Are we listening? —Why technology use in schools needs better critics

“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction.”
― Bertrand Russell

When I first started teaching, I used to blog exclusively about digital technology in education. In my blog I curated a very popular list of online tools for teachers to use in schools for a variety of purposes, and it regularly drew praise from teachers who had found the resources useful but also criticism from folks who raised questions sceptically and, mostly, helpfully about technology’s utility, purpose or opportunity cost.

To me, the blog was mainly a tool for self-reflection—for sifting out the better thinking, ideas and reasoning from the fancifulness that makes absolute sense in your head, cuddled in the comfort of your own biases and prejudices, but turns into nothing but hot air as soon as you begin to articulate it to a critical audience.

But, on occasion, I also encountered those critics who disagreed altogether with the notion of digital technology having a place in schools. This kind of criticism usually came from more normative, passionate stances, e.g.: technology is inherently pernicious, antagonist to all that is good and proper; paper is best because you can feel it and you can smell it; pixels are bad because their ephemeral presence on screens are a metaphor for today’s egotistical youth, who prize shininess and immediacy above that which has been shown through the ages to be good. Or at least so goes the pseudo intellectual trope that usually accompanies the dismissal of technology as a potential tool to support teaching and learning or its witting or unwitting association with harmfulness and health, both physical and mental.

When Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson asked me whether I thought technology was used too much in teaching and learning and whether I thought there should be a healthy balance for their book What does this look like in the classroom?, I disagreed with the premise of the question on two counts:

“First is the implied assumption that there is a limit after which, if exceeded, technology is somehow bad for teaching and learning. Second is the implication that, to remain healthy, there needs to be a cap on how much technology we use.

This approach biases our evaluation of the advantages or disadvantages of the use of technology by assigning intrinsic characteristics to technology – in this case harmfulness – and leads us to an ultimately fallacious argument about whether technology should be used at all.

Since the notion that technology can support teaching and learning when used effectively is quite rightly not in dispute, instead the question should have sought to ascertain how teachers can use technology to support teaching and learning and how students can benefit from screen time by focusing on controlling, not the length of time students spend on their different devices, but, as Professor Livingstone of LSE suggests, how they spend that time. Pathologising technology use serves no practical purpose and obfuscates the more important question that we should be asking: how is technology useful?”

However, the big flaw in dismissals of technology in schools remains this: the folks who most vehemently denounce technology are usually (not always!) the ones who know least about its practical pedagogical applications and implications. But what they typically object to is how they perceive technology is used in schools: edutainment, gimmickry, distraction. Their bone of contention is usually theoretical and philosophical: they assume that technology assists more progressive child-centred teaching or enquiry-based learning and focus their criticism on the tool rather than the philosophy, forgetting or ignoring that technology can also be used to support a knowledge-rich curriculum and the panoply of more traditional methods that surround it.

Let me explain why ignoring this matters. In Creating the schools our children need: Why what we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead), Dylan Wiliam suggests that curricula should prioritise the teaching of content over the teaching of skills, not because the latter are unimportant, but because you can’t think critically, imaginatively or creatively about something without first knowing about that thing.

Yet rarely a day goes by in which I don’t read well-meaning teachers using blogs or social media posts to virtue-signal their dislike of technology, as if the less technology one uses in support of teaching and learning, the more virtuous one is in teaching or learning. The very teachers who read Wiliam and nod vigorously about the need to know stuff before you can understand or do stuff in the context of curriculum are unable to draw parallels between their dismissal of digital technology and their own lack of knowledge about it. Rather than finding virtuosity and pride in learning about how what technology works best and in what context—so as to be able to discern the best tool for particular tasks—we seem happy to eschew whole new toolkits on the dodgy grounds of ignorance and misconception.

Last June, I had the privilege to address attendees to the Festival of Education at Wellington College, where I talked about how technology can support teaching and learning in their historic Chapel. As I went through what makes good teaching and learning and how digital technology can support it, drawing mainly from research by the EEF and the Sutton Trust, I used the example of how student work and teacher feedback can be transacted and acted upon using digital tools to illustrate the common misconception that digital technology reduces human contact and that this must therefore act deleteriously against effective teaching and learning.

This particular tool (see illustration, below) allows teachers to set work, students to submit it, and for a dialogue to take place using voice recordings. Below is an example of a piece of homework (Spanish, Year 8) set to give students the opportunity to practise the newly introduced vocabulary and grammar: conjunctions, adverbs and the preterit tense. Once I graded the work, instead of writing my feedback, I recorded a voice note on screen highlighting to the learner what they did well, what they could do better, and how.

This is what technology use looks like in the schools where it has been implemented well. There is no distraction or gimmickry, just sound pedagogical applications. Dominic Norrish, Group Director of Technology at United Learning, wrote a case study of how technology can be used to support the giving of feedback in secondary. Norrish found that:

“Teachers also consider the quality of feedback they are able to leave through a voice note to be much more effective for learning, due to a combination of factors. They perceive that students are more likely to access feedback in this form, that it reduces the ‘distancing effect’ of written feedback and encourages dialogue, that it forces engagement with the substance rather than the surface of ‘grades’, that they can make themselves understood more clearly, that ‘dense’feedback is more accessible, that it scaffolds self-assessment and target setting. […]

Social distance is reduced through feedback delivered by a trusted voice, using language/ inflection with which the students are already comfortable and familiar.”

Not only is feedback work and feedback transacted more expediently, but my students get to hear my voice, with the encouragement, support and appreciation that it carries. What reduces human contact more? Comments left in red pen at the end of a page, or the above?

To be clear, I’m not arguing that we should be using more technology. Technology can be done well as well as badly. What I am arguing is twofold: firstly that the many of the reasons commonly given against the use of technology are really not very good and betray a fundamental misunderstanding about how technology works to support teaching and learning; and, secondly, that you would be a much better critic of technology if you knew more about its application and its impact, both positive and negative. As Daniel Willingham suggests in Why don’t students like school? “sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question.”

Photo credit

Your feedback and comments are very welcome