their disposal.

Viva la boredom? Or at least viva la ability to use our brains and our character in ways that allow us to be still, be grateful, be learning, be creative. Like a blog post written around an image chosen by someone else, parameters can push us to creativity.

I love the idea of #blimage, so to end this post I’m throwing out another image, to ‘pay forward’ the challenge. So, bloggers, do your worst with this pic (just attribute the image back to me :)):

Shell Beach, by @debsnet