For the past few months I have been running an educational blog, for which I made a point of experimenting with various Edtech tools. Some of these were presentation tools, integrated video and graphic presentation software, animation, mind maps, shared docs, cloud usage, Vimeo / YouTube posting, audio-editing, publishing on various platforms. My goal was to see what this thing called Edtech is like. Is there an Ed(ucational)-element to it indeed, or is the Ed just a name?
What do I mean by “educational” then? A recent controversial talk of a controversial character at IATEFL Harrogate has, I feel, brought this question back on. There are still many educators out there who believe education is information; in their view, if access is facilitated to information a) about things as diverse as biotechnology, or why women don’t look like men, and b) how to do certain things (e.g, build a website, improve your pronunciation, use technology in the classroom etc) the education issue will be solved.
Well, in this post I’m looking at Edtech to see if it does more than providing access to such information. Can it develop thinking skills by offering models, patterns, templates for analysing reality? Can it stimulate and motivate people to learn? Can it facilitate teaching that might more easily develop beliefs and values? Can learners, as a result of Edtech use, become better equipped for real-life challenges, not just better informed?
I know these questions require proper studies and research. But having probed a bit into what it is that Edtech can offer, I will share with you my guesses.
A first point is that technology is not just what teachers may use for their “presentation” part of the conventional present-practice-produce lesson. I’ll call this the “T-tech” (the teacher’s technology). But there is technology meant to be used by learners, mostly in the practice-produce stages, and I’ll call that the “L-tech”. T-tech could be presentation tools like PowerPoint, Prezi, Explain Everything, video or audio-recording tools. L-technology may be sites like Wikipedia, online dictionaries, online self-study materials etc. Now a first interesting thing is that the T-tech can very easily become L-tech, for learners to produce their own “presentations”. If learners and teachers use the same tools this already fosters a democratic, collaborative, empowering learning environment. This has nothing to do with information for its own sake, but it does “educate” people by instilling values raising motivation.
Now onto the more specific points.
- The most obvious thing to say about Edtech is that it is more engaging than its traditional, pen-to-paper, and even than its PowerPoint forerunner. A paper is whitish and text is flat; technology is colourful and has a third dimension. PowerPoint is static (“tell me and I’ll forget…”), while the use of post-PowerPoint technology is / can be interactive. Visually and auditively the learner is stimulated to follow, to process, to get involved. This will facilitate uptake of information, but it can be educational by making learning appealing. In a not-so-distant future kids might not wake up early morning trying to find pretexts not to go to school, for example.
- Some tech-tools may stimulate cognitive skills and processing, by exposing learners for instance to both detail and the big picture. Prezi does this wonderfully. Have your students produce a Prezi for the next lesson and they will inevitably need to think of how they should order their ideas and whether one idea includes another, or is distinct from it. They will need to decide if they want to zoom in for the detail or pan back to the big picture. All this requires critical thinking and clear organization of ideas.
- Use of tech in day-to-day learning can develop resourcefulness and problem-solving skills, because learners using Edtech need to keep finding solutions to what tools they should use and how best to use them. If they are supposed to make a presentation to the class they will need to decide whether it should be in the form of slides, of a video, of an animated cartoon, or of a poster, and whether they should include other extras, like sound, whether it should be a static project (let it play for the audience) or an interactive one. Explain Everything, for instance, on ipads, allows quick scribbling by hand, or moving the pictures and text freely around as you are presenting. This variety of tools affords as many possibilities for expression, and making such decisions and selections can be educational by developing openness and flexibility.
- Related to the ideas before, use of Edtech may model thinking and approaches. Learners will be able to quickly decide, for example, when to use a mind map and not a flow chart, how to examine a text versus how to examine figures. All this has to do with a deeper understanding, if only half-conscious, of the essential conceptual features of abstract entities like process, overview, quantitative / qualitative, superordinate / subordinate, main point / detail, category etc, which are all integrated in the tech-supported learning. This moulding of the mind is education at its best.
- The variety of ways to involve learners in practising, producing, or co-authoring makes learning appealing, for starters. More importantly, though, this variety simply accelerates and multiplies the effect of practice – turbo-learning if you like – since a) there are more than one way of practising and b) there are practice ways more suitable for a particular task than others, so optimal means for practice can be found. Also, instead of learning by being shown, students will be learning by doing (“Involve me and…”)
- On a different line, the teachers themselves are forced, in their input, to focus more carefully on the essential. No one in their right minds can make a PowerPoint take more than 20 minutes – and that’s a really long one! The teachers are forced by technology to select more carefully the “slice” they want to present, and to do it more efficiently. That’s because it takes so long to prepare longer materials for one thing. For another, technical glitches appear if the file is too large.
- Finally, it can be developmental for teachers to work with Edtech. In a first stage by learning about Edtech and how to use it. Next, having to continually make choices and select one or another tool from the variety available. This means the teacher will less likely fall in a routine like dictating, writing on the board or using PowerPoint for that matter. And if this is developmental, it means that learners will be benefited in the long run.
So getting back to the questions I asked myself at the start:
- Yes, Edtech CAN develop thinking skills by offering models, patterns, templates for analysing reality. See points 2,3,4 above.
- Yes, Edtech CAN stimulate and motivate people to learn. See points 1, 5 and 7 above.
- Yes, Edtech CAN facilitate teaching that might more easily develop beliefs and values. See the starting point about empowering learners, but also points 1, 6 and 7 – whatever makes the teaching more powerful potentially helps teachers communicate values and beliefs too.
- Yes, learners using Edtech MAY be better equipped for real-life challenges, as results from all the points above.
You may object to my use of modals, and say “yes, it CAN, or MAY, be educational, but so is conventional learning too, provided the teachers are competent”. Typically such objections will be raised by teachers who reduce Edtech to T-tech. They believe that if they show learners technology (“look what a nice ppt I’ve designed!”) this is Edtech. Many teachers are unfortunately still unaware that the best of Edtech is in fact L-tech, i.e. having learners use technology themselves.
So you say Edtech is nothing without a competent teacher? Of course. Edtech needs to be used on solid methodological foundations, like any other tool. What I have tried to argue is just that it has what it takes to be an effective, powerful tool for competent teachers in educating people.