David Jones, Elke Schneider
Submitted to ACCE’2016 and an extension of Albion et al (2016).
Lot’s of room for further work here, especially in the implications section. Really only just touched the surface (IMHO).
Not for the first time, the transformation of global society through digital technologies is driving an increased interest in the educational use of such technologies. Historically, the translation of such interest into widespread and effective change in learning experiences has been less than successful. This paper explores what might happen to the translation of this interest if the digital technologies within our educational institutions were protean. What if the digital technologies in schools were flexible and adaptable by and to specific learners, teachers, and learning experiences? To answer this question the stories of digital technology modification by a novice teacher educator and a novice high school teacher are analysed. Analysis reveals that the modification of digital technologies in two very different contexts was driven by the desire to improve learning and/or teaching by: filling holes with the provided digital technologies; modelling to students effective practice with digital technologies; and, to better mirror real world digital technologies. A range of initial implications and questions for practitioners, policy makers, and researchers are drawn from these experiences. It is suggested that recognising and responding to the inherently protean nature of digital technologies may be a key enabler of attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy.
Coding or computational thinking is the new black. Reasons given for this increased interest include the need to fill the perceived shortage of ICT-skilled employees, the belief that coding will help students “to understand today’s digitalised society and foster 21st century skills like problem solving, creativity and logical thinking” (Balanskat & Engelhardt, 2015, p. 6), and that computational thinking is “a fundamental skill for everyone” (Wing, 2006, p. 33). Computational thinking is seen as “a universal competence, which should be added to every child’s analytical ability as a vital ingredient of their school learning” (Voogt, Fisser, Good, Mishra, & Yadav, 2015, p. 715). Consequently, there is growing worldwide interest in integrating coding or computational thinking into the school curriculum. One example of this is the Queensland Government’s #codingcounts discussion paper (Department of Education and Training, 2015) which commits the government “to making sure that every student will learn the new digital literacy of coding” (p. 9). It appears that students also recognise the growing importance of coding. The #codingcounts discussion paper (Department of Education and Training, 2015) cites a Microsoft Asia Pacific survey (Microsoft APAC News Centre, 2015) that suggests 75% of students (under 24) in the Asia Pacific “wish that coding could be offered as a core subject in their schools” (n.p.). While not all are convinced of the value of making coding a core part of the curriculum it appears that it is going to happen. Balanskat & Engelhardt (2015) report that 16 of the 21 Ministries of Education surveyed already had coding integrated into the curriculum, and that it was a main priority for 10 of them. Within Australia, the recently approved Technologies learning area of the Australian Curriculum includes a focus on computational thinking combined with design and systems thinking as part of the Digital Technologies subject. This is the subject that is the focus of the Queensland government’s #codingcounts plan. The question appears to have shifted from if coding or computational thinking should be integrated into the curriculum, toward questions of how and if it can be done effectively in a way that scales for all learners?
These types of questions are especially relevant given the observation that despite extensive efforts over the last 30+ years to eliminate known barriers, the majority of teachers do not yet use digital technologies to enhance learning (Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, 2013). It appears that the majority of teachers still do not have the knowledge, skills, resources, and environment in which to effectively use digital technologies to enhance and transform student learning. The introduction of computational thinking – “solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behaviour, by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science” (Wing, 2006, p. 33) – into the curriculum requires teachers to move beyond use of digital technologies into practices that involve the design and modification of digital technologies. In recognition of the difficulty of this move, proponents of integrating computational thinking are planning a range of strategies to aid teachers. One problem, however, is that many of these strategies seem to echo the extensive efforts undertaken to encourage the use of digital technologies for learning and teaching that have yet to prove widely successful. At this early stage, the evaluation and research into the integration of computational thinking into the curriculum remains scarce and with a limited amount of “evidence as to how far teachers really manage to integrate coding effectively into their teaching and the problems they face” (Balanskat & Engelhardt, 2015, p. 15).
