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« BYOT Case Study: New College, Swindon | Main | BETT 2013 Interviews: Yolanda Halston »
Sunday
Feb172013

What is Both good and original in the world of educational technology?

When a young man with dreams of becoming a writer sent a manuscript to Samuel Johnson for his opinion, Dr Johnson is reputed to have replied:

“My congratulations to you, Sir. Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

I thought it might be interesting to look at 10 ideas that have gained popularity in the world of educational technology and ICT in recent years, to see if they meet the “good and original" test”. Here are my considered, though possibly opinionated, views.

The reaction to my latest brilliant idea. It was original, alright, but maybe not so good... Photo by James Vaughn, http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/

100 word challenge

A word- or picture-based writing challenge is set for pupils each week.

Is it good? Yes: anything that encourages kids to write, and enjoy writing, and enjoy reading others’ writing, has to be good.

Is it original? Hmm. Yes and no.   Creative writing word challenges were probably first introduced on Noah’s Ark, to help the journey go faster. The web is replete with creative writing prompts, as is Amazon’s book store (I’ve looked). What is original I think is adapting the idea for schools, and having a team of people whose job it is to comment on the youngsters’ writing. (They’re looking for more people to do that, by the way. If you have a few minutes to spare each week to comment on about ten short pieces of writing, please contact Julia Skinner. Have a look at Team 100wc for details.)

Apps for good

Pupils create apps which address a burning social need, whether in their school, local community, or the world.

Is it good? Definitely. In my opinion, all projects should have a real purpose to them – what I have called ‘authentic learning’ – and if that purpose can do some good too then that has to be, erm, good.

Is it original? Well, again, yes-ish. It’s original in the sense that it’s to do with coding apps. But the general concept itself has been around forever. Back in the mid-90s I visited a school in Italy where the students had investigated and researched a local park which had become the favoured location for alcoholics and people who hadn’t come across the concept of litter bins. The students were able to convince the local authority that it would be highly desirable and cost-effective to reclaim that particular amenity. So Apps for Good is, in a sense, old wine in new bottles. And that, I’d like to make clear, is not intended as a criticism. Quite the opposite, in fact: a good idea will last and last and last, reshaping itself according to new audiences and new circumstances.

Blogging

Blogging is a great way to engage young people in the writing process. Boys, apparently, don’t like writing, so blogging, which tends to favour short articles, appeals to them, it is said. I have to say, when I was at school I didn’t read the ‘gender manual’, so I didn’t know I was supposed to hate writing. Consequently I loved it, and still do. I also wonder about this business of blogging being attractive to boys because it means they don’t have to write much. The best bit of creative writing I did at school was a long annual report for a fictitious film club. I know it was good because my English teacher was convinced I’d copied it out of a film club magazine. If we’re going to get into gender issues, then what I say is that boys thrive on rivalry, and thrashing the competition. So if you really want to get boys into writing, set them something difficult.

In any case, blogging doesn’t have to be about creative writing. It can be about record-keeping (eg of what was covered in a lesson), or information (eg keeping parents informed about a particular aspect of the school), or about local issues.

Original? Well, again, writing has been around for eons. Neanderthal tribes, once they had slain a mammoth and had a bit of spare time, would write up their exploits in the form of pictures on cave walls. (I can’t prove that, incidentally, in case you were wondering.) But blogging, as a ‘technology’, is a fairly recent phenomenon, as is its major benefit of allowing the writer to reach a potential worldwide audience a lot more easily and cheaply than was possible before.

Bring Your Own Technology 

This is a term used to denote a programme in which students are allowed to bring their own technology into school, and largely associated with Mal Lee. There are different nuances of the term: see BYOD: What’s in a name? for several definitions and interpretations, and the BYOT blog for articles about it.

Is it good? Definitely. That’s why I’ve written so many articles about it, have been asked to give talks about it and am completing a book about it (with Mal). If you’d like a quick answer to why I think it’s good, just read my article Bring your own thinking. Oh, and read my book when it comes out!

Is it original? At the risk of repeating myself, yes and no. Yes in the sense that many students now carry around with them technology that is often more powerful, more up-to-date and more portable than that which they are obliged to use in school. That means that it’s now possible as well as desirable for students to use their own gear. But it isn’t original in the sense that schools have been doing it for a long time in the fields of music and sports. Yes, school kit is provided, but kids are also allowed, even encouraged, to bring in their own, more personalised, usually better, equipment if they harbour any aspirations to take the subject more seriously.   

Computer programming

By this I mean not the act of programming a computer, but a course of study in which students learn how to program computers.

Good? Yes, if you’re interested in learning how to program computers. No if you think that the proposed new Programme of Study in Computing in England will ever enable you to learn enough about computer programming to become a real-life computer programmer. I hope to write more about this in the near future, but for the moment I have to say I agree with Peter Twining’s view that it is simply not fit for purpose. See PeterT’s Bliki for more details, links and in-depth analysis.

