Schools and computers: Tales of a digital romance

It’s the last week of semester, EDC3100 ICTs and Pedagogy is drawing to a close and I’m putting together the last bit of activities/resources for the students in the course. Most are focused on the last assignment and in particular a final essay that asks them to evaluate their use of ICTs while on their three week Professional Experience where they were in schools and other locations teaching. Perhaps the most challenging activity I’d like them to engage in is questioning their assumptions around learning, teaching and the application of ICTs. A particularly challenging activity given that much of what passes for the use of ICTs – including much of my own work – in formal education hasn’t been very effective at questioning assumptions.

As one of the scaffolds for this activity I am planning to point the students toward Bigum (2012) as one strategy to illustrate questioning of assumptions. The following is a summary of my attempt to extract some messages from Bigum (2012) that I think are particularly interesting in the context of EDC3100. It also tracks some meanderings around related areas of knowledge.

Background

The rapid pace of change in terms of computing is made through some stats from Google’s CEO – every two days the world produces more information “than had been produced in total from the origin of the species to 2003” (p. 16)

Yet, if you return to 30 years ago, schools had more computers than the general community. A situation that is now reversed. Later in the paper Finger and Lee (2010) is cited as finding

For the class of 30 children the total home expenditure for computing and related technologies was $438,200. The expenditure for the classroom was $24,680. Even allowing for the sharing in families, the difference between the two locations is clearly significant.

Rather than transform or revolutionise the processes and outcomes of schooling, “it is hard to suggest that anything even remotely revolutionary has actually taken place”.

But once schools adjusted to these initial perturbations,schooling continued on much as it always had. More than this, schools learnt how to domesticate new technologies (Bigum 2002 ) , or as Tyack and Cuban ( 1995 , p. 126) put it, “computers meet classrooms, classrooms win.”

This observation fits with the expressed view that

schools have consistently attempted to make sense of “new” technologies by locating them within the logics and ways of doing things with which schools were familiar. (p. 17)

and the broader view that the “grammar of school”, in particular some of Papert’s observations. In particular, the interpretation of the computer/ICTs as a “teaching machine” rather than other interpretations, in Papert’s case constructionist related.

(Side note: in revisiting Papert’s “Why School Reform is Impossible” I’ve become more aware of this distinction Papert made

“Reform” and “change” are not synonymous. Tyack and Cuban clinched my belief that the prospects really are indeed bleak for deep change coming from deliberate attempts to impose a specific new form on education. However, some changes, arguably the most important ones in social cultural spheres, come about by evolution rather than by deliberate design — by what I am inspired by Dan Dennett (1994) to call “Darwinian design.”

This has some significant implications for my own thinking that I need to revisit.)

Budding romance

The entry of micro-computers into schools around the 80s was in part enabled by their similarity to calculators that had been used since the mid 1970s.

The similarities allowed teachers to imagine how to use the new technologies in ways consistent with the old…..for a technology to fi nd acceptance it has to generate uses.

which led to the development of applications for teaching and administrative work.

This led to the rise of vendors selling applications and the marketing of computers as “an unavoidable part of the educational landscape of the future”. At this stage, computers may have become like television, radio and video players – other devices already in classrooms (connecting somewhat here with Papert’s “computers as teaching machine” comment above). But a point of difference arose from the increasing spread of computers into other parts of society as solutions to a range of problems. ICTs were increasingly linked “with such seemingly desirable characteristics as ‘improvement’, ‘efficiency’ and, by extension, educational status” (p. 19).

Perhaps the strongest current indicator of this linkage (at least for EDC3100 students) is the presence of the ICT Capability in the Australian Curriculum. Not something that has happened with the other “teaching machines”.

Hence it became increasingly rational/obvious that schools had to have computers. What was happening with computers outside schools became an “evidence surrogate” for schools, i.e.

if ICTs are doing so much for banking, newspapers, or the military, it stands to reason that they are or can do good things in schooling. (p. 20)

This leads to comparison studies, each new wave of ICTs (e.g. iPads) come hand in hand with a new raft of comparison studies. Studies that are “like comparing oranges with orangutans”.

