Friday, 14 February 2014

One Day Edtech Will Amplify Pedagogy Rather Than Stealing From It

Pedagogy ORIGIN: late C16th: from French pédagogie,
from Greek paidagōgia , from paidagōgos,  
Sometimes etymology can be wonderfully ironic.
This one is complicated.  Trying to work out the relationship between pedagogy, technology and money is the trial of our times.

The other day Alanna was reading a passage about how little technology has affected pedagogy.  Rather than revolutionize how we teach, technology has merely become a new, more efficient medium for the same practices, it's done nothing to advance pedagogical practice.  This got me thinking about the relationship between pedagogy and technology.  As I was pondering those two, money crept in, as it always does.

Pedagogy is a rather terrifyingly open concept, but I've always found its breadth to be its saving grace.  With a sweeping definition like "the method and practice of teaching", pedagogy is applicable to the full spectrum of teaching and learning, and that range is truly staggering.  Pedagogy can be found in everything from the coach who reduces their players to mush after a hard practice to the use of a chalkboard in a math class.  It lives in the first turn of a wrench by a budding mechanic and the circling of a grammar error by an exhausted English teacher.  That pedagogy is in everything related to teaching and learning is its greatest strength, it becomes an ideal in an education system that otherwise exists as a series of compromises.

In our real world of compromise pedagogy often makes uncomfortable demands.  This is where money sneaks in.  When we consider sound pedagogy, we consider best teaching practices to maximize learning.  But we don't go searching for best practices in an ideal environment, instead we attempt as much effective pedagogy as the money allows.  Good pedagogical practice costs money.  Educational technology costs (a lot of) money.  Both are reaching for the same finite, decreasing pot of funding; this can't end well.

Does this mean more money always equals better pedagogy?  Not at all, but pedagogy is one of the first things you see diminish in money challenged situations.  Poor schools tend to lack the student to teacher ratio or basic equipment to provide strong pedagogy.  Rich schools can offer smaller class sizes and better trained teachers, both of which support sound pedagogy.  That these pedagogically proven concepts have to compete with the same funding that feeds ed-tech is where the equation gets more complicated.

Digital technology, an expensive new medium of communication, offers unprecedented access to information and democratizes publication.  There is no doubt that it is important as both a skill to learn and a tool with which to learn other things (though education seldom recognizes that distinction and just assumes digital natives magically know how to make technology an effective tool).

Outside education, digital communication has revolutionized everything from manufacturing to broadcasting.  Inside education it has let students type the same essay assignment they would have done on pen and paper twenty years ago, though it has made plagiarism easier.  Instead of making a poster for a presentation, students can now make digital presentations.  All technology has done in education is to offer a faddish means of producing the same old work we've always done.  That faddishness appears to take care of the dreaded engagement problem, which excites many boring people.

Digital technology hardly seems revolutionary in the school context.  If all we're using it for is as a replacement for paper then it's just a new, more expensive, less environmentally friendly way of doing what we've always done.  If technology doesn't have an additive relationship with pedagogy it's a lost cause, and from what I've seen it doesn't.  It does however take a lot of limited funding away from other, proven pedagogical strategies.

The money creep goes further than stagnant pedagogical practice.  It turns out you can make a lot of money convincing educational systems to buy in to technology.  Even if your teachers aren't considering digital pedagogy, someone still gets rich pushing it.  There is no doubt that money and technology go hand in hand, and with limited funding, as edtech eats more everything else gets diminished by necessity.

When ed-tech eats a big piece of the education pie the assumption arises that the technology itself provides the pedagogy, so you don't need to (that appearance of engagement pushes this thinking).  Giving students already overdosing on habitual, uninspired technology use technology in the classroom is a recipe for pedagogical disaster.  The relationship between technology and the actual process of learning is tenuous at best.  It only gets worse if we assume the use of technology will magically produce engaged, productive learners.  Engaged maybe, productive?  Not so much.  This peaks when the teacher then throws the same assignment they've been doing for fifteen years on a Google-doc and calls it 21st Century learning.  What we end up with is a poor learning environment ripe with distractions that encourages the same habitual use students are already mired in.

The engagement we're so excited about in educational technology is a smoke-screen.  It is little more than us giving addicts access to more of what they already have too much of and don't know how to effectively leverage.


What is digital pedagogy?  What does digital educational technology allow us to do better in terms of the actual learning process?  Until we answer this question edtech is nothing more than an expensive environmental disaster that has us producing digital dummies.