Is it original? No. I was teaching computer programming back in the 1990s, and courses in the subject were offered when I was at university, in the 1970s. What is original is that once the early consultation about the content of the ICT Programme of Study had been completed, the Government changed both the name and the goalposts. If you feel strongly about all this, have a look at What can we do about it?  

Digital leaders

These are youngsters who are deemed to be tech-savvy enough to help teachers in all things digital, help train teachers, and help other kids, especially when something goes wrong.

Good? Of course. You’d have to be insane not to utilise the vast amount of expertise and experience that resides in the average classroom.

Original? Of course not. Teachers have been doing that, or something similar for decades. The more astute among us even gave them badges!

More information may be found at the Digital Leader Network.  

Flipped classroom

In its original conception (or how it has been widely interpreted), the idea was that teachers would make videos of their ‘lectures’ so that the kids could watch them in their own time, thereby freeing the teacher in the classroom to help individual and small groups of pupils. A broader definition would be producing or recommending resources of any type for the kids to look at outside lessons. I’ve written more about it at 8 Observations on flipping the classroom and Further thoughts on the flipped classroom.

A good idea? In its original form, no, unless the teachers you know have as much time to prepare lessons as they do to take them, and if their preferred style of engagement is lecturing – in which case they probably shouldn’t be teachers anyway – or they have a good source of videos for youngsters to watch. In its modified form, yes – which is why teachers have been doing it for hundreds of years. There’s even a name for it: homework!

Original? In its ‘pure’ form, yes. In its modified form, no.

 

Massive Open Online courses     

Known as MOOCs, these are a form of learning in which thousands of people can take part (‘massive’), without entry conditions (‘open’), online.

From my limited experience of being on such a course, I’d say it was good. It was very exciting having so many different points of view expressed and avenues for exploration presented.

Definitely original, because such courses, with such numbers, weren’t possible before.

Check out MOOCs: Top 10 Sites for Free Education With Elite Universities, and have a look around Stephen Downes’ website for more information (use the Search facility to search Posts for ‘MOOC’). 

Quadblogging

Conceived by David Mitchell,  this is a simple but effective means of ensuring that when pupils write a blog post, they receive some comments. Schools are teamed up in fours, so in Week 1, three schools all comment on School A’s blog posts; then in Week 2 three of the schools comment on School B’s blog posts, and so on.

Is it good? Yes. It seems to work in raising interest in writing – after all, it can become depressing when you feel that absolutely nobody is reading what you write. According to Mitchell it raises attainment too.

Is it original? Yes, as far as I know. It works well with blogging in general, and dovetails nicely with the 100 Word Challenge.

Check out the video of Mitchell talking about quadblogging:

 

Riskit

This is a strategy whereby all  staff, not just the digitally-literate and confident, are encouraged to try something (technology-wise) that they have never tried before, in a non-judgemental environment.

Now, if you read A. Benjeddi’s description of how it should work, it sounds sort of reasonable. He recommends making sure that the students are OK with it (what about parents?), that the senior leadership team is actively supportive of it, and that peer support and technical support are in place before anything happens.

Still, I have my doubts for several reasons; here are just a few:

  • I think teachers deserve to be trained in using new technology properly; this sounds like it could be seen as a cheap alternative by some schools;
  • I think teachers deserve to be treated with professional respect. Personally, if I am asked to do something, I want to be given what I need in order to do it to the highest standard, not be told that it doesn’t matter if I make a hash of it;
  • I think it’s morally dubious: is it right for teachers to use kids’ precious lesson time to experiment?

    Is it good? I’m sure there are schools who have gained benefit from this, but I am going to stick my neck on the line by saying that I don’t think it’s a very good idea.

    Is it original? Well, that kind of depends how you think about it. I think as a programme, as described by ‘Ben’ (as he is known), it is original. But if you think of it cynically as a way of getting lots of teachers using technology without having to spend much time or money on it, then it is not original: I was expected to do exactly that at one school I worked at, but managed to convince the headteacher that it wasn’t a good idea.

    Conclusion

    It seems to me that Dr Johnson’s (reported) response could be equally applied to many of today’s so-called initiatives. That doesn’t mean they are not worth pursuing (some with more caution than others perhaps). But I do think it means that if we were to scratch below the surface, we would find out what we all ‘knew’ all along anyway: that just about any idea can be made to work, and work well, if you have at least the following conditions in place:

    • A school vision which supports the idea, ie which made the idea possible to imagine in the first place
    • At least one really enthusiastic teacher (a champion)
    • Support by the senior leadership team and others
    • A good relationship with students
    • A good relationship with parents

    I don’t think it’s possible to make any of the ideas discussed here work without preparing the groundwork first. None of them is a quick fix.

         
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