However, despite the oft-cited “schools + computers = improvement” claim, what computers are used for in schools is always constrained by dominant beliefs about how schools should work. (p. 20)

Domestic harmony

This is where the “grammar of school” or the schema perspective comes in.

Seeing new things in terms of what we know is how humans initially make sense of the new. When cars fi rst appeared they were talked about as horseless carriages. The fi rst motion pictures were made by filming actors on a stage and so on.

School leaders and teachers make decisions about which technologies fit within schools current routines and structures. If there is no fit, then ban it. Not to mention that “the more popular a particular technology is with students the greater the chance it will be banned”.

While the adoption of ICTs into schools begins with an aim of improvement, it often ends up with “integrating them into existing routines, deploying them to meet existing goals and, generally, failing to engage with technologies in ways consistent with the world beyond the classroom” (p. 22).

Summarising the pattern

Schools enter a cycle of identifying, buying and domesticating the “next best thing” on the assumption that there will be improvements to learning. With the increasing time/cost of staying in this game, there are more attempts to measure the improvement. Factors that are not measurable get swept under the carpet.

The folly of looking for improvement

The focus on improvement “reduces much debate about computers in schools to the level of right/wrong; good/bad; improved/not improved”.

Beyond this is the idea that “ICTs change things”. Sproull and Kiesler’s (1991) research

clearly demonstrates that when you introduce a technology, a new way of doing things into a setting, things change and that seeking to “assess” the change or compare the new way of doing things with the old makes little sense

An approach that is holistic, that does not separate social and technological allows a shift from looking at what has improved to looking to see what has changed. Changes that “may have very little to do with what was hoped for or imagined”.

Three different mindsets

This type of approach enables two mindsets currently informing current debates/practice to be questioned. Those mindsets are

  1. Embrace ICTs to improve schools

    This mindset sees schools doing well in preparing students for the future. The curriculum is focused on getting the right answer and teaching is focused on how to achieve this. Research here performs comparison studies, looking for improvement and the complexities of teaching with ICTs is embodied in concepts such as TPACK.

    This is the mindset that underpins much of what is in EDC3100.

  2. Schools cannot be improved, by ICTs or any other means.

    The idea that ICTs herald a change as significant as movable type. Connections with the de-schooling movement in terms of schools, that are based on a broadcast logic, will face the same difficulties facing newspapers, record companies etc. A mindset in which improving schools is a waste of time.

Proposes a different mindset, summarised as

  • Schools face real challenges and need to change.
  • Rather replace the current single solution with another, there is a need to “encourage a proliferation of thinking about and doing school differently”.
  • There is a need to focus on change and not measurement, on the social and not just the technical.
  • That this can help disrupt traditional relationships including those between: schools and knowledge, knowledge and children, children and teachers, and learners and communities.

References

Bigum, C. (2012). Schools and computers: Tales of a digital romance. In L. Rowan & C. Bigum (Eds.), Transformative Approaches to New Technologies and student diversity in futures oriented classrooms: Future Proofing Education (pp. 15–28). London: Springer.

One thought on “Schools and computers: Tales of a digital romance

  1. Besides the idea you mentioned about fitting new ICT into the existing mentality I think that two significant other considerations have been working against effectiveness:
    1–experimental use of new ICT is often about the device itself and not about the teaching and learning. That is, the cart is often put before the horse. The wrong question is being asked. Instead of the more general, “How can we improve Teaching & Learning in ___(subject area or outcome)___? This is asked instead: “How can I use ___(new toy)___ in the classroom?”
    2–decision making around ICT integration is often based on sketchy reasoning and often just by one person. The integration is ICT is a big deal and should be done by a team, not a glory-seeking individual. Hope that doesn’t sound tooooo cynical :>)

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