Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Powerless Point

I try not to be a Luddite, but while I'm happy to embrace new technologies, I've had most difficulty accepting the usefulness of technology for teaching purposes. I would refer you to this article as an example of the new wave of teaching methods that seem to be sweeping across Britain. Having spoken to some friends in Ireland, the arrival of techno-learning is a little slower, but it is coming all the same.

I love technology. I love gadgets. I love the internet. (I love... lamp).

Why do I feel the need to apologise for what follows? I spoke at a school recently, and the two-hour session was to take a new format; on this occasion students would be accompanied by their parents. I had never spoken to parents along-side their children, and was distinctly nervous about the idea (I should explain that my sessions usually involve a lot of games, of the non-technical variety, and a level of openness about how students interact with their parents and teachers in the learning environment). I am a great believer in games, but my games usually involve coloured markers and some A3 paper - little technology is required. It seemed likely at the time that parents would be happy neither to jump around as I expect teenagers to, nor to draw colourful posters. The solution, a teacher at the school assured me, was Powerpoint.

Powerpoint? Oh I was quite sure that wouldn't be necessary. But oh, the school was quite sure it would. So, I prepared a Powerpoint presentation for one of the first times; I don't even use it at conferences. It's not that I don't see how it could be useful, but I tend to find it distracts from what I'm actually saying. As it turned out, the Powerpoint slides provided useful handouts aftewards, but I was saved from using it by projector failure. The gods of technology (Bill Gates et al?) smiled on me that day. The parents learned to jump around.

I prefer blackboards to electronic whiteboards. Again, this is not because of a hostility to technology, but simply because I don't think the technology works that well. I find writing on electronic boards cumbersome and slow. I prefer games that involve the manipulation of material objects to those that require the movement of objects on a screen. Again, it's a question of results and flexibility than anything else. If a poster game isn't working, I can change the 'rules' simply by issuing new instructions to the students. If a computer game proves ineffective, I am limited by my own programming ability (negligible) or the preprogrammed flexibity of the game.

Here's a thought. Perhaps learning technologies should be focused on precisely that; learning. I can see how technology can be useful to students as they learn independently. I do not believe that technology is all that useful for teaching, however, because in my experience it tends to limit the teacher's creativity rather than release it. If you know of teaching technologies that provide the kind of flexibility I'm looking for, I'd love to hear from you.


Ishmael said...

I'm a sucker for new technology, but I am worried about the top-down way with which technology seems to be pushed upon education, rather than being allowed to evolve into the methods and experiences of teaching and learning that have existed in their same essence since Socrates.

For sure technology will have a role to play in some form, but whether this will be in the shape of the whiteboard, mobile phones, facilitating the spread of the internet, digitising books for the web, giving a laptop to every child, or some as-yet-unknown gadget, I cannot predict, and I doubt any government quango or educational techno-zealot can either. I don't doubt, though, that Mr. Research Machines or Mr. Microsoft quite happily produce glossy presentations that convince those with purchasing power that their schools are going to be left behind if they don't invest in whatever this year's fad is.

Money would be better spent ensuring a high quality teacher (you sound like one to me!), who can draw on the pool of technologies as and if he or she sees fit, and as he or she chooses from their own (or school's) budgets. Instructing from the centre that an interactive whiteboard must be stuck on every wall of every classroom regardless of the teacher who inhabits it will do nothing.

If I rant a lot, it's because I have a primary school teacher friend whose village school has just been pushed into spending £20 000 on replacing their 2 year old laptops and buying a Nintendo Wii in order to pass their bi-annual IT inspection; the same school apparently cannot afford to pay for a classroom support assistant for their special needs' children. Where's the logic in that?

On that negative note, have you seen this free workshop on "Using Technology to Enhance Learning, Teaching and Assessment" in Newcastle on 14th May? Possibly worth going to, for ideas...

Shane said...

Thanks for link - looks like an interesting workshop! I think you're absolutely right about the way money is being spent - I'm not sure technology is the always the best investment in education.