Why might we want to learn Digital Technologies?

 Understanding the “Why” of any initiative should be a key step prior to implementation. Without a clear understanding of our “Why” how are we to judge the success of what we are implementing. How will we know which steps take us in the right direction if we have no concept of why we are journeying. In our implementation of ICT (Information & Communication Technologies) and now Digital Technologies, a lack of clarity on the matter of “Why" has often been the most significant challenge to success. 

While it is an unavoidable reality that technology has changed our society, is continuing to bring transformation to all aspects of our lives and our workplaces and that this is a pattern unlikely to change, the place that education should play in education continues as a somewhat grey area. To dabble on the fringes of the false-dichotomy, the use of ICT is to either facilitate learning or it is content, skills and tools that students must master. 

Hammond outlines the perceived benefits of ICT integration to schools as being linked to positive impact on standards, vocational relevance and as a catalyst for curriculum change. In each instance Hammond argues that research does not indicate that ICT has met these goals. Perhaps the most interesting observation is found in the statement, 'In particular, the use of ICT has been unquestioned, policy has focused on adoption rather than pedagogy, and beliefs about ICT are characterised by determinism’. The unquestioned adoption of technology fueled by those who are passionate about its use has led to forced integration of technology and an expanding educational technology marketplace with little real thought given to its purposes. 

Educational technology for much of its short history seems to have been stuck between the two dominant models of education with a foot in the content delivery camp and one in the constructivist, student centered one. Technologies such as Interactive Whiteboards and Learning Management Systems (LMS) may bring new affordances, but if their use remains consistent with traditional pedagogical models of the teacher delivering content then their ultimate value is limited. For many the use of ICT has centered around its use in ways that are designed to bring learners and the curriculum's prescribed content together with perhaps some option for online discussion. LMS options and online courses presented in parallel to face to face learning scenarios offer little real differentiation and the value add of the technology can be minimal. 

There are some significant forces changing the landscape of teaching with technology and this is reflected in a bifurcation of the curriculum into two strands. Information & Communication Technologies continue to play their part as a tool for learning and for communication. Alongside this there is an increasing understanding that mainstream curriculums need to provide learners with the capacity to be producers of digital solutions. 

In the traditional areas of technology use, what has traditionally been labelled as ICT, the maturity of present day operating systems and devices has removed most of the barriers to use that existed previously and today we have systems that allow the technology to move to the background. The modern learner expects technology to just work and to be designed in ways that allow the user to quickly master its interface. In the modern world of low cost Apps, if you design a product that requires a manual or that has a steep learning curve you are bound to fail in the market. The evolution of technology from ‘geek toy’ to mainstream consumer device has allowed teachers to focus on the learning enabled by the devices rather than devoting significant time to learning the technology. 

This does not mean that the use of ICT is without challenges. With the ease of use has come the challenge of how we manage the potential of modern devices to distract us from other tasks. Educators face the challenge of teaching students to take control of their technology use, to manage screen time and to avoid the lure of social media and gaming. New dangers have emerged as a result of our connectedness and the social world of our young people has been transformed. Our young people need to learn how to manage their online profile and avoid the very real threat of being exploited by adults. In the pre-digital world, the social blunders we made were mostly contained to a small circle of possible connections. Today we learn the norms of society in a very public setting and our mistakes linger on as our ever-present digital footprint. 

At the other end of the spectrum we see an increased understanding that the solutions we create, to solve the problems we encounter will demand knowledge of the possibilities of digital technologies. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, physical computing using Arduino and other system on a chip models merge with cultures of making and small scale manufacturing processes to bring new affordances that shift learning beyond content transfer. This is not technology as a tool for learning content or skills that were traditionally taught by a teacher but technology as the product of our problem solving.

It is right to question the validity of teaching all students this new Digital Technology. The automobile transformed society but we did not teach all students to be mechanics. Why should all students learn to code or be taught to solve problems through computational thinking? Perhaps the answer lies in the breath of change that comes with Digital Technology. Every aspect of our modern life is set to be disrupted in some way by the continued expansion of technology. In particular, it will become increasingly normal for technology to be blended into our working lives and a future where our workmates include machines is predicted to be the norm. Our infrastructure (electrical supplies, traffic networks, financial systems etc.) is largely built on now outdated technology and the systems which control it are increasingly susceptible to malfeasance and this will require new thinking if the chaos of disrupted systems is to be avoided. It is also very much the case that the next evolution of the products and systems we rely on will involve a shift to digital systems and those who are able to design these systems will be able to reap the rewards. 

Perhaps the logic for understanding at least a little of how digital technology functions is that it will exist increasingly in the background.  Our world view is already largely shaped by the algorithms which function behind the scenes to control what platforms like Facebook and all the large online media platforms put in front of our eyeballs. That the potential to alter the outcomes of an election through the manipulation of algorithms which modify the news cycle and shape public opinion is a reality points to the importance of understanding how digital technologies function.

 By Nigel Coutts

Hammond, M. (2014), Introducing ICT in schools in England: Rationale and consequences. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45: 191–201. doi: 10.1111/bjet.12033