However, attempts to integrate coding or computational thinking into the curriculum are not new. Grover and Pea (2013) identify the long history of computational thinking, tracing it back to recommendations for college students in the 1960s and to Papert’s work with Logo in K12 education in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, Maddux and Lamont Johnson (1997) write of “a steady waning of interest in student use of the Logo computer language in schools” (p. 2) and examine a range of reasons for this. In the late 1990s, the dotcom boom helped increase interest, but it did not last. By the 2000s the overall participation rate in IT education within Australia declined. With an even greater decline in enrolments in software development subjects, and especially in female participation (Rowan & Lynch, 2011). The research literature has identified a range of factors for this decline, including the finding that “Students in every participating school joined in a chorus defining the subject as ‘boring'” (Rowan & Lynch, 2011, p. 88). More recently the rise of interest in computational thinking has led to the identification of a range of issues to be confronted, including: “defining what we mean when we speak of computational thinking, to what the core concepts/attributes are and their relationship to programming knowledge; how computational thinking can be integrated into the curriculum; and the kind of research that needs to be done to further the computational thinking agenda in education” (Voogt et al., 2015, p. 716). Beyond these important issues, we are interested in exploring how and if common perceptions of our digital technologies may hinder attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy.
What if the digital technology environments within education institutions do not mirror the environments in contemporary and future digitalised societies? What if our experience within these limited digital technology environments is negatively impacting our thinking about how to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy? What if thinking about digital technology has not effectively understood and responded to the inherent protean nature of digital technologies? What if the digital technologies provided to educators were protean? What if the school digital environment was an environment rich with protean digital technologies (ERPDT)? Might this have an impact on attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy? It is these and related questions that this paper seeks to explore.
The paper starts by drawing on a range of literature to explore different conceptions of digital technologies. In particular, it focuses on the 40+ year old idea that digital technologies are the most protean of media. Next, the paper explains how stories of digital technology modification by a high school teacher and a teacher educator were collected and analysed to offer insights into what might happen if our digital technologies were protean. Analysis of these stories is then discussed and used to develop an initial set of implications for practice, policy, and research for attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy. The paper concludes with the suggestion an environment rich with protean digital technologies (ERPDT) appears likely to have a range of positive impacts on attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy.
Digital technology: A protean meta-medium, or not?
The commonplace notions of digital technologies that underpin both everyday life and research have a tendency to see them “as relatively stable, discrete, independent, and fixed” (Orlikowski & Iacono, 2001, p. 121). Digital technologies are seen as hard technologies, technologies where what can be done is fixed in advance either by embedding it in the technology or “in inflexible human processes, rules and procedures needed for the technology’s operation” (Dron, 2013, p. 35). As noted by Selwyn and Bulfin (2015) “Schools are highly regulated sites of digital technology use” (p. 1) where digital technologies are often seen as a tool that is: used when and where permitted; standardised and preconfigured; conforms to institutional rather than individual needs; and, a directed activity. Rushkoff (2010) argues that one of the problems with this established view of digital technologies is that “instead of optimizing our machines for humanity – or even the benefit of some particular group – we are optimizing humans for machinery” (p. 15). This hard view of digital technologies perhaps also contributes to the problem identified by Selwyn (2016) where in spite of the efficiency and flexibility rhetorics surrounding digital technologies, “few of these technologies practices serve to advantage the people who are actually doing the work” (p. 5). Digital technologies have not always been perceived as hard technologies.
Seymour Papert in his book Mindstorms (Papert, 1993) describes the computer as “the Proteus of machines” (p. xxi) since the essence of a computer is its “universality, its power to simulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes” (p. xxi). This is a view echoed by Alan Kay (1984) and his discussion of the “protean nature of the computer” (p. 59) as “the first metamedium, and as such has degrees of freedom and expression never before encountered” (p. 59). In describing the design of the first personal computer, Kay and Goldberg (1977) address the challenge of producing a computer that is useful for everyone. Given the huge diversity of potential users they conclude “any attempt to specifically anticipate their needs in the design of the Dynabook would end in a disastrous feature-laden hodgepodge which would not be really suitable for anyone” (Kay & Goldberg, 1977, p. 40). To address this problem they aimed to provide a foundation technology and sufficient general tools to allow “ordinary users to casually and easily describe their desires for a specific tool” (Kay & Goldberg, 1977, p. 41). They aim to create a digital environment that opens up the ability to create computational tools to every user, including children. For Kay (1984) it is a must that people using digital technologies should be able to tailor those technologies to suit their wants, since “Anything less would be as absurd as requiring essays to be formed out of paragraphs that have already been written” (p. 57). For Richard Stallman (2014) the question is more fundamental, “To make computing democratic, the users must control the software that does their computing!” (n.p.).
