The Education Technology backlash begins….

Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington College  

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THE wind is changing.  The movement to turn the use of technology in schools into the educational equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes is gathering pace. The hysteria surrounding the introduction of greater technology in the classroom has, it would seem, finally generated a backlash.  A hysterical response to the hysteria, perhaps?  A new day brings a new report from the OECD about technology in schools with a predictable response from the media. “Computers do not improve pupils’ results says OECD” was the headline take on this report followed by an exposition on why technology is not the answer. Well, here’s the funny thing: nobody ever said that it was!  For that matter, neither did anyone suggest that unlimited use of mobile devices in and outside the classroom was a sensible way forward.

It is worth looking behind the headlines generated from the OECD report.  Its main finding is that investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance.  Well, as my grandad used to say, you could knock me down with a feather!  Seriously, have you ever heard a more obvious conclusion?  No educator, even the most technically minded, would ever suggest that simply buying and using more kit is going to result in improved educational standards.  In the same way that buying more footballs for the England team won’t help us to win the World Cup.

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The problem seems to be that all of the ills of modern technology – perceived or real – are being lumped into one giant catch-all argument that is increasingly asking educators to take sides: are you in “Team Technology” or “Team Old School”?  This is no way to conduct an educational debate that can, and almost certainly will, revolutionise classroom learning over the next two decades.

The starting point for any nation, school or individual teacher considering use of new pedagogy in the classroom should be the simple question: will the change I am about to make improve the learning process and outcomes for the children in my charge?  Notice no use of the word technology here as the question remains the same for any new idea or classroom methodology.  In some instances, the answer will be no; in others, yes.  The very best examples of the use of technology I have seen have been when schools or teachers have started out by defining what they want to achieve and then they worked backwards in order to ascertain how best to achieve it.  In some cases this involved utilising new ideas and technology; in other cases it did not.  Cause and effect.   Raising the standard of education should be the cause with technology (sometimes) the effect; the Reporting of the OECD report and others reverses this methodology by defining technology as a cause in itself and then states, to the surprise of few, that it has no discernible, or even a detrimental, effect.

Forgive me if none of this seems like rocket science because, of course, it isn’t.  Interestingly, read closely behind the sensational headlines and you will find that most of the supposed protagonists have a surprising level of agreement, although the quotations used seem to be carefully selected to engender maximum animosity (and readability).  The result is a slow but noticeable entrenchment of respective positions with educators starting to identify themselves in one of the two camps.   In the early days of this discussion teachers who were unsure of technology seemed reluctant to state their concerns for fear of being seen as a luddite; these days you are more likely to find teachers enthusiastic about technology who do not like to speak up in case they look naive or, as one expert put it, “dazzled” by the use of technology.  This polarising of opinion makes for a good story and seems to capture the zeitgeist of an age in which the massive explosion of technology use in our everyday lives has caused a deepening suspicion.   In the process, we are stifling healthy educational debate about the best way in which to imbed new ideas for the benefit of the next generation.  And that is a tragedy.