It doesn’t matter what is in your hands

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Some strange things seem to be happening in the learning technology and T&L debates at the moment. There appears to be a growing presence of an anti-tech resistance, challenging the efficacy of technology (and those who use it). Some of these ‘think pieces’ question the motivations of those using technology in their class (both students and teachers), demean the status of social media as an active and fertile ground for intellectual debate, try and institute blanket bans for the good of the learner and actively argue that we need to ‘get back to chalk’. These have become battle lines in a fake war between protectors and challengers, defenders of the faith versus the barbarians at the gate. The innocent victims in all this posturing and puffery are the engaged teachers and learners (thanks @antonycoombsHE for the input). We can see the small bubbles of evidence for this assertion increasingly breaking through to the surface Let’s take Facebook as the canary in the coal mine;

  • There are universities who ban Facebook from fixed PCs in labs and student spaces (on the suggestion of other students, apparently)
  • The continued resistance (and active calls to ban) the use of student devices in lectures and tutorials, because of the assertion that ‘they will just be checking their Facebook’
  • On the other hand, a lot of Facebook led pilots at a delivery or curricula level have failed because students don’t like ‘their’ Facebook being hijacked for learning (although there is a lot of evidence that they are stopping using Facebook entirely, or use it to talk to each other, not the teacher!)
  • Universities wanting to hold some sway of what their staff say on social media to present a unanimity of opinion (including Facebook).

 

In the end, these are pointless battles in an entirely distracting conflict.  We are arguing about the toss and not about the game. It doesn’t matter what devices are in their hands. What matters most is good teaching. Does it matter that you have a pair of red shoes on? No. What matters is that they make you feel good. It matters that they help people identify or find you. It matters that they stop that puddle you stepped in from making your socks a squidgy mess. What matters is the experiences that people participate in. Good teaching at its heart is the creation and facilitation of experience. There is an old marketing truism that I have always found insightful. People don’t buy ¼ inch drill bits, they but ¼ inch holes. Good teaching is not the fact that someone has a MacBook open or that you have created a PowerPoint slide or even that you have knowledge that you believe someone else needs to become an expert. Good teaching creates environments and conditions for learning experiences to happen. And the creation and nourishment of any experience is a product of a complex interplay of environmental factors. Good teachers hold and move the faders on those factors in order to achieve some form of synergy. Technology is without doubt one of those factors but by itself is like breathing only the nitrogen part of the air.

 

Good teaching is device/platform/OS agnostic
The kind of devices that people use or the sometimes desperate need to find a use for a piece of technology in teaching (Pokémon GO, it is the new Snapchat) become the easier conversations to have, especially amongst learning technologists and educational developers. Yes, the type of technology being used can and does influence the experiences people learn from. And yes, if the technology doesn’t work it can impact on that experience as well. And yes again, maybe a new platform or social media will seed good ideas and promote innovation. None of these assertions are wrong. But (and there is always a but), by themselves they are the less confronting conversation to have, because they are ignoring the elephant in the room. Good teaching is a hard thing to do. Good teaching is a challenging and emotionally draining thing to do. Good teaching lifts you high and can smack you down, sometimes in the space of a single class. Good teaching sees devices and uses them when they can contribute or challenge or transform what you are trying to do in your class.

 

Denial is not an instrument of good teaching
Making someone turn a device off in order to help them learn is not a critical approach to teaching. I used to work with a teacher who brought a bucket of water into his classroom and said ‘if I hear a phone go off, it goes into the water’. Why have we become so afraid of a phone? Sure, you may want a debate or discussion that asks people to engage, visually and actively. But what kind of learning can devices help with? Learning about how people learn. So, what actually goes on behind that sea of glowing white apples you see in your lecture? Have they all got Facebook open? Probably. Are they chatting with their mates? Yeah. Are they looking up words and definitions on Wikipedia? Almost certainly. How about providing them with a backchannel for conversation using a twitter hashtag, so that you can answer questions. How about providing them with a list of sites where they can check up definitions of words that match the kind of materials you use. Denial just leads to resistance and rebellion. Nothing good will come of it.