This perceived 40 year old need for individuals to make their own tools with protean digital technologies resonates strongly with the contemporary Maker movement. A movement that is driven by a combination of new technologies that increase the ease of creation, a cultural shift toward do-it-yourself practices, and is seeing people increasingly engaged in creating and customising physical and virtual artefacts. Martinez & Stager (2013) make this link explicit by labelling Seymour Papert as the “Father of the Maker Movement” (n.p.). Similarly, Resnick and Rosenbaum (2013) note the resonance between the Maker movement and a tradition within the field of education that stretches for Dewey’s progressivism to Papert’s constructionism. Resnick and Rosenbaum (2013) see tinkering “as a playful style of designing and making, where you constantly experiment” (p. 165) for which digital technologies – due to their association with logic and precision – may not always appear suitable. A perception reinforced by the evolution of digital technologies from the work of Kay and Goldberg to today.
The work of Kay, Goldberg, and others at Xerox PARC on Dynabook directly and heavily influenced Apple, Microsoft, and shaped contemporary computing. However, their conception of computers as a protean medium where tool creation was open to every user has not attained any prominence in contemporary computing (Wardrip-Fruin & Montfort, 2003). In fact, there’s evidence that digital technologies are getting less modifiable by the end-user. For example, desktop personal computers once had an architecture that enabled enhancement and upgrading. While increasingly mobile devices are typically “not designed to be upgraded, serviced or even opened, just used and discarded” (Traxler, 2010, p. 5). The decision by Apple to prevent the creation of executable files on the iPad means “that you can’t make anything that may be used elsewhere. The most powerful form of computing, programming, is verboten” (Stager, 2013, n.p.). But it’s not just the technology that hardens digital technologies.
As noted above, Dron (2013) argues that technology can be hardened by embedding it “in inflexible human processes, rules and procedures” (p. 35). Resnick and Rosenabuam (2013) make the point that designing contexts that allow for tinkerability is as important as designing technologies for tinkerability. The affordance of a digital technology to be protean is not solely a feature of the technology. An affordance to be protean arises from the on-going relationship between digital technologies, the people using it, and the environment in which it is used. Being able to code, does not always mean you are able to modify a digital technology. Selwyn and Bulfin’s (2015) positioning of schools as “Schools are highly regulated sites of digital technology use” (p. 1) suggest that they are often not a context that is designed for tinkerability by providing protean digital technologies.
Even though the context may not provide protean digital technologies, this hasn’t stopped educators modifying digital technologies. Albion et. al. (2016) examine and map stories of digital technology modification by three teacher educators by the traces left in the digital landscape and the levels of modification. Table 1 provides an overview of the levels of digital technology modification used by Albion et. al. (2016). It ranges from simply using a digital technology as is, through changing its operation via configuration options (internal and external), modifying the operation of a digital technology by combining or supplementing it with other digital technologies, and finally to coding. Table 1 suggests that digital technologies can be modified via configuration, combination, and coding.
Table 1: Levels of digital technology modification (Albion et al., 2016)
|Type of change
||Tool used with no change
||Add an element to a Moodle site
||Change operation of a tool using the configuration options of the tool
||Change the appearance of the Moodle site by changing Moodle course settings
||Change operations of a tool using means outside of the tool
||Change the tool by modifying its code
||Modify the Moodle source code, or create/install a new plugin
||Use another tool to offer functionality not provided by existing tool
||Implement course level social bookmarking through Diigo
||Use another tool to replace/enhance functionality provided by existing tool
||Require students to use external blog engines, rather than the Moodle blog engine
This paper uses a qualitative case study to describe and explore the potential values, impacts, and issues faced by educators when they seek to treat digital technologies as protean. The aim being to offer some initial responses to the question “what if our digital technologies were protean?” As this is an attempt to understand a particular social phenomenon as it occurs in real-life it is well-suited to the case study method (Aaltio & Heilmann, 2010). Data for this case study is drawn from the authors’ own experiences as educators. For David this draws on his experiences as a teacher educator at the University of Southern Queensland from commencement in 2012 through 2015. During this time his main teaching responsibility was for a large – 300+ students split evenly between on-campus and online students – 3rd year ICT and Pedagogy course within the Bachelor of Education. For Elke, this draws on her experience as a teacher at secondary schools (neither her current school) within South-East Queensland in 2014 and 2015 teaching grades 7 to 12 in IT and Business subjects.
