There is something about human nature that draws us towards dichotomous patterns of thought; an all or nothing, us or them style of thinking in which an option is either good or it is bad. In such a model complexity and subtle nuance with multiple possible outcomes and routes towards a goal are ignored. The field of educational technology is one where such a pattern is evident and recent ban on technology by a Sydney school shows how this style of analysis can have a significant impact on student learning.
A ban on technology is an approach that is guaranteed to draw a response. Fortunately, perhaps most have quickly derided this move labelling the decision antiquated and out of touch with reality. Sugata Mitra tweeted ‘Here is how to get things completely wrong.’ and Julie Lindsay’s response is well worth reading. Others have agreed with the decision and pointed towards student distractibility, online bullying and results on standardised assessment tests as indicators that such a ban is warranted. Beyond the hype of a ban on technology such a decision reveals a disappointing approach to education and learning that goes beyond the use of technology, a belief that learning is something that is intolerant of distraction.
Within the debate there are aspects of Dr Valance’s argument that have merit even if his response is misguided. Education is a social activity, driven by conversation and communication. Discussion, debate, argument, questioning and provocation are powerful elements of learning and an important part of what contributes to a dynamic and engaging learning environment. Where the argument falls down is when it is associated with a belief that the inclusion of technology in this mix will be to the detriment of a positive learning environment. The assumption is that access to ‘devices’ will be such a distraction that real learning will not occur.
To make this assertion a number of premises must be agreed to. Firstly, the face to face component must be seen as of lesser worth and be less engaging to the individuals than is the content delivered by their devices. It must also be accepted that it is not possible for content delivered by the device to be integrated with the face to face component and that it is not possible for this integration to add value. It must be accepted that other distractions such as a notepad, book or events taking place outside a window are significantly less than that presented by a device and that while we have developed strategies to manage other competing distractions we are incapable of managing distractions from devices.
Each of the premises upon which Dr Valance’s ban is predicated seem rather flawed. Surely high calibre teachers are capable of engaging students in discussion of topics so compelling that distractions of any nature are ignored. Our aim should be to build learning environments which are highly engaging, relevant and valued by all involved, if the learning is only relevant to the teacher then perhaps it should be changed or its significance to the students made clear. Understanding how our connected devices bring new opportunities to make connections beyond the four walls of our classrooms is an essential understanding to be developed. Effective teachers will show their students the power that such connections offer and encourage students to make full use of all of the tools at their disposal. As David Perkins of Harvard argues in ‘Future Wise’ digital tools should be included among the tools we use for learning. Connected devices should inject new opportunities, knowledge, data, influencers and thinking into our debates and add value not distraction.
The question of student distractibility is worth further exploration. The reality is that students have always found ways of distracting their attention from learning experiences that they have not valued. Passing notes, gazing out the window, doodling in the margins, reading a novel secreted under a desk, allowing the imagination to wander are past times every student has engaged in. Should we ban notepads in case students use the paper to pass notes? Do we ensure desks are clear of books which may cause distractions, walls clear of displays, windows covered by blinds all so that the students have no choice but to focus on us and to ensure that our lessons have nothing to compete with?
Much of this debate is centred around what has emerged as traditional uses of computers. This model sees our devices as replacements for existing modes of communication and as tools for accessing information. Texting, messaging, internet access and social chat are the limits of such a model. All of this has value and brings new opportunities for connectedness and collaboration on a global scale. But this model is limiting and limited in its understanding. Tracing back to Seymour Papert’s vision for computers within learning we see new opportunities for us to think about how we learn, how we think and how we construct knowledge. With the rise of algorithmic thinking, machine learning, artificial intelligence and an increasing need to understand how computers and networked data influences our decision making students need to move beyond using computers for content consumption or even creation and shift towards understanding how they function. As Papert asserts in Mindstorms ‘learning to communicate with a computer may change the way other learning takes place.’ (read more about ‘Computational Thinking')
Technology does not need to be a part of every aspect of our lives. We need to learn when it is the best tool, when it plays a part on the sidelines and when it is best left out of the equation. We need to see it as the tool that it is and understand how we may best use it to extend our capabilities. As teachers we need to reveal to our students how technology can assist their learning, how it can empower them and how it can if used inappropriately hinder. We need to understand the affordances of technology and utilise this knowledge to our student’s advantage allowing them to extend their learning beyond the classroom as they become connected learners. In doing these things we maximise student learning and ensure our students are prepared for the world beyond school. Blanket bans and oversimplifications of the debate around technology’s place serve no one except those fearful of a world where they as the teacher are no longer the centre of attention.
By Nigel Coutts