 

Good teaching is enabled by good communications. Technology changes the way we communicate
I am not describing all technology as simply instrumental tools, without power to influence good teaching. The way technology is used to collaborate, share, critique, engage (this list is endless) shapes the way we communicate. Creativity is democratised. Identity is fluid. Spaces are safe and dangerous. Risk is minimised and multiplied. People learn differently. To ignore social media and its transformative community of practices would be a dangerous ignorance. That doesn’t mean we have to all communicate through twitter in 140 characters, nor does it mean that crowdsourcing and Yelp recommendations will replace academic knowledge as the purest form of thought.  But it is in those very defences against using technology that one of the most fundamental tensions in higher education lies; you are either with us or against us. It is a polarised debate, with no middle ground and a series of entrenched positions backed with rigid institutional structures and policies and with all the risk dumped heavily on the shoulders of students.  If they choose to deny themselves the use of technology to live their lives, will that help them pass? How strong is the gravitational pull of a 2:1? Does the view of Professor Dr Jones requiring them to only use printed book sources for their essay outweigh their need for employable skills? So, how do they respond? They tell us to use our technology better; we want better PowerPoints, we want the VLE to do stuff to help us learn. And when we can be left on our own to study and prepare and learn (like we are for 90% of our HE experience), we will do things our way. We will use social media, we will chat with each other using whatever apps we like, we will share cool stuff and be visual and we will communicate and engage with people all over the world sharing knowledge, experiences and expertise. Because that is what we do. That is how we communicate and live our lives.

It doesn’t matter what is in their hands, it will be there and it will be used. It is none of our concern whether it is in their hands or not. Knowing it is in their hands empowers both them and us to make better learning experiences.

 

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Title image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/karolfranks/7266270182

Fader image https://www.flickr.com/photos/surroundsound5000

 

A design for learning: My ALT-C presentation in a nutshell

altc-2016

It is not a simple thing really; making education in a post-digital world.  How do we design for learning in this environment? Do we assume that nothing has changed, and the computers, devices and Pokémon Go are a distraction from the august and Socratic process of education?  Do we seek to embed in concrete the processes and practices of higher education and see them as immutable laws that will never change?  Or do we think critically about how all of this is not the same as it was before, mixed up, shaken out, broken down and reinvented.  The purpose of my presentation at this year’s ALT-C was to look at how learning has changed and how we need to change the way we design learning in the modern university.
 
At the heart of this design process was the challenge for learning technologists, educational developers and teachers to stop arguing about the efficacy or relevance of old and new technology.  It is an argument with no winners.  It sets up the easy farce of techno-solutionism vs defending the norm.  It creates entrenched positions of defence and attack, where one ‘side’ is seen as wanting to tear the other down.  But perhaps worse, talking about the technology is stopping us talking about what is more important, which is the difference between old and new learning, because it is this that is already transforming disciplines five and six times whilst we argue about our VLE. 
 
So how do we change this? How do we move it on?  If you have read this blog before you might have seen the posts around learning experiences from earlier this year.  Learning experiences are what Knowles describes as the connective tissue and sinew of education (with knowledge, skills, teaching and learning as the rest of the body).  We learn through experience; the abstract can only take us so far.  Whether it is environmental, tactile, mental, affective, emotional or physical, learning experiences are the context in which learning and knowledge come together. Learning experiences are the art and design component of curriculum development. They are intrinsic and personal. But here is the best bit, we all know how to have them. We all know the experience of making something. We know what we have learnt from making, and we know where to find the knowledge and skills required in order to make. We have made something with our dad or mum, we have made stuff with our own kids. All we need to know first is WHAT to make. Technology has changed the process, the practices and the accessibility of making. I can make music with an app (not an accordion), I can make my own media with a device (not a studio) and I can share that making with the world, for critique, for love, for fame or simply to release myself in order to make the next. This is how we contextualize learning experiences in a post-digital world.

An aside: What do I mean by a ‘post-digital world’? This is a contrary term, perhaps used a bit too often to mean something it isn’t, or as a convenient mark to signal the end of an arbitrary era. For me, post-digital means the point where we stop talking about potential and starting dealing with the fact that it has happened. Technology has normalized, how it is used has normalized and the things that happen in our lives happen not because of the technology, they happen because of people.

So, the short version of the presentation is that as learning technologists, teachers, learners and practitioners we have won. We run the largest learning space in the university, we own systems that have transformed the learning experience and there is no going back, the genie is out the bottle. We have made a difference. But what next? We have these monolithic infrastructure beasts that in the main are not being used to their full potential (the VLE distributing slides, handouts and making announcements?). What do we offer to the institution to help shape the experiences of our learners? The workshop asked participants to take existing learning technology tools (the VLE, Lecture Capture, PRS, plagiarism detection, a classroom etc) and break them. Bend them out of shape, hack them, crack them, remix and rebuild them to be the building blocks of creating and making learning experiences. How do we use the VLE to create a learning experience of play? Or community? How do you remodel a classroom to be a site of discovery or a space of discontinuity? This is a three-part process.

What knowledge and skills are being constructed
What learning and teaching technologies and methods are you using
And finally, what experience will the learners have in order to bring these two things together

So have a go yourself. Take advantage of your greatest success; what we do now and then smash it up!