The authors’ experiences provide a number of advantages for the purpose of exploring the potential impact of protean digital technologies. Both authors have: formal tertiary education in fields related to the development of Information Technology; undertaken professional work within Information Technology; and, later trained as Secondary IPT teachers. Consequently, both authors see digital technologies as more inherently protean than those without an IT background, and have the knowledge and skills necessary to modify existing digital technologies. While not an activity currently broadly available to all educators, the authors experience and knowledge provide an indication of what might be possible if digital technologies were more protean. At the same time, the authors have very different cultural backgrounds (Australia and Canada). The case also explores the impact of protean digital technologies within two very different educational contexts: tertiary and secondary education. The tertiary education context involves a large course with hundreds of student in both on-campus and online modes. This large and diverse student cohort means that there significant use of digital technologies with online students learning solely via digital technologies. The secondary education context involves a greater number of smaller student cohorts with digital adoption in a state of flux and still primarily delivering teaching and assessing learning with traditional, non-digital means.
The authors engaged in an iterative and cyclical process that involved the gathering, sharing, discussing, and analysing stories of how, why, and what digital technologies they had modified while teaching. Both authors drew on personal records and writings in the form of tweets, blog posts, email archives, and other documents to generate a list of such stories. These stories (David: 16, Elke: 10) were written up using a common format, shared via a Google document, generated on-going discussion, and led to an iterative process of analysis to identify patterns and implications. A major part of the analysis was grouping the stories of digital technology modification via: the purpose (e.g. improve administration, model good practice, teaching, or learning); cause (e.g. inefficient systems, non-existent systems, missing functionality); impact (e.g. save time, improve learning); and, the type of change (as per Table 1). From this analysis a number of evident themes were extracted and are described in the next section.
Themes evident in stories of protean technologies
Upon reading each other’s stories, both authors were immediately struck by the level of commonality between the stories both had told. Not so surprising was that all stories told of attempts to improve learning, teaching, or both. However, even though these stories were taking place in very different types of educational institutions there were three themes prevalent in stories from both authors. The three themes were: filling holes (14 stories); modelling effective practice (12 stories); and, mirroring the real world (7 stories). There were, however, significant differences in the amount of coding required for these stories and the levels of digital technology modification undertaken.
Table 2 describes the level of digital technology modification evidence in the stories from each author (some stories involved more than one level of modification). All but 1 of Elke’s stories involved supplementing or replacing digital technologies provided by the school. This suggests some significant perceived limitations with the school digital technology environment. David’s stories were almost evenly balanced between configuring provided digital technologies, or supplementing/replacing them with different digital technologies.
Table 2: Number of stories for each level of digital technology modification
|Type of change
4 of Elke’s stories and 10 of David’s stories of digital technology modification were designed to fill holes in the functionality provided by institutional technologies. In her very first story (Digital grading using Excel) Elke outlines her use of Excel spreadsheets to supplement the school’s requirement that teachers update paper-based student profiles located within a dedicated physical folder kept in the head-of-department’s office. Her use of Excel spreadsheets to supplement the required practice provided necessary support for teacher tasks such as maintaining student progress records and discussing progress with individual students, support missing from the practice required by the school. In the story “Web scraping to contact not submits” David describes a similar hole in an institutionally provided technology. In this story, the University’s online assignment management system provides no mechanism by which students who have not submitted an assignment and have not received an extension can be identified and contacted. Instead, David had to use a combination of Perl scripts, regular expressions, manual copying and pasting, and an email client to fill the hole. The value and difficulty in making this particular modification is illustrated by the following quote from a student
Thank you for contacting me in regards to the submission. You’re the first staff member to ever do that so I appreciate this a lot.
6 of Elke’s stories and 6 of David’s stories of digital technology modification were intended to improve student learning. These were all driven by a combination of modelling the effective use of digital technologies and/or adopting enhanced pedagogical practices. In “Moviemaker to introduce teacher and topics” Elke describes how the production of a movie (trailer) is intended to model the use of digital technologies to visually present information, but also to engage students. In “Course barometers via Google forms” David describes how functionality provided by the University LMS is replaced with Google forms as a way to more effectively gather student feedback, but also model a technology that they may be able to use in their practice. That both authors primarily teach in subjects related to the use of digital technologies would appear to suggest that prevalence of the modelling theme would likely be reduced for teachers of other areas.
4 of Elke’s stories and 3 of David’s stories suggest that the institutionally provided digital technologies do not always appropriately mirror the capabilities of real-world technologies and subsequently negatively impact learning and teaching. Both authors share stories about how the visual and content capabilities of institutional learning management systems fail to mirror the diversity, quality, and capabilities of available online technologies, including social networking software. Consequently, both authors tell stories of creating teaching related websites on external blog engines. In “Creating a teaching website with Edublogs” Elke outlines the visual and functional limitations of the official Learning Management System (LMS) and how use of Edublogs saved teacher time, was more visually appealing, and provided a more authentic experience services students are likely to encounter in the real-world. Elke also tells stories where computer hardware and network bandwidth provided by the school to students is supplemented through use of personal resources from both students and herself. The story “Encourage student use of phone hot-spots” tells of how the widespread inability of school Internet connections to fulfil learning needs was addressed by encouraging those students with access to use their mobile phone hot spots.
In general, the modification of institutional digital technologies does not come without problems, risks, or costs. Both authors make mention of the additional workload required to implement the changes described, especially when such changes aren’t directly supported or encouraged by the institution. Such cost can be assuaged through on-going use of the changes and the benefits they generate. However, these types of changes can challenge institutional polices and be frowned upon by management. In “Hacking look and feel” David describes how an institutionally mandated, default look and feel for course websites was modified to avoid a decrease in functionality. A story that also describes how the author had to respond to a “please explain” message from the institutional hierarchy and was for a time seen as “hacking” the institution’s online presence. Similarly, in “Encouraged students to hot-spot with their phones to connect to the web” Elke describes one digital technology modification that both broke institutional policy, but also enhanced student learning. It is not hard to foresee situations where the outcomes of these stories may well have been considerably more negative for those involved.
What if? Discussion, implications and questions
The perception of digital technologies as protean does not appear widespread within educational institutions. What if our digital technologies were protean? The following explores some of the implications that might arise if your education institution provided an environment rich with protean digital technologies (ERPDT). Such an environment would be designed to enable, encourage, and support all teachers and learners to engage in the modification of digital technologies to create the tools necessary to best support their learning and teaching. We focus on the ERPDT because as noted by Resnick and Rosenbaum (2013) tinkerability requires a focus on both the technology and the context. The following does not and cannot offer an exhaustive set of implications. Instead it seeks to outline those implications for practice, policy, and research of interest and relevance to the authors. The aim is to start a discussion about these implications and inspire further work. The implications are framed as a series of “implication families” organised into three categories: implementation, computational thinking; and, learning and teaching. Each “implication family” is framed around a specific question related to its category, starts with a brief explanation and rationale, and finishes with a incomplete list of related questions.
Experience suggests that there are few, if any, educational institutions that provide an ERPDT. It appears that few organisations of any type provide an ERPDT. As such an ERPDT represents a significant departure from common conceptions of and practices around digital technologies. Hence the design, implementation, and support of an ERPDT will be extremely challenging. Without the successful implementation of an ERPDT all other questions become academic.
How do you create an ERPDT?
