The Three Fs for Using Technology in Education – Flexible, Familiar & Frequent

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Our Flexible Friend

The idea of students sitting in front of PCs learning how to use Word is as dead as the proverbial dead parrot. It is already an antiquated model of learning – like chalk or fountain pens with ink-wells; it has a whiff of the twentieth century about it, rather than preparing our students for the future. Whilst the DfE dithers about what they should do with technology (Mr Gove clearly wants to reboot the chalk and talk bygone age), schools are left with a rapidly changing world, where budgets are at a premium and ICT often stretches what budgets now allow. All the while, students are learning on their iPads, Android tablets and smart phones, writing more in texts and tweets daily than in their collective writing experience during the school week. We aren’t harnessing this expertise, never mind guiding it to a place of higher learning!

Clearly, the Microsoft model of a straight-jacketed suite of programmes, with little synchronicity between devices, is a thing of the past. Students want to instantly access information and media (whilst editing, adapting and creating their own) and we need to harness and shape this creativity. Whatever subject we teach, we also need to guide students towards a digital literacy that helps them source the best information, filtering out the European food mountain style piles of rubbish that litters the web. Sitting in front of an ageing fleet of PCs isn’t going to do the job. The flexibility of students working in groups filming with an iPad, or making a presentation with ExplainEverything, for example, then seamlessly showing their films through Apple TV or AirPlay, is an instantaneous way of making the learning visible. It also has the added bonus of making the learning feel more ‘real’ and more familiar to students.

No longer should Geography teachers, or Maths teachers, or Art teachers, or indeed teachers of any subject, have to traipse across the school to find a computer room – losing fifteen minutes of the lesson in the process, gaining a moist folder and a raucous group of excitedly damp students. We shouldn’t have to struggle to make advanced room bookings that then become superfluous because we didn’t follow the gold plated plan! The byword for new technology must be flexibility – flexibility in how and where students can learn.

Familiarity breeding contentment, not contempt

Educational luminaries such as John Hattie and Dylan William have found little concrete evidence to support the view that technology has a transformative effect on learning. Indeed, what we know is that key is the teacher – they are the nexus for learning, technology is just a tool. But what if the tools teachers use actually has leverage into a wealth of expertise and learning already possessed by students? The research on these mobile and flexible devices is still in its infancy which makes finding an evidential ‘answer’ problematic, but if we know that students understand new things in the context of things they already know, then it stands to reason that we should make the unfamiliar familiar by using familiar tools. Hattie and William have inevitably been looking to research from the past – where the older fixed model of technology has never truly enriched learning in any transformative way. We have all been guilty of looking backwards: whole class ICT, perched impassively in front of some poor imitation of a game, or a clunkingly slow VLE is a weak version of what is truly familiar to students – therefore it is dismissed as phony by students. With some degree of teacher expertise (I don’t think the teacher has to be an outstanding technological expert – have you seen a five year old navigate a mobile phone or an iPad quicker than their grandparents ever could?) we can tap into a world of familiar knowledge and skill possessed our students – not only that – we must do if we are to help shape their crucial digital literacy.

For good or ill, students live with technology as an integral part of their lives; how they communicate and socialise, and of course, how they learn. If we could harness the impassioned determination to master the latest incarnation of Fifa or COD in Maths or Science lessons, or even ICT itself, we would most definitely be onto something. Now, I’m not suggesting the ‘gamification’ of our curriculum – but on the iPad for instance, there are a wealth of apps, such as: ExplainEverything, iMovie, ComicLife, Notability etc. which can take the written word and transform it into something more real and make it multi-modal like the texts with which they engage with every day and will do so in future.

Frequency Matters

If you making using ICT tools something special, a treat, then students are in danger of not learning the knowledge you are seeking. Instead they may only remember the novelty of the change in their learning, they may remember playing with the tool, not learning the knowledge being leveraged by the tool. Students learn and remember more effectively when their emotions are stimulated – it they are even momentarily elated by using iPads, then that has the potential to override their long term memory – and the tool becomes obstructive to the learning. Put simply, using flexible, mobile ICT devices must be done frequently and as an integral part in how we teach and students learn, otherwise they will become another novelty or gimmick. Using iPads may have an initial prestige, but when that wears off the real learning will begin, and with the right pedagogy, the learning can be amplified by the skilful applications available. In short, if we use the tools a lot they will lose their gimmick factor and become very valuable tools that can stretch and enhance learning.

Our Pilot

I would like to note that our faculty is undertaking an iPad pilot, which began this year. We have already seen some outstanding learning in evidence, with student motivation raised by using the tools, because of their prestige, but also because of the teacher using the tools to make student learning instantaneously visible on a regular basis. We have honed in on teachers becoming expert with a smaller range of apps, whilst using the devices as a collaborative tool for group work, with some capacity for a one-to-one technology model (this is inessential, however, as we have planned to use the tