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.

Share: 12th anniversary

And one more year has passed. It’s October 21st, and it’s been 12 years since the journey of ICTlogy began. Happy anniversary, ICTlogy.

As usual, some data for starters:

And now, the usual comments.

The first one, my deep feeling that academia, as it is designed, is totally doomed. This is nothing new, but the feeling has grown deeper. Much deeper. And when I speak about academia I mean all of its main three functions: research, teaching and dissemination. Teaching and dissemination are, to say the least, inconvenient: they steal time to what the system only cares about, which is research. Thus, most debates about innovating in teaching and about making an impact in society are, in economic terms, irrational. All the time that faculty members devote to nothing but research is an irrational choice as it detracts time from the only thing that they will be given credit for. Hard to read? It’s even harder to cope with, mind you.

This would be only half a tragedy if research was handled in — my very personal opinion — rational terms. But it’s not. In most fields and places, research has ceased to be about building up new knowledge “upon the shoulders of others”. Now it’s about publishing. Whatever. Whatever with an impact index, of course. A technical report? Wrong. The analysis of some intervention project? Wrong. Some position paper or some white paper on some policy issue? Wrong. Some may say that everything can and should be published in impact journals, but it is wrong: academic journals, with all their waiting lists and politics inside, have their own logic, which is increasingly diverging from the pace of reality. Most people, when asked what they are working on, will answer they are working on a paper, not on a problem. And these are two different logics. Hard to read? It’s even harder to cope with, mind you.

For those thinking this is but a digressing rant, think about the problems you have in your everyday life. And see how much would you like some help from people that you, the taxpayer, pay to be thinking about solving problems. Yes, there are some relevant problems that are hidden to the common eye. But still. Ah, by the way, most publications by most scholars have to be paid twice for accessing them, because the system is double perverse: we push academia towards paper-publishing (not problem-solving) and, once their work is published, it’s behind a paywall. For someone a truly believer in the common good and the role of public sector, this is just enraging.

And, in this case, Twitter is not helping very much.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Twitter is actually transforming the world, and doing it for good. But, as it’s usually said in the world of communications, it is a strong competitor in the attention economy, and it’s capturing most attention away from the “long reads”. Indeed, it’s not only capturing attention away from readers, but also from writers: why would you write a 500-word reflection on a given topic or news when you can put it out in 140 characters? This has been happening to me since I joined Twitter in 2007, but I think this year I somehow peaked in this practice.

And if your life became more hectic than ever — kids, a more active role in politics, a strong participation in media — Twitter is just there to help you put out your thoughts in the easiest way. Though, of course, many times in the shallowest way.

Yes, this was not a good year for profound thoughts.

But don’t be mistaken. I believe my production in 2014 was quite good, and my production in 2015 will not be bad — there’s a book chapter, hopefully a couple of articles and some reports pending to add. But I just don’t like the way it all went. Even if I am happy with the outcome. Contradictory? Of course.