Making better decisions about digital technology in education @nesta_uk #digitaldecisions

January 21, 2014  |  Nesta Events
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Many education systems have invested significantly in digital technology in the past decade, but there are many examples of decision making based more on what is new and fashionable rather than what actually works for learning. This afternoon at Nesta we convened for an event to explore how we can make better decisions about technology in education.

Reference was made to the Nesta report ‘Alive in the Swamp’ and the Michael Fullan book ‘Stratosphere’.
How can teachers and product developers work together to identify the best digital innovations for learning? 

Maria Langworthy said that much decision making has been based around ‘an outdated pedagogical model’ of content delivery. She would like to see a move toward co-creation and collaboration as a foundation for deep learning. For her, this is an epidemiological shift towards students and teachers discovering the content knowledge together. This is not just delivering knowledge but actively constructing it, and she has provided some ideas about how this might happen in the forthcoming ‘Rich Seam’ paper from Pearson. One example is students working on a project about the hydrosphere. Their teacher challenged them to demonstrate the implications of this learning, and they chose to Skype with a conservation project owner to discover the key problem they were facing. They used this insight to collaborate with a manufacturer to design a piece of technology that solved this problem and bring it to the site of the problem.

Katelyn Donnelly came at the question from a product development point of view. People in this field need to not only create great things like schools, but also find large markets for them to make them work. What she sees happening in this space is more product developers using schools as R and D labs, or setting up demo days to show their work and build a feedback loop to ensure that their products are really solving the problems that a large number of schools face. She suggested that the ‘startup model’ could be built into schools- where the school is constructed in such a way that they generate new technological solutions to the problems they face and get the pedagogy of the technology right.

Prof. Michael Fullan said in Ontario when faced with digital technology the best decision they made was to ignore it… or at least to focus on the pedagogy first and trust that the technology industry would see what they were doing and develop solutions that fitted. He also emphasised that decisions have to be made in a way that allows whole school systems to change not just ’boutique schools’. From a pedagogic point of view he has seen the most powerful work around John Hattie’s ‘teachers as activators’ rather than ‘facilitators’; when teachers and students c0-construct the areas they are working on, but don’t just take all the direction from the young people passively.

The most important thing, he said, is for product developers to understand pedagogy. They need to take the agenda of learning and learners need to take the agenda of technology.

We then moved to discussion around tables and feedback. Ideas drawn from this included running competitions for funding for student innovations in technology, although it was noted that it is important to make sure the judges have the expertise needed to make these decisions. Michael Fullan picked out the idea that technology products need to be based on the understanding of how teaching and learning works, and that there is work to be done on defining these principles. The theme of students as co-creators came out strongly, but Maria Langworthy added that a structure is needed for this to give them clear goals. A byproduct of this is that is gives students experience of creating ideas and technology in the way they will have to in the world after school.

How can we evaluate the value and effectiveness of digital innovations in education? 

Katelyn and Michael defined a structured system for evaluating digital innovations in their publication ‘Alive in the swamp’. They have found that when used in practice this has provided a useful structure for discussing the key points of these innovations between technology providers and schools. Michael Barber noted the importance for effective innovation of being thorough, making sure we are looking at them from all possible angles rather than just the exciting edge of the new idea.

Maria used Microsoft’s ‘Partners in learning’ as an example of an initiative that moved from trying to change teachers to trying to change systems. They decided that the actual way to make lasting change was to develop measures of the impact of technology, and she was part of a global research programme to do this.

Michael Fullan has found that applying the ‘Alive in the swamp’ index to innovations has focused those developing them in on the weak points, and generally this has been on the pedagogical aspects. Much like a ‘SWOT’ analysis, he has found this focus key to helping people sure up the technological initiatives they are developing in education and spotting the gaps.

From the room the point was made of the difficulty of knowing whether improvements we are seeing are down to technology. Michael Fullan said we need to make sure people in schools have the capacity to answer that question. High stakes testing and accountability with narrow measures make this difficult. High stakes assessment itself, he said, is not undesirable, but it is about basing it on the right measures.

Maria Langworthy said we need to develop new measures of co-construction and knowledge creation, as these are the outcomes that are often in mind rather than the more traditional measures we seem to often end up resorting to.

One audience member suggested approaching measurement in terms of the ‘health’ of learning environments. Rather than measuring the learning, measure the environment in which the learning is happening- this is where good learning happens, and also focuses us on making the changes to the environment needed for the learning to happen, rather than the abstract that we often end up with. Conditions are in some ways more straightforward to both measure and to change and therefore develop the learning.

Another from the audience noted that this is a political issue. If we start with measurement then we could end up with a situation where teachers are in competition which may not be healthy. With measures can come top down control that narrows teachers capacities to respond to their learners and engage in the kind of co-construction the earlier speakers were focusing on.

How can innovative technologies and pedagogies be scaled up?

Michael Fullan said he dislikes the notion of pilots- what usually happens is people keep piloting their way through life and don’t accumulate successes. He prefers the concept of ‘diffusion’, the idea that it might spread. This keeps the mind focused on what is happening elsewhere whilst the innovation is happening, and discourages ‘piloting’ in a blinkered way. People should not pilot and then connect with others, but be connected and interact as they are developing their work. This encourages them to pay attention to the ideas of others even if they do not completely agree with them; a healthy environment in which ideas spread. The spread of ideas needs to be ‘voluntary but inevitable‘, when ideas are co-constructed they are built around addressing the problems they actually face so they are bound to ‘scale’.

Maria Langworthy said perhaps access is the key; where students have access to technology the innovation and pedagogical development is often inevitable, with the caveat that locked down technologies can hinder this. With increased access there should be a ‘tipping point’ in new pedagogies and learning activities.

On our table we discussed the fact that innovation needs to be seen as a whole process, including dissemination and scaling up. Too often innovation is seen as just the initial idea generation, which causes the problem with ‘pilots’ that Michael Fullan mentioned.

We need to see innovation as a whole life cycle, and get innovators excited about the problem and innovation possibilities involved in scaling. ‘Capacity must be the goal’ Michael Fullan re-iterated.

Technology also needs to be designed with the scalability of the pedagogy as well as the technology itself, an audience member noted. 

1 Comment


  1. This is great Oliver. Thanks for going to the trouble of writing. I don’t agree with a lot of what is being said but I think it comes from the right place and is very interesting. Cheers, Dai

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