The community first: subverting the dynamics of putting technology in the classroom

For the nth time, the OCDE, in its Students, Computers and Learning. Making the Connection report, warns us about how technology is not changing academic performance in schools… unless other variables are taken into account — that is for academic performance as it is (quantitatively) measured today: there are, of course, other outcomes, like digital literacy, e-inclusion and social inclusion in general for the student and the family which, to me, are oftentimes successfully met.

Put very shortly, the thing is that there is quite a lot of evidence that what has an impact on academic performance is changes in methodologies. If ICTs (laptops, tablets, smartphones, interative whiteboards, but also blogging, microblogging, social videos, social bookmarking, etc.) have an impact it usually comes indirectly by having an impact in teaching and learning methodologies.

Unluckily, most projects that aim at putting in the classroom (apologies for this imprecise, generic and especially misleading concept) have been focusing almost exclusively in putting hardware and software in the classroom (that is why the name, all in all, may not be misleading at all) and spend little time and budget to everything else around technology.

But, how does one design a project that has an impact on methodologies? Well, the usual answer is training. But training raises several questions and issues:

  • Who trains he trainers?
  • How does the trainer build upon experience?
  • How does the trainer build a reputation?
  • How does the trainer build a legitimacy?
  • How is this training sustainable?
  • How is this training replicable?
  • How is this training scalable?

I think what these questions have in common is a community.

Now, summing up, what educational technology projects usually have done is: they devote all the funds they have to buy technology or digital services, while their main asset, the community, usually remains unattended. Sooner or later, the project runs out of money and thus cannot go on. On the other hand, the asset upon which the project could rely is not put in motion and thus does not trigger the springs and levers that could create the necessary changes for the project to be laid on strong foundations. Yes, this is a cruel simplification, but it is not very far from a general truth: we lose our minds on technology and forget humans.

So, what could be one? It seems that just the opposite direction could be a good starter.

  1. Identify a community of interest, that is, find who the motivated people are and see how they are connected.
  2. Work to shift the community of interest into a community of practice, by making their members share what they do. This will require resources to make sharing easy, comfortable, worth it. Most resources, though, will not be aimed at technology (e.g. a social networking site or platform) but to engage people and build on trust and reputation. It’s called facilitating. And it mostly relies on humans too.
  3. Help the sharing of practices turn into knowledge sharing, so that the community becomes a community of learning: learning by doing, learning by sharing, learning by engaging, learning by dialoguing.
  4. Contribute to raise the tough questions: learning is more about asking rather than answering. With luck, a diagnosis will emerge: where are we, where do we want to go, what do we have, what do we have not.
  5. Some of the things we have not will be knowledge: bring some structured training in.
  6. Some of the things we have not will be technology: bring the technology in.
  7. And back to #1.

In my opinion, it is important to stress that points #5 and #6 are not exactly the same training and technology as in traditional educational technology projects. Firstly, because the decision of which training and which technology comes not from a top-down perspective, but from a bottom-up one. It’s the community who produced the diagnosis and, thus, it’s the community who proposed the solutions (either in training or in technology). Secondly, because the diagnosis did not only identified the gaps or shortages, but also the assets. It may well be, for instance, that the collective found out that most students already have laptops or tablets, and thus the funds can be addressed only to buy devices for those who do not have them and only for them. Or, maybe, that there are other community resources that can be put in motion to fill that gap in, such as libraries or telecentres. Or that some people know some things and willing to share them with others in some formal way (course, training session). Many other examples can be found related to technology or — and most relevantly — to training.

Another matter to be highlighted is that the concept of community (of interest, practice, learning) goes way beyond a sectoral understanding of the concept. When thought of from a top-down approach, the community is educators, teachers. When thought from a bottom-up approach, the definition of community is much wider. The good think about a wider sense of a community is that it will take into consideration all the assets available (inside and outside schools) and it will build a much more strong consensus while it is reached. And both — assets and consensus — are the cornerstones of sustainability, in whatever sense (economic, social…) one may take it.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2015) “The community first: subverting the dynamics of putting technology in the classroom” In ICTlogy, #145, October 2015. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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