The Role of Tech vs The Purpose of Education

Working in the field of digital media and learning, where the important role of new technologies in learning seems self-evident, the slow pace of change in mainstream education can feel frustrating. Responding to this challenge, we give a lot of attention to thinking about ways to support and encourage teachers to make greater use of the opportunities presented by digital media, but perhaps we should spend more time considering how and why technologies come to be used, or not used, in the first place.

Ambitious Goals for the Transformative Potential of Digital Media

Enthusiasm for the use of digital media in education stems from a number of very different places. For some, it’s about improving computing skills to support the digital economy and entrepreneurship; for others, learning to code is part of a subversive and empowering approach that enables ordinary people to take control of the structures they live and work within (see, for example, the excellent hackasaurus and codecademy projects). It can stem from a belief that schools need to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change in the modern world to remain relevant to students’ lives outside school or because digital media makes study more effective. It can reflect a desire to equip young people with the skills to participate in new media networks, or to defend themselves against pervasive and potentially harmful media messages. It can be seen as both opening up new educational inequalities and as a way to combat social disadvantage. And it can be a combination of any of the above and more.

Whatever the reasons behind enthusiasm for using digital media in education, it can quickly turn to frustration at what can seem to be a distinct lack of progress in mainstream classrooms. Schools routinely block social media sites, games are derided as a waste of time, students’ personal media devices are banned and they are forbidden inside school walls to make use of the networks they routinely draw on otherwise. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and lots of schools and teachers are engaged in imaginative use of digital media. Yet even where new technologies are highly integrated in mainstream classrooms, it often does not bring about the kinds of transformation suggested by some of the rationales listed above. For example, while the use of interactive whiteboards has become commonplace in UK schools, they are often used for the same kinds of teaching that would have taken place with blackboards.

A Bolder Sociological Imagination is Needed

The slow pace of adoption and limited transformation in mainstream classrooms leads to great interest in unpicking the ‘barriers’ to realizing the potential of digital media. Identifying barriers, it is presumed, will help them be overturned. Barriers are identified at the level of national policies, institutional regulations and practices, and individual teacher characteristics. Teachers who don’t use technology have come in for some bad press, being described as lacking understanding of digital media because they are too old to be ‘digital natives’ or as ‘technology-phobic’, suggesting they have an irrational fear of new technology. Recommendations for removing the barriers to technology use therefore often focus on persuading teachers about the benefits of digital media and providing them with the skills and knowledge to use new media effectively as well as calling for policy to remove regulations and encourage greater technology use in education.

But this rush to identify and remove ‘barriers’ does not seem to take seriously teachers’ agency in how, and more importantly, why, they choose to use digital media. The reasons why teachers are not using digital media, or using it in some ways and not others, can seem to be problems to be overcome rather than issues to be taken seriously.

As I was writing this blog post, I was following the DML2012 conference opening keynote on the twitterstream, and I was struck by the following quote from Diana Rhoten, tweeted by @careysargent, amongst others:

“Educational change is not constrained by lack of technology but a lack of sociological imagination” D Rhoten #DML2012”

This underscores the disjuncture between the enthusiasm for encouraging technology use in education, and the social and societal changes that enthusiasts are hoping to bring about. A narrow focus on removing barriers to using digital media in the classroom can mean losing sight of these far more ambitious dreams.

Rewriting the Narratives of Technology and Education

But if we are going to pursue these more transformational aims then we need to start with a better understanding of where we are now. Rather than asking ‘why don’t teachers use digital media in their classrooms’ we need to start with a more careful analysis of ‘how do teachers come to use (or not use) digital media in the ways they do?’ Addressing this question would mean acknowledging that technology use is not simply a matter of overcoming reluctance or practical barriers, but a complex weaving of individual teachers’ professional identities, their views about technology, and their values about education and how it relates to wider social, economic and political concerns. These values and ideas contribute to a narrative about what digital media might have to offer a particular teacher in a particular classroom at a particular time. But it is also important to acknowledge that teachers have to work hard to juggle these individual narratives alongside broader, and sometimes contradictory, institutional and social narratives about education and technology. A focus on removing barriers that does not also take seriously these narratives, is likely to, at best, result in the kind of use that is far from the transformational ideals outlined above.

Unpicking the nature of these narratives and how they relate to the ways in which technologies are actually understood and used in real, mainstream classrooms may help us think more clearly about how we pursue a more transformational agenda of change.

We also need to pay more attention to interrogating our own narratives of the transformational change we hope to bring about. The rationales outlined at the beginning of the post stem from very different values and ideals and in many cases are contradictory. While most of us in the field of digital media and learning agree that new technologies have something interesting and important to offer education, there are real differences in the changes we hope to see follow.

If the arrival of digital media technology in our classrooms is to bring about the kind of transformational change that many hope for, then getting it used in classrooms may not be the most important part of the process. Perhaps discussions about the role of technology in our classrooms can open up a space where we can make visible and begin to rewrite the narratives about what education is and what it’s for. Why don’t teachers use digital media in the classroom is the wrong question; what we need to ask is how digital media comes to be used in the ways it is. With a bolder exercise of our sociological imagination, we can advance the conversation from questions about how to get digital media being used more in mainstream classrooms to a conversation about how digital media might allow us to re-imagine our education systems and the purpose of education.

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