Either it’s the case that everyone is talking about Educational Technology (EdTech) at the moment, or it is true that you ‘trap’ yourself in bubbles of your own interest. Whilst either could be true, from conversations that I’ve either had in the staffroom or online, there is a real trend towards talking about which apps/websites/other pieces of cool kit you can use in the classroom in enhance or benefit the learning that is taking place.
Most of my website here references and talks about how technology can be used in the classroom, some of the site itself was built whilst on an iPad and I probably did some of it after I’d checked my school email when I’d gotten home to spend today’s Powerpoint to a pupil who wasn’t in. Basically a lot of our teaching lives revolve around tech in different ways.
However, I don’t want to go into a comprehensive list of all the ways in which technology pervades our lives as teachers/education professionals and the pros and cons (e.g. interactive whiteboards) of each and every piece, I wanted this post to focus on the vested interests present in some of the EdTech that we are using. As part of this process I am going to be picking on some products in particular, the reason for this is due to the familiarity some of you may have with the product (even if it is in name only) and because of the more obvious vested interests that they may have within the sector.
To start with, if I’m going to be talking about vested interests, it is best to lay myself clear so that I’m not guilty of being hypocritical. I’m a teacher of Religious Education; I do use a range of EdTech in (and out of) my lessons and I’m normally quite swept along in the different trends within technology. However, I decided that I couldn’t just assume that EdTech was a force for good and that just because it was being done on a laptop, tablet or mobile phone that it was in some way better than any other method.
I decided to put the brakes on what I was doing, starting to question whether I was getting too carried away with what I was doing and decided to implement a Cartesian style skepticism of throwing out all the apples rather than trying to sift through to find the bad ones. So where do I start?
Well, I guess I start where everyone starts to find out everything, Google.
After wasting far to long trying to find exact figures on the number of searches for certain terms, I decided to make it a bit more basic (mainly for the sake of my own understanding, but I can pretend that it is for your sake as well) so I Googled some terms that I thought those wanting to find out more about it all might search. These are the number of results on the internet for the following terms (numbers correct as of 16th August 2016):
Educational Technology - About 43,400,000
Edtech - About 4,880,000
Technology in the classroom - About 207,000,000
Technology in education - About 1,390,000,000
iPads in education – About 10,300,000
iPads in the classroom – 703,000
So, basically there is a lot of information out there and this post itself will become lost amongst those numbers. I then turned to Google Trends, which gives you a nice graph to look it; I then had to switch on my mathematics brain (which is a very small sub-section of my actual brain). Google Trends shows you how popular a search term is in relation to its most popular time. So the most popular time for searching it becomes 100, if something receives 50, that means it is half as popular, 25 a quarter as popular and so on. This is useful to an extent, but doesn’t give you any idea of how many people are actually searching for the term. We could be talking about a peak number of ten, one hundred, one thousand or one million, that just isn’t clear, but at least the aforementioned graph is nice to look at.
So the main product that I’ll be talking about is Google Classroom, this is because they are the ‘big player’ in the field, though it should be noted that it also applies to products like Microsoft’s Office 365 that is pushed and targeted towards schools as well.
So what is Google Classroom? Well it’s a collection of Google’s products, such as Google Drive, Google Docs, Gmail and then some tools holding it all together. So overall it makes a really tidy package. It has some clear benefits, it allows for pupil collaboration and there are colloquial tales from Google press releases about how it allows for a reduction of teacher workload (which I guess is most immediately evident in the reduction of printing that needs to be done. There are also claims that it will save you money, but with some of the quick attempts at maths in my head it isn’t really clear how you would be able to get clear costings for either side to be able to get a reliable figure to compare.
Okay, maybe that last paragraph wasn’t as fair to Google Classroom as it should have been. I can see how it can feed into the soft skills that pupils need, it definitely opens avenues for collaboration and can also feed into the democratization of education. Allowing those who weren’t able to access it before to be able to have access to it. It also looks pretty sleek and it looks like there is a lot that you can get stuck into and do a lot more with than the package that Google initially bundle up.
