Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Ban technology from schools? (2016 Term 1 Week 11)

Last week the perennial question of the role of technology in education reared its head once again. 

The catalyst this time was the retiring head of Sydney Grammar, who declared that computers in classes are a 'scandalous waste of money'. This interview came shortly after a speech by Andreas Schleicher, the head of the OECD's education unit and generally considered to be the most influential educational bureaucrat in the world, who argued that technology is doing more harm than good in classrooms. A Year 11 student from St Andrew's Cathedral School responded, arguing that technology is a vital aspect of learning for young people today.

Judging by the discussions sparked by these ideas, concerns about technology in the classroom are widespread in the community. I suspect that this concern is an extension and application of the more general concern felt by a generation of parents about the role that technology plays in the life of their children. We are in uncharted waters and we do not know the dangers and risks that lurk out there; no wonder we are nervous.

However, when one reads the stories below the headlines, much of the debate seems misconceived. First, there is frequently a false dichotomy established, as though we need to choose either to have technology or to have more and better teachers. I don't accept that it is one or the other; what about a better teacher who is able to use technology. While opportunity cost is real, it is reductionist to assume a zero-sum game. (As a side-note, that may be the most economic terminology I have used in a sentence since Year 11.)

Second, there is an underlying assumption that what education really needs is a silver bullet for our problem. These days the problem is usually identified as Australia's slide down the international education rankings, which is itself a problematic assumption. Leaving aside the validity of assuming that the OECD and PISA are best placed to determine the ends and value of education, the broad-brush nature of the testing obscures the reality of student experience. For what it is worth, the independent school sector ranks very positively in the international testing

Back to the point, lots of silver bullets for school education have been tried in the last decade; reducing class sizes, introducing public accountability (the MySchool website), elevating standardised testing (NAPLAN), homogenising the curriculum, and all the latest technological advances (smartboards, laptops, iPads, cloud computing, BYOT). The reality is that, as in all complex adaptive systems, silver bullets don't exist. If we really thought that the mere presence of laptops in the classroom would somehow transform learning, more fool us!

Third, those decrying the use of technology in classrooms tend to point to the worst possible practices, as though that is representative of the issue as a whole. Just because some people do it badly, doesn't mean that it is a futile path. I couldn't agree more that technology in the classroom can be done awfully and absolutely nothing positive can be gained. However, I passionately disagree with the proposition that the use of technology for learning is a waste of time. 

I would like to make two further related points as my contribution to this discussion. 

First, the teacher is the key. The biggest single school-based influence on the learning of a student is the quality of the teaching she or he experiences. The very best thing a school can do for a student is to bring them together with passionate, knowledgeable, professional teachers. Therefore, my goal is to recruit and develop the best teachers possible. I am very confident in the calibre of teachers at Inaburra; our regular parent and student satisfaction surveys indicate that my confidence is shared by the Inaburra community more generally. Nonetheless, we place a very high priority on helping our teachers to develop their professional practice.

Second, teachers are designers of learning. Technology provides them with additional tools to use. Whether it is the ubiquitous access to information, the means to collaborate and co-create, the opportunity to publish world-wide, the availability of real-time feedback, the delivery of content through online video, the use of online adaptive standardised diagnostic tests, learning analytics or any of the other extraordinary capacities that technology enables, a teacher has a more diverse toolkit to design learning if technology is available. The depth and range of this toolkit is expanding at exponential rates, as I have noted before. Consequently, one of our priorities in the development of our teachers is to help them use the tools available to them, including technology, to design world-class teaching and learning for our students.

As many have noted, our responsibility is to shape the future, not to ignore it. Viewing technology as an obstacle, rather than an opportunity, is not in our children's interests.

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