While few organisations provide an ERPDT there is a variety of research and development work that promises to provide principles upon which to base the design of an ERPDT. Perhaps closest to this paper is research focused on the design of digital technologies for learning and teaching. Grover and Pea (2013) draw on work creating computationally rich environments for learners to identify a range of potential principles including: low floor, high ceiling; support for the “use-modify-create” progression; scaffolding; enable transfer; support equity; and, be systemic and sustainable. Resnick and Rosenbaum (2013) identify three core principles for designing for tinkerability: immediate feedback; fluid experimentation; and, open exploration. They also emphasise the importance of modifying the broader context so that it encourages tinkerability. Matuk et. al. (2015) identify: four kinds of customisations made by teachers; three technology features that support teacher customisation of curriculum materials; and, offer preliminary design principles for protean curriculum materials . What technology features are useful or required for an ERPDT to effectively support learning, learners, teaching, and teachers? Are there schools or other organisations that already have ERPDTs? If so, what can be learned from those examples? What are the necessary characteristics of an ERPDT? What are the most effective design principles for an ERPDT? Where do the characteristics and principles of an ERPDT clash with existing practices? How can this clash be handled?
How might safety, risk management and related challenges be handled?
Accountability, student safety, and risk management are topics important to management and a range of other education actors. These are all topics that involve and require elements of control. An ERPDT involves disrupting, removing, or distributing control beyond existing structures. What types of disruptions to control and other topics are necessary for an effective ERPDT? Are such disruptions appropriate within existing cultural norms and practices? What new practices and conceptions are practical or desireable?
Does an ERPDT help produce more effective digital environments?
Almost 40 years ago, Kay and Goldberg (1977) recognised that any digital technology that attempted to anticipate the needs of a diverse user population would end up as “a disastrous feature-laden hodgepodge which would not be really suitable for anyone” (p. 40). The largest category of digital technology modification stories gathered for this paper were those focused on filling holes in the functionality offered by existing digital technologies. Suggesting that the digital environments experienced by the authors are examples of the “hodgepodge” problem. Would an ERPDT encourage the creation and sharing of digital technologies that are more appropriate to the context and needs of teachers and learners? Would this lead to improvements in learning, teaching, and administration? What challenges would need to be faced? How might context specificity be balanced with the potential for reuse?
The stories of digital technology modification in this paper are arguably examples of computational thinking. The stories describe attempts by individual teachers to solve learning and teaching problems through an understanding of human behaviour and drawing on computer science concepts to modify digital technologies.
What comes first: the ERPDT, or computationally thinking teachers?
This is the chicken and egg problem. Modifying digital technologies requires some level of ability with computational thinking. An effective ERPDT would seek to reduce the required level, but some ability would be required. One of the identified problems with the integration of digital technology into pedagogy and curriculum is the limited technical knowledge of teachers. It is typically the minority of teachers with appropriate levels of knowledge that use digital technologies in pedagogy and curriculum. Will providing an ERPDT suffer the same problems? Will just a minority of teachers make use of it, and thus limit its impact? Should all teachers undergo professional development to have sufficient skills prior to using the ERPDT? Or, can principles from situated and distributed cognition (Jones, Heffernan, & Albion, 2015), and emergent development promise different and better outcomes? Will the potential of an ERPDT provide support for teachers to make “use of new technologies to enhance their personal work before learning to use them in their teaching” (Lankshear & Bigum, 1999, p. 453)? If you build an ERPDT, will teachers and learners ability increase?
How would it impact the integration of computational thinking into schools?
Margolis (2008) identifies classroom practices associated with the teaching of computer science in schools as “disconnected from students’ lives, seemingly devoid of real-life relevance” (p. 102). It appears likely that teachers with little knowledge or authentic experience with computational thinking will find it difficult to address the problems Margolis and others have identified. Does an ERPDT increase the ability for teachers to observe and engage in authentic practice of computational thinking? How does this experience impact their ability to develop authentic computational thinking learning experiences? Does an ERPDT help teachers fit and more authentically integrate computational thinking into an already crowded curriculum?
Does computational thinking require the use of coding?