So trying to be fair and partisan, there is some cool stuff to do with Google Classroom, but there are some real sticking points with EdTech. To start with I’ll focus on Google Classroom – but I will broaden out a bit to discuss some of the wider issues, issues which relate more to some specific products that I have had experience with.
One of the big issues with Google Classroom is that there were some pretty serious complaints over student privacy. A fuller description can be found here but the long and short is that Google Classroom was doing what Google does it was mining the data, which is something that you would find fairly unsurprising for a company which revolves around data. However, when it comes to a product that they have put together for pupils it does seem as something that is fairly unethical.
For Google a fairly important thing for them is gaining a large share of the digital market, their battles with Apple are well documented. So I cannot help but think that for Google it isn’t really a case of providing a truly beneficial education system that can be used in the classroom? Or is it about enticing a new generation of users onto their platform? Well, Google has a finger in many pies, with its Android operating platform a major one, if pupils are using Google for large parts of their school lives, will they follow naturally on by also opting for the mobile platform and email address in their personal lives as well? It might seem and sound like a bit of an Internet conspiracy theory and it normally would be the sort of claim I would scoff at, but when it comes from the horse’s mouth, then it is a bit harder to ignore. (http://www.wired.com/2014/08/google-classrooms/)
Putting those issues to one side, if we approach EdTech in the same way that we should approach everything that we do in the classroom then we should be looking at the pedagogy upon which it is built – where is the evidence that it will work with our pupils?
When investigating a range of EdTech, it is incredibly difficult/impossible find their educational grounding for the product. Companies are dictating how their products could be used within education. These may have benefits, but these seem to be colloquial rather than empirically measured. If they were building a system for education, should they not be starting with an empirically grounded foundation and build from there? They should be asking the question ‘what education needs and how we can provide this?’, rather than, ‘this is what we have, how can we make education fit to it?’
When I looked into Google Classroom and searched for its reasoning behind its products all I could find were slick, well-produced videos of people singing its praises. It is easy to show highly motivated pupils talk about how they love it, but we are seeing no comparison of equally motivated pupils and how well they work when they are not using Google or its associated products and how well they can cope (and succeed) with the demands of school life. Ultimately, Google Classroom does little to show that it is more effective – yes it uses less paper, but it seems like there is a lot of show, flashy speedy computers and lots of online submission and collaboration, but these things would be achievable otherwise.
Again, I have come down hard on Google, there are many other products that similarly fail to satisfy this fairly basic need of providing robust pedagogical grounding and solid demonstration of why and how they lead to enhanced learning. (To name a few so it doesn’t just look like I have a vendetta against Google; Padlet, Edmodo, Minecraft, Evernote, Duolingo, Powerpoint – which I could write a whole book on why it is the worst thing that has happened to education). A lot of their justification for their use is on baseless and unmeasured claims. It also relies heavily on this assumption that just because it is technology and it can make our lives easier, that it is in turn improving the learning of the pupils.
It is therefore essential that we do not blindly use EdTech, acting like magpies being drawn to the new shiny objects that we find in front of us. EdTech can have some real benefits (though you may not believe that given what I’ve said already) but it must be selected carefully. It should not be a case of EdTech leading us, we (as education professionals) should be dictating what EdTech we use, we should also be informing the companies which products we need. There are EdTech products which do this already, some of which I have talked about in other posts, there are products for screencasting, ones to help speed up assessment and others which have some real, research-grounded benefits for teachers and the pupils which we teach.
This post is very one-sided and it can be argued that I am being too harsh, or requiring too high a standard from EdTech. I believe that I have set a high standard because that is what is required. I could also be critiqued for myself not providing sound, research-backed arguments. The reason that lots of references haven’t been provided is that I didn’t want to bog the piece down with them – I also wanted it to be an opinion piece and not an academic essay. I am happy to provide research to whatever I can, if I cannot then I apologise and I will accept that I did not meet the standard that I myself demanded.
I am truly a fan of what EdTech can do, I plan to follow this post with a piece about the democratizing effects that EdTech can have.
In the meantime, let the debate commence…