Guest Blog – Technology: A propaedeutic enchiridion!

One of my favourite things to do if I get a free(!) bit of time at work is to talk to Ken Crow (Games Development lecturer at The Sheffield College) about technology. I asked if he wouldn’t mind sharing some of his thoughts with a wider audience and he kindly agreed.

Technology : A propaedeutic enchiridion! (or adventures with “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”).

“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other and we need them all.” – Arthur C. Clarke.

If the title of this somewhat meandering guest blog didn’t put you off reading the rest of it (and it probably should have) then I’d like to introduce this personal reflection by recounting an experience that I had with my daughter earlier this year. Being 15 and very much into rock (Daddy’s little girl), my 15 year old Gothic progeny and I attended a rock gig at the Sheffield Arena. While shaking one’s head, gesticulating with obscure hand signals and singing along to some of my favourite tunes while simultaneously trying not to embarrass my daughter, I observed 2 phenomenon that really hit home with how I’ve have been trying to integrate technology in my teaching over the past 18 years or so.

The first was my daughter’s artistic ability to take photographs on her smartphone, edit and filter images, annotate them and send them flying into the ether in a matter of seconds using only her thumbs. She managed this typing faster than I can when sat at a full keyboard and it made me think that perhaps culturally, the term ‘All thumbs’ needed redefining for a new generation.

Secondly was the ocean of mobile phones recording the events of the evening. This particularly struck home in a technological hypocritical moment as I captured the image of hundreds of people using their mobile phones to save their memories… with, as you will have guessed, my mobile phone.

Gig.png

So why have I recounted these events (other than to prove that at middle age I’m still a little bit cool and can rock with the best of them)? And what impact does this have on the teaching and learning in my classroom? I’ll return to this question later but first I’d like the opportunity to muse on what I consider a significant barrier to those considering new technology in the classroom.

Fear of new-tech in the teaching and learning journey

It seems that these days not a month goes by without someone suggesting new and improved technological ways of teaching and learning. There are apps, links, web pages, theories, cycles, models, grids, tables, VLEs, blogs, tweet-meets, hashtags, learning communities, hangouts, Facebook pages, platforms, applets; the list is endless and it seems to grow minute by minute. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I was under the impression that a taxonomy was a haven where the ultra-rich invested in off-shore accounts while holidaying in the Maldives.

But how do we keep up? This content is distilled, filtered and delivered 24/7/365 at the speed of light down wires and across the ether. It’s not inappropriate to voice what is a fear for all of us, even those that engage wholeheartedly with technology in our teaching.

What is this new fangled learning thingamy and will I get left behind if I don’t use it in my classroom?

I think the answer to this question is really important. Our motivation for using technology in our respective learning environments should follow a priority of teaching and learning need and although the ‘powers that be’ may push some technology priority further up the bullet point list for the need of collating workable data, (at this point I should put in the disclaimer that the points of view of Ken Crow in this guest blog are not necessarily those of The Sheffield College), technology in the learning environment needs to be planned and follow a specific set of guidelines that places the learner and not the teacher as the focus of the learning tool.

So here is a friendly checklist that helps me decide if I’m going to use a new fangled learning thingamy in my teaching.

The Ken Crow ‘C-U-Right’ New Fangled Learning Thingamy (NFLT) Checklist

  1. Does the NFLT link my learners to resources (curriculum and supportive) that help them learn more effectively?
  2. Does the NFLT help to support the learners (those with barriers and without) in their learning journey?
  3. Does the NFLT empower the learner to experiment with new learning experiences that expand the scope of learning?
  4. Does the NFLT connect learning, learners and teachers together?
  5. Can the Learner use or access the NFLT at their convenience, whenever and where-ever they want to learn?
  6. Does the NFLT offer flexibility to learners of running on most hardware and software platforms that can interface with a multitude of environments?

If the answer to these prioritised questions is yes then I will explore an NFLT a little more closely.

You may have noticed that I left a few things out. It is my conviction that if any of the following reasons are used as a priority for using a new tool in a learning environment, there’s a reasonable chance that a teacher is just adding another admin task to (let’s face it) an already huge list of admin tasks.

I tend to shy away from motivations for using a new tool in my classroom if it is made to appeal to me with the following features.

  • It saves the teacher time
  • It collects data together in one place
  • It polices the learners’ engagement
  • It reduces admin tasks
  • It makes preparation easier

Now here’s the trick, although I expect you might be horrified by the statement I’ve just made please let me assure you that in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The right tool in the right situation that focuses on the learner rather than on other outcomes will always save me time, collect the data that I need in one place, monitor engagement, reduce that amount of admin that I do and make my preparation easier.

Perhaps I should have articulated these ideas in a much shorter statement. If I can trust a new fangled learning thingamy to be entirely learner focused it will follow as a by -product that all of the other features will emerge as an efficient use of the technology.

But not everything is rosy. I would still suggest that the most powerful tools are those where the educator uses a curriculum framework to build content. In my experience with 3 Virtual Learning Environments (Moodle, Google and OneNote) I am using a tool that means I build both structure and content. By molding my VLE to my learners and their qualification specification, all of the additional benefits of using the technology are a byproduct of the process. I believe that there is no such thing as a free lunch; learning to use powerful technological tools in our learning environments will reap benefits but it does require some effort to learn ‘up-front’. Luckily though, you’ve now got a handy checklist to measure whether you should engage with a useful tool for your teaching practice. 🙂

‘The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer’download

I’m taking this opportunity to break up my guest blog with a book review. I am a huge fan of the cyberpunk novelist Neal Stephenson and in his post-cyberpunk sci-fi novel ‘The Diamond Age’ he detailed a most extraordinary publication. Neal’s novel and the illustrated primer has had more impact on my theories of teaching than any text book I’ve read and although “Teaching Today” is probably my favourite practical teaching text, (sorry all you educational academics that poo-poo Mr Petty’s great contribution to practical teaching), the Diamond Age would go on to significantly inspire my teaching practice.

The interactive ‘Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer’ is a book where the pages are animated and the educational content changes based on the environment that it is in and need of the reader using it. (I’m not explaining how it works here but The Diamond Age is a really good read if you’re interested). The book is stolen from an upper class family and lands in the hands of a young girl from the poor side of society. Through a series of adventures, stories and characters the book first helps Nell survive and defend herself but then goes on to teach her skills that would eventually raise her social status and change her life by helping her reach her full potential. The central inspiration in my own experience of learning and eventually teaching is that the individual journey of learning is unique and is required to move the learner from their unique starting point to a unique finish line, all the while facilitating the development of a formal body of knowledge and skill.

Sometimes I see the echoes and shadows of the Illustrated Primer in tools and apps that I look at across the internet, (even in the internet itself). There is a trend in some of these tools that worries me though. In his book, Neal acknowledges the importance of the personal link between educator and learner. The book is an interface between teachers and Nell, having been hired until the job is done her teachers are motion captured into characters that deliver the learning in the book.

Teaching is a collaborative undertaking between learners and educators, I’m not sure that technology can take the place of that relationship. The internet and technology in the classroom are powerful aids in the delivery of our curriculum but can automated apps and platforms really replace the interface between a formal body of knowledge and a unique learning journey? My opinion on this is no, it cannot.

This is not an excuse for things to remain static as teachers roles may change as technology develops but there still needs to be the foundation of a personal link between learner and subject area. I am extremely wary of one-size-fits-all or automated applications applied in teaching practice. As I’ve already discussed I would suggest that a teacher needs to build their own structure and content, supported by technology in order to ensure their presence remains an important part of the learners’ journey both in the physical delivery and curriculum content.

The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer will always inspire me as a teaching tool, it’s a technical marvel as only can be conceived in a sci-fi epic but it never aims to replace the relationship between teacher and student.

Technology is so rock and roll.

So going back to the concert and my original question; What impact does my daughter’s snapchat photo editing and hundreds of mobiles phones raised into the air have on my classroom?

Technology is everywhere in the cultural experience of the learner, it is so ubiquitous as to be invisible to those that use it at every scale in their personal and college lives. Learners cannot be separated from their tech-devices, they build their interfacing lives around the devices that they use. This puts every learner in a unique position with regard to the way that they experience college life. What to learn, how to learn, how to interface and how to communicate is all influenced by their choice and use of devices.

Young people (like my daughter) learn skills that while are seemingly completely transient (snapchat picture editing for instance) are still significant in their own right. It’s easy to disregard what learners bring to college in terms of the skills that they have learned personally or at school but if we pause for a minute and acknowledge the shear breadth of IT experience that learners bring into our building, we would have to admit that there is significant skill set there.

Setting aside for a minute that I am interested in technology (no surprise there), if I ask my self, Why do I engage with new technologies in the classroom and keep my skills up to date? I would have to answer that I think it is my job to make learning compatible with the learners’ experience not demand that the learner moves toward what I traditionally know as IT skills. The discomfort that I wish my learners to feel is the challenge of the learning journey, not my demanding that they learn a traditional set of tech skills that they will never use again. If I’m being honest about how I first learned to use the internet and then made my learners use the same tools then I would be teaching Usenet groups, IRC and UNIX.

For me, embedding new technology in the classroom is not a fool’s errand to try and keep up with an ever increasing speed of development but rather is building bridges between the formal requirements of the curriculum and an ever changing, ever modern digital literacy.

See, I told you! You should have stopped at propaedeutic enchiridion!

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