To appreciate what technology could do for education it might help to see what it's doing for
The Third Industrial Revolution
everything else.  Manufacturing, once a large scale, capital driven process, is becoming accessible to smaller and smaller concerns.  Where once you had to buy million dollar milling machines and the experts to maintain and run them, you can now manufacture complex parts in a small machine shop using digital tools.  Not only  does this free us from a production line mentality, it also frees us from production line products.  We're moving further and further away from Henry Ford's idea of product customization.  Digitization is allowing for smaller runs of customized parts in more niche workshops.  As the Economist says in the link above, this really is the birth of a third industrial revolution, the re-democratization of craftsmanship and personalization in production.

Broadcasting has been staggered by digitization.  From a music industry that was forced to change decades of old habits to television that has had to diversify offerings just to remain relevant in a world that can suddenly tell its own stories, digital media and the internet have fundamentally changed how we see ourselves in media.

1920s office, look familiar?
Over the course of the Twentieth Century education has been influenced by industrial methods of production even more than business itself.  The classroom, the school bell, the rows of desks, it all points to a Taylorist love of systematization.  It seeks to quantify and sort people in the most cost effective manner possible.  In order to do that it clings to ideas of standardization because it believes this leads to credibility.  It happily ignores sound pedagogy in a blind charge toward clinical efficiency, it's the most perfect example of a production line ever developed.

What if, as in broadcasting or manufacturing, education were to consider how digital technology could re-individualize education?  Instead of producing modernist widget-students we could use digitization to embrace radical customization.  The systemic methods we use in education - the marking, the timed classrooms, the report cards - are there to process as many students as possible as efficiently as possible.  We reduce them to numbers because we don't have the resources to treat them like people.  What if educational technology solved that problem instead of replacing paper?

A sufficiently complex Learning Management System would assist in assessment and maintain a current and complex analysis of student achievement.  We see this in a very rudimentary way in online systems like Code Academy, where students are able to review their learning and get acknowledged for their achievements but can only proceed when they have demonstrated sufficient understanding.  The immediate benefit is that each student can move at their own pace.  LMSs should be driving toward this level of complexity, instead they are used as replacements for handouts.

Digitization offers us an opportunity to individualize learning once again.  After a couple of centuries mimicking industrial practices education has a chance to reinvent itself as a digitally empowered, personally focused system of learning, like pre-industrial apprenticeships but on a massive scale.

What does a post-industrial, digitally enhanced, individualized education system look like?  In that relationship, technology enhances pedagogy, it doesn't eclipse it.  In that relationship there may be monetary efficiencies, but they are a byproduct rather than the point of technology implementation.  In no instance would pedagogy be financially victimized by educational technology.

If you're still 'teaching' information, you'll quickly find yourself irrelevant in a post industrial education.  In a world where information is abundant, the ability to access it is more important than the ability to afford a teacher to say it to you.  Skills development will still be a vital piece of the education puzzle, and skills based teachers who develop understanding through experience will always have a role, but information delivery is a dying art, assuming we begin teaching effective technology use.

The LMS used in future school is a constantly evolving construct that can access all facets of a student's learning.  This virtual assessment tool doesn't just review a student's ability to retrieve information, but instead looks at them holistically.  In assessing their skills and knowledge, a future LMS would consider learning habits and then suggest individualized tactics for producing best results.  A teacher would be able to see a student's zone of proximal development before trying to assist them (I have a live graphic playing in my head of what this would look like).  Your progress as a learner includes everything from demonstrated writing ability to the most complex numeracy you're shown.  It considers your patterns of absence, when you produce your best work and who you do it with.  That future LMS is actually an learning management system, not a glorified webpage.  It can reach across other systems to see examples of student progress in a variety of ways.  When a student activates their LMS it supports their learning and aids a teacher in both teaching and assessment.  Perhaps the modern, virtual equivalent of a paidagōgos.

Instead of being an onerous task done poorly by time harrowed teachers through a computer system that merely mimics the paper based reporting system before it, post-industrial student assessment is detailed, accurate, holistic and personalized.  The machine assists the teacher in customizing the education of each student instead of just producing neater, printed reports of letters, numbers and generic comment banks.

Wouldn't that be something, if digital technology were to amplify sound pedagogy and revolutionize our industrialized education system into something personally meaningful?  Until we break the mould and begin leveraging digital technology for what it is capable of, we're just diverting money from the task at hand: effective pedagogical practice.