How the workshop became
This workshop, like the universe, was born of a big bang. This particular bang occurred on 15 September 2014. In our beginning was the word, and the word was with Clay Shirky , and the word from Clay Shirky was that laptops, mobile phones, and tablets would be heretofore banned from his classroom. (Clay Shirky, ‘Why Clay Shirky Banned Laptops, Tablets and Phones from his Classroom’). Boom! Clay Shirkey - notable champion of new media technology, whose vision of crowdsourcing and collaborative online practices heralded a new era for humanity, who famously claimed that ‘the internet runs on love’ - was effectively banning love from his classroom. His new rule was: ‘Stay focussed. (No devices in class unless the assignment requires it).’
Many bloggers reacted to Shirky’s new rule – some supported his stance, others rushed to defend the device. What was surprising about all the responses, although perhaps it really shouldn’t have been, is that the responses talked about everything but technology: the learning environment; the curriculum context; what teachers were doing; what students were doing or not doing; what the world was doing. So, that got us to wondering, what if the question of technology in classrooms isn’t really about technology? What if the questions we need to ask about technology in classrooms are really difficult questions about classrooms and the people in them?
The aim of the workshop then was to encourage people to think about the intersection between their educational philosophy, ‘How do your students learn?’ and technology in its broadest sense (including analogue technologies such as the pencil, paper as well as digital technologies) in order to discover ‘How your students can learn better?’ Is learning better collaboration, better discussion, better notes, better contributions, better thinking, better mastery, better focus on you, on their textbooks, on their classmates? Are they collecting information or constructing knowledge?
What are you doing? What are they doing? Where are you doing it? Why are you doing it?
As a starting point we asked delegates to imag(in)e their classrooms – the physical space, the people, the objects, the atmosphere, the sounds, emotions and to consider how they changed as the class progressed.
Now, this is where the interesting bit happened. Some people in the room just didn’t want to – the task seemed pointless, a waste of time, irrelevant. We absolutely failed to maintain their focus – they had metaphorically left the building. Why were some of our delegates alienated rather than engaged? They weren’t playing on their devices, even though all of them had a device with them, they weren’t checking Facebook, or Twitter, WhatsApp or their emails (although I had been doing all of the above, and seen others doing the same whilst ‘listening’ to the keynote earlier that day – so we can’t claim this to be caused by a superior attention span of academics), but they were definitely present rather than participating.
Maybe this lack of engagement was a clash of incompatible educational philosophies: my educational philosophy is constructivist and connectivist, I believe that learning happens through making and collaborating. I feel scratchy about being a receptacle of knowledge; I actively avoided delivering a workshop which would be telling folk which technologies will deliver enhanced student learning. I could not tell our delegates ‘what works’– I couldn’t tell people how to use devices to engage students in their learning. I do not know their students, I do not know their classrooms, I do not know what shape their teaching takes, I do not know the flavour of their students’ learning. They do. They are the experts in their educational context – we are the experts in pedagogy, in partnership we should have been able to construct the knowledge that they sought.
But perhaps it comes down to expectations and the affordances of “the technology enhanced learning workshop”? Affordances suggest how things are interacted with, but they are relational rather than subjective or intrinsic. Our previous experience makes us recognise familiar patterns – so we instinctively know how to interact with an object. Think about the red cross at the top right hand side of the screen, we know to click to close so this is where we look when we want to be rid of a document or a webpage. If the red cross in the right hand of the screen doesn’t close the document we feel confused and frustrated. Could it be that the familiar pattern of staff development in technology enhanced learning sets us up to expect tips and tools? If we come to a workshop on technology in the classroom perhaps we expect to find technology – if technology doesn’t appear perhaps we feel confused and frustrated?
But actually, I think that this faulty engagement reveals a different issue – the privileging of the digital. I believe this is evidenced by the way in which technology is polarised – good or bad, savour or demon, lids up or lids down? It reminds me of the invisible gorilla test set up by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Participants were shown a short video showing six people - three in white t-shirts, three in black t-shirts - pass basketballs to each other, they were asked to count silently how many times the people in white pass the basketball to each other. At some point someone wearing a gorilla suit walks through the centre of the action, ostentatiously beats their chest and leaves, spending about nine seconds on screen. Only half of the viewers saw the gorilla.
The Simons and Chabris study shows two things: ‘that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much’. The adversarial discourse around technology in the classroom, black vs. white, lids up vs. lids down, keeps our attention so transfixed by the technology that no one sees the pedagogical gorilla.
If we go back to Shirky’s rule, ‘Stay focussed. (No devices in class unless the assignment requires it)’ we can see that what it actually says is technology is ‘sometimes good’ ‘sometimes bad’. In focussing on the “devices” we miss “the assignment” and its requirements. Focus is the key, but too often that focus is necessarily selective. Inattentional blindness, the phenomena that prevents us from seeing the 'invisible' gorilla, occurs when it becomes impossible to attend to all the different stimuli in a given situation.
We need to find a way to reduce the complexities which proliferate when we work with the dichotomies of good or bad and to retain our focus on that which underpins the use of technology in learning and teaching: on the pedagogical rather than the technological. If we don’t we will have no idea how much we are missing.
So, perhaps the right question is not “lids up or lids down?”, but do you see the gorilla?
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