Educational technology is the solution to the wrong problem, writes Peter Twining
The dominant education narrative in society today argues that education isn’t fit for purpose and that if we could solve that problem everything would be OK.

Generally this is linked to employment: if only schools and universities could develop the right attributes and competences in learners then there wouldn’t be a skills shortage (see Forbes“Two Sides Of The Same Coin: The Employment Crisis And The Education Crisis”).

‘Educational technology’ is often held up as the magic bullet that will solve the education problem. This is evident in stories of technology-enhanced learning such as those reported in the BBC Radio 4 programme My Teacher Is an App or, more recently, the BBC website story by Sean Coughlan, "Textbooks replaced by iTunes U downloads". It also explains the recent establishment of the Educational Technology Action Group (Etag) by these government minsters: enterprise and skills (Hancock), education (Gove), and higher education (Willetts).

Edtech solution 'seductive but problematic'

The educational technology solution is very seductive. Who wouldn’t like to learn through playing games, watching videos or using their personal mobile device? However, I think that this narrative is problematic on at least two levels.

First, similar claims have been being made for the potential of digital technology to transform education for at least 30 years, but there is a "reality rhetoric gap" (Trend, Davis, & Loveless, 1999). Despite huge levels of investment in digital technology in education it has had little impact on learning (Luckin et al, 2012) and even less on teaching (Gove, 2012). Schools using iTunes U and the Khan Academy may be new, but the underpinning models are very similar to that of Integrated Learning Systems, which were the great new hope in the 1990s (eg McFarlane, 1999; NCET, 1994) but have all but disappeared from our schools today. Yes the technology is better, but the real challenges are not technological ones, they relate to people (Twining et al, 2006).

Second, and more important, I suspect that the problem we are trying to solve is larger than the one in the dominant narrative. If that is the case then the solutions being put forward are unlikely to be effective. I think about this as the Titanic problem, which looks something like this…

The Titanic (our society) is heading towards an iceberg. The captain (politician/policy maker) has to decide what action to take. The context for this decision includes the following elements:

  • Everyone believes that the Titanic is unsinkable;
  • Nobody knows how big the iceberg might be – all they can see is its tip sticking out of the water;
  • The passengers (members of society) are oblivious to the existence of the iceberg;
  • The Captain doesn’t want to upset the bosses or the passengers by making them late arriving at their destination (because he might get the sack) so he doesn’t want to slow down or change course.

At this point the Captain still has time to respond, and has four possible courses of action:

  • Shifting the deckchairs (which might make one feel one is doing something, but will have no impact on the iceberg problem);
  • Providing more buoyancy aids (which won’t save any lives as deaths will be due to hypothermia rather than drowning, but might alert passengers and crew that there is a problem);
  • Providing more lifeboats (which would save lives but the Titanic would still sink);
  • Turning the ship so it doesn’t hit the iceberg.

The current narrative assumes that the tip of the iceberg (the lack of people coming out of education with the right personal attributes and competences) is the problem. There is no recognition of the scale of the impact that the submerged section of the iceberg will have. For me the iceberg has several components, which include:

  • Automation – which I use as a shorthand for a series of related challenges such as:
  • Kurzweil’s (2005) concept of The Singularity, which suggests that due to the exponential rate of progress in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) computers will soon be cleverer than humans
  • Lanier‘s (2013) Siren Servers, which highlights the dangers of the centralisation of power and big-brother scenarios due to organisations such as search engine and social network providers having access to so much of our (no-longer) personal data and big data analysis techniques
  • Ford‘s (2009) lights in the tunnel, which explains why our market economies will breakdown due to automation and mass unemployment
  • Other big issues (eg climate change, global interdependence and political instability).

So what can a group like ETAG do? TIme for the Trojan mice?

This alternative narrative assumes that vast swathes of the population will be unemployable – there won’t be many jobs that can’t be automated, not even jobs we haven’t thought of yet. In this new scenario most of what we have done with digital technology in education thus far falls into the 'shifting the deckchairs' approach. Indeed, anything that doesn’t fundamentally alter the content of what we teach (the curriculum) is about shifting the deckchairs. So what can a group like Etag do?

I suspect that expecting the captain to turn the ship is probably unrealistic because of the real career dangers which lie in upsetting bosses or  passengers. Clearly, helping the captain, crew and passengers understand the size of the iceberg is important.

There may also be some things that we could do that might at first sight look like moving the deckchairs, but which might turn out to be Trojan mice (they look unthreatening but a little further down the line enable transformational change).

The challenge is to identify some actions that we can persuade the Captain to take now, which will make it easier in the future to turn the ship.

Peter Twining

Peter Twining is Professor of Education (Futures) at the Open University and a member of the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG)

 

References
Ford, M. (2009). The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. Wayne (Pennsylvania): Acculant Publishing. Retrieved from http://ieet.org/archive/LIGHTSTUNNEL.PDF
Gove, M. (2012, January). Michael Gove speech at the BETT Show 2012 - Speeches - Inside Government - GOV.UK. Retrieved June 26, 2013, from https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/michael-gove-speech-at-the-bett-show-2012
Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity is near: when humans transcend biology. London: Duckworth Overlook.
Lanier, J. (2013). Who owns the future? London: Allen Lane.
Luckin, R., Bligh, B., Manches, A., Ainsworth, S., Crook, C., & Noss, R. (2012). Decoding Learning: the proof, promise and potential of digital education. London: Nesta. Retrieved from http://www.nesta.org.uk/areas_of_work/public_services_lab/digital_education/assets/features/decoding_learning_report
McFarlane, A. (1999). ILS - A guide to good practice. Coventry: BECTa (see TES’ “It's not if, but what and how they learn”).
NCET. (1994). Integrated Learning Systems: A report of the pilot evaluation of ILS in the UK (p. 48). Coventry: NCET.
Trend, R., Davis, N., & Loveless, A. (1999). Information and Communications Technology. London: Letts Education.
Twining, P., Broadie, R., Cook, D., Ford, K., Morris, D., Twiner, A., & Underwood, J. (2006). Educational change and ICT: an exploration of Priorities 2 and 3 of the DfES e-strategy in schools and colleges - the current landscape and implementation issues. Coventry: Becta. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/42792354 

Artwork: from a 1912 engraving by Willy Stöwer, “Titanic sinking”, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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