Voogt et. al. (2015) explain that programming, computer science, and computational thinking are intertwined, but not equivalent. They suggest that programming “is but one context for the practice of Computer Science and Computational Thinking” (Voogt et al., 2015, p. 718). This echoes ideas from the computational thinking literature that suggest that computational thinking does not necessarily involve programming or computers. Others argue that introducing computational thinking without computers “may be keeping learners from the crucial computational experiences involved in CT’s common practice” (Grover & Pea, 2013, p. 40). It is difficult to see how the teaching of computational thinking without the use of digital technologies will effectively help students better understand today’s digitalised society, or help address the perceived shortage of ICT-skilled employees. As mentioned above 0 of Elke’s stories of digital technology modification required coding.
Is programming the only way you can apply computational thinking within the context of digital technologies? Does the configuration and combination of protean digital technologies provide an appropriate environment for developing and applying computational thinking? What is lost and gained when computational thinking is taught within the context of digital technologies, but without reliance on coding? Does an ERPDT provide a more effective context for learning and applying computational thinking? Is such an environment a more appropriate representation of today’s digitalised society? Is the assumption that coding is the only way to apply computational thinking using digital technologies indicative of people who have not experienced an ERPDT? What are the relative value and roles played by configuring, combining, and coding protean digital technologies in developing computational thinking for both learners and teachers? In terms of configuring, combining, and coding protean digital technologies, where does digital or computational literacy end, and computational thinking begin?
Is this anything more than techno-solutionism?
Is the idea of an ERPDT just another example of techno-solutionism? Is it yet another attempt to solve a complex problem by focusing on a technological solution, rather than seriously investigating the complex historical and social factors that contribute to the problem? How might an ERPDT be any different in its impact than the introduction of IWBs or the Digital Education Revolution? Will it be yet another of those “over-hyped, pre-configured digital products and practices that are being imported continually” (2013, p. 3) into education settings? Or is an ERPDT likely to enable the type of mass participation in the production of digital technology for educators that is required to help realise the disruptive and democratising possibilities of digital technology in education? Are teachers with already significant constraints on their time going to have the capacity and motivation to engage with an ERPDT? Will the highly contextual potential of an ERPDT generate sufficient perceived benefits to encourage engagement?
Learning, teaching, and ICT integration
All of the stories of digital technology modification analysed here involved the use of computational thinking to improve aspects of learning and teaching. What implications might an ERPDT hold for learning, teaching, and the use of digital technologies to enhance and transform student learning.
Does an ERPDT increase the level of TPACK?
For Shulman (1987) the knowledge unique to a teacher is that required to “transform the content knowledge he or she possesses into forms that are pedagogical powerful and yet adaptive to the variations in ability and background presented by the students” (p. 15). Mishra & Koehler (2006) suggest that quality teaching involves developing “context-specific strategies and representations” (p. 1029) by “developing a nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between technology, content, and pedagogy” (p. 1029) or Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge (TPACK). Does an ERPDT help teachers develop TPACK and respond to context-specific requirements? Does it help improve the quality of student learning? Does an ERPDT encourage more teachers to effectively use digital technologies to enhance and transform student learning? Might an ERPDT be the key enabler in the successful transformation of learning and teaching through digital technologies?
This paper has posed the question “What if our digital technologies were protean?” To answer this question the paper has explored what is meant by protean digital technologies and analysed stories of digital technology modification from a high-school teacher and a teacher educator. Analysis of these stories revealed that they were driven by attempts to improve aspects of learning and/or teaching either to: fill holes in existing digital technologies; model effective practice with digital technologies; or, to better mirror real world digital technologies. Only 7 of 26 stories of digital technology modification required use of coding. The majority of digital technology modification stories involved the configuration or combination of digital technologies. Drawing on these experiences the paper has identified an incomplete and initial set of implications that ma arise from an educational institution providing an environment rich with protean digital technologies (ERPDT). These implications appear to offer some interesting avenues for future research and perhaps for practitioners and policy makers. Largely because there appears to be little current recognition within schools or broader society that digital technologies are protean, or that both learners and teachers should be actively engaged in creatively configuring, combining, and coding these digital technologies to solve problems and innovate. That is, there appears to be little recognition and support for the idea of learners and teachers engaging in computational thinking to solve problems with their own learning. The authors suspect that an ERPDT may help encourage this practice and consequently may be a key enabler of attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy.
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