Lines of least resistance

It was late in the afternoon, and it had been a hot, bright day. I was standing in the Deputy Principal’s office feeling slightly tired, but excited. New technology had arrived. It was in a box on a table in the corner. I asked if we could unpack it and put it to use. My request was denied.

Two days later, the box remained untouched; tucked away in the corner of the same office, unopened and unloved.

After a week I decided to raise the subject of opening the box. Again. I got nowhere.

Perhaps a group would do better. The delegation approached the matter gingerly. It made no headway.

Three months? The bands around the box were as tight as they had ever been.

We tried various lines of argument during the year: lifting student interest; achieving better results; time efficiencies; other schools were using the same technology to great effect, etc.—But none of the tactics worked. Nothing shifted. The technology stayed firmly incarcerated in the box, and the Deputy Principal’s smile remained as enigmatic and delightful as ever.

The simple truth? He didn’t like technology. He was afraid of it.

After 18 months I was finally given permission to unpack the box. No reason given.

The consequence: a Canon photocopier graced the staff room. I was thrilled; staff were thrilled; and kids were thrilled. Textbooks, always a burden to bring to school, became less ubiquitous; and an enormous amount of time was saved, because students had material in front of them that they could quickly read and highlight.

At the time, I thought a photocopier would revolutionise education. I thought the same when computers in the classroom, notebooks, digital projectors and smart boards arrived. And more recently my hopes have been elevated by games, apps and programs that seem to promise strong opportunities for learning for children.

But there is one concern I have that bites into my optimism: it began feeding on my hopes years ago in the form of a question—shortly after the episode with the photocopier.

It is an either/or type of question, and it goes like this: will education drive technology in education; or will technology ‘drive’ education—and which scenario would be better?

I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Once I had unpacked the photocopier, staff began to do what they had always done. We were long practised in explaining a concept, giving an example, and then another, and then a test question for students to trial, and another question as homework to reinforce their learning. We did all this on the board and in the classroom.

Now? Well, we did the same thing—with photocopied worksheets. Splendid. But nothing had really changed pedagogically—nothing had altered in the way we taught. And results didn’t really improve. Education was simply getting its toes wet with technology.

I feel the same with digital books. Déjà vu all over again. Brilliant to have them on your handheld. But they are the same books. Educationally nothing has changed. Just text on a touchscreen rather than paper. Technology is not driving revolution in ‘books’ and reading. It’s pandering to them.

And I think most readers have probably experienced PowerPoint poisoning—a breaking out in sweat and a feeling of nausea and giddiness as another awful slide (one of 36) opens like an envelope before you. What began with a promise of novelty has collapsed into gimmick and ‘same again’.

It seems we are stuck, like hamsters on wheels, with the conviction that if we repackage what we have always done, it will somehow be better.

Put educationally, it is as if we have taken the practices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and dumped them on technology—not realising that it might be the more powerful partner in the relationship, or that it might have something to say.

What would it look like then, if instead of asking what education can do for technology (think Apple, Microsoft, Google, LG, Huawei, Samsung), we asked what technology could do for education? In other words let technology do the innovation and driving in education—asking what insights and practices from within its own sphere it could bring to learning? What could it teach educators and how could it lead them into the future?

Perhaps it would go something like this.

When we pick up our smart phones or tablets, they tell us at least three things: (1) time matters to people; (2) ease of use matters to people; (3) people have specific concerns/interests.

And tucked in among these is a principle of (4) consolidation operating. Everything’s there, efficiently and economically presented to us in a single small digital interface.

First, (1) time. If there’s anything our handhelds tell us it is time is important. When something saves us time we value it.

Now, rather than travelling to a bank, parking, queuing in a line, etc., we can do our banking in the palm of our hands. Think communications, too. Letters? Faxes? Largely gone. Texting: simple, fast and immediate. Time saving. Ordering meals? Time saving.

In relation to (1) time, tablets, etc. tell us (2) ease of use matters, too. Programmes, apps and games that are friendly, prosper; those that are not relatively easy to use frustrate us, and we abandon them. The same principle is true with hardware, and aesthetics seems to play a part here, too. Hardware and user interfaces that look and feel ‘great’—that are intuitive and do what we expect them to do—get the edge. Apple understands this. Design now means something more than utility.

Elegance, cleanness, proportion, ease of use, speed of use matter.

But perhaps the most interesting insight our handheld devices and notebooks, etc. give us relates to our (3) interests and concerns. Here technology is acting as a mirror to human interests and need.

When we look at the apps on our phone, or on our friend’s, what do we see? A consolidation of what matters to us. In no particular order: address books, texts, email, Twitter, Facebook (socialization); camera, photos, videos, (identity, memory, entertainment, socialization); music (entertainment); banking, stocks, accountancy, shopping (business, money, investment); health, sex and nutrition related apps; weather, maps (sport, travel, socialization); books (education, entertainment); news, browsers (information).

These groups can be differently characterized and populated, but they point to what we value—to our interests and concerns.

So what? Well, back to my question: what would it look like, if instead of asking what education can do for technology, we asked what technology could do for education?
If we followed the lines of least resistance where would technology lead us educationally?

As I have already argued the first line of least resistance runs along time. The quicker the better. Time is precious—don’t waste it. What does it highlight? Big inefficiencies in the current education system: time taken preparing, gathering stuff for school; time taken travelling to school; time taken registering for the day; time taken moving between classrooms (there are better ways to take exercise or having a break); time wasted settling a class; time wasted while teachers deal with disruptive students; time taken with handouts; time waiting on other students; time wasted in meetings. The list goes on.

The point? Technology cries out to us that time matters; and it shows us how to make it matter more. If this leading were given free rein it would challenge the whole structure of institutional education as it sits around bricks and mortar in large campuses.

Three hours at home on a tablet or working with a supervised small group in a neighbour’s home, or even in a café, might lead to better educational outcomes than eight hours in a high school, especially one that is a dive. So think Uber with its revolutionary use of the underutilized; and remember the scientific, social, cultural and political force of the Renaissance, unleashed in brilliant pockets of learning from Italian villas. Each represents the efficient use of time and space.

The second line of least resistance technology runs along is ease of use (with its associate—pleasure of use). These are often secondary considerations in education; the discussion focuses on what students need to know, often framed by ‘taught from the front’ practice or the institutional demagogue.

Technology, however, tells us, to use a cliché, that a journey is as important as its destination. Get this wrong and you lose people on the way; and data confirms that a lot of children have been lost on route K-12.

This suggests curriculum designers, assessors, teachers and even parents (as first educators) should think hard about learning environments, the means of learning, and access to learning. Limp classrooms, dodgy texts books and impossible tests should go.

It means seeing things from a learner’s perspective, and designing tasks that are easy and pleasurable to do. Easy not in a lazy sense, but in an achievable one. Perhaps highly complex, perhaps needing reiteration to really learn, but still doable. Tasks that build confidence quickly and that do not frustrate, intimidate and discourage children because an assessor fails to recognise where children actually stand.

And Apps, games, programmes and digital media have the phenomenal capacity to integrate story lines into their design—something that if done well will not only make learning easy but also pleasurable.

Technology teaches us that (1) time is premium and (2) ease of use matters (and pleasure of use). Additionally, through its capacity for consolidation, it highlights what is critical to our lives. This is really significant and it should drive educators to think very deeply about what they put in curricula.

At first glance, categories that are important to us cluster around socialisation, finance, information, health and entertainment. What would it look like then, if instead of making English, Math, science, history, social studies, etc. our curriculum focus, we developed curricula which as their core included Code, Financial Management and Business; Human Biology, Health and Identity; Communication (reading/writing); and Entertainment (game, literature, film/video, image generation and analysis)? Where, for instance, Financial Management and Business would contextually teach maths; Identity history; and Entertainment via gaming, physics.

Doing this, and all the while accepting that information, which technology signals is so important to us, will simply be accessed through browsers and intelligent personal assistants like Siri and Google Now.

Precise domains and details can be worked on. Financial Management and Business, for example, might not be the right title or category. But my point is, as educators we should look closely at what technology is telling us about our needs and interests. And we should design curricula that are relevant to these. To do so we will need the humility to accept that technology, capturing and interpreting data on ourselves, can teach us something.

Take away Points: Recent media has questioned curricula and pedagogical practices. Articles have suggested 19th-century techniques previously effective are less so today. This might or might not be accurate, but foisting these onto present technology seems to be trying to force an old world into a new one. It can be done, but it tends to shut out and miss the opportunities the new world offers. It might be more prudent to allow technology to drive education. The data it brings with reference to human interest and need is a powerful resource and one that should inform our approach to education. At first glance it tells us time is important. It also reveals our interests and needs. If we allow these to shape education policy and how it relates to schools (fixed buildings), curricula and teaching, then the experience of learning for children within the next two decades will be radically different to those in schools today. (They might not be in them.) It will bring revolution, heralding the end of a system that served humanity well, but when looked at closely lacked precision, economy, flexibility, and on closer analysis, relevance.

: Recent article: Let’s not use 21st century technology with 19th century pedagogy.

Minecraft: Researchers urge teachers to embrace game as tool to teach maths, art, geography.

CEDA (Committee for Economic Development of Australia) report on the future of Australia’s workforce, with reference to the impact of technology, automation and artificial intelligence: Australia’s future workforce?


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