Guest post from Gerald Haigh: Computers in Schools – what have we done?

The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh.


I traced an interesting Facebook thread recently, the theme of which could be summed up as, ‘Are we sure educational technology is all it’s cracked up to be?’

It started with writer, speaker, blogger Graham Brown-Martin (@GrahamBM), posting a link to a speech given by writer Audrey Watters at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia entitled, ’Is it Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools?’ An extended version of the speech is to be found in her blog post here.

In the speech she quotes Seymour Papert who wrote, in his 1993 book, ‘The Children’s Machine,’

‘Little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away: Instead of cutting across and so challenging the very idea of subject boundaries, the computer now defined a new subject; instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, the computer was now used to reinforce School’s ways. What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation.’

In one sense, there’s nothing new here. Every emerging technology, including, we can assume, the wheel, has, whether immediately or eventually, provoked a ‘What have we done!’ backlash. The development of the atomic bomb in the mid-Forties is surely the most dramatic example, because its creators used almost precisely those words as they watched that first mushroom cloud; but railways, motor cars, aeroplanes television and a host of others have all caused us to reflect on whether the benefits have been worth the corresponding cost to global society. Dreamers saw flying machines as offering the freedom of the birds, but a within dozen years of the first powered flight, leaders of the nations were putting soldiers into aeroplanes armed with guns and bombs, and according to the World Health Organisation, that great liberator the motor car killed one and a quarter million people worldwide in 2010 alone.


Image from EuroNews

At one level, the doubts about educational technology are to do with internet behaviour, inappropriate buying decisions, all the familiar horror stories.

That, though, is not entirely what Seymour Papert and Audrey Watters are about, nor is it the reason why Graham has posted the link. The theme here is one of control, and Seymour Papert’s idea that technologies which seem to offer the user freedom and the chance to be unconventional, off-the wall, even anarchic, are in fact reining in ideas rather than allowing them to flourish. Graham expands on this in his presentation, ‘Personalized Learning: Tailored or Taylorized?’ given at the 2014 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE):

In his talk, he invokes the ideas of Frederick Taylor who, a century ago, developed the idea of ‘scientific management’ whereby the role of management was to use data coming back from the production workers in order to break down their tasks to simple, repetitive operations. It’s an approach similar to that used by Henry Ford, who, a little later than Taylor, realised that rather than try to find scarce craftsmen for his car factory, he would do better to reduce the assembly process to a sequence of tasks within the capability of a worker fresh from a Mid-Western farm. Are we seeing ‘Taylorization’ in education? Graham draws attention to a 2013 report which says that Government Minister for Skills and Industry Matthew Hancock,

‘… has unveiled plans for teachers to take a back seat when it comes to “imparting knowledge”, with computers and personalised online tuition leading the way.’

Hancock went on to say, that such is the power of data that you could have a position where,

‘An algorithm takes that data, and works out how each child could learn more.’

Graham comes nowhere near advocating the withdrawal of technology from schools – with his track record of innovation you wouldn’t expect it. He does, though, use the expression, ‘a touch of the brake’, suggesting that large parts of our social and business lives are decided for us essentially by top-down created computer algorithms .

You need to see the whole of Graham’s talk – it’s thought-provoking and well worth your time. My feeling, though is that there has always been a particular definition of ‘personalisation’, which envisages a student beavering way, alone, at an individual curriculum plan set by someone else. Technology didn’t invent that idea, it just made it easier.

The cautionary message, I’d say, is to keep faith with a learning vision that’s ‘bottom up’ from the needs of the learner rather than ‘top down’ from the assumptions of teachers and administrators. There’s no doubt that data is becoming hugely important to schools, but alongside that there’s awareness by school leaders that what matters is how the data is used, and for whose benefit. Hence the way many have objected to the once common term, ‘A data-driven school’, preferring ‘data-enabled’.

Time and again I return to the thoughts of technology leaders like Anthony Salcito, Microsoft Worldwide VP for Education, just one of many clued-up technology evangelists who have absolutely no problem with the concept of, ‘a touch of the brake’, especially when it comes to using it to head off the unreflective reliance on technology as the apparently easy route to innovative practice. The task of the teacher in this ‘cruise controlled’ scenario, I’d say, is to ensure that they, and their students understand that they, and not the technology, are in charge of their learning. In the best technology-aware schools, the students, rather than hunch over their private devices, are collectively finding ways of taking their learning further than their teachers ever thought possible, to the point where traditional barriers seem not so much restrictive as irrelevant.

Graham ends his talk by agreeing with those who say, like Ken Robinson, ‘Teaching is an art form, it’s not a delivery system’. To which he himself adds,

‘I wouldn’t trust an algorithm to do that.’

But please follow the links and references here, and in Graham’s talk, which is rich with ideas, to which I surely have not done full justice. Engage with them, challenge them, keep the debate alive. In the field of educational technology nothing is currently more important than achieving and maintaining a proper balance between the technology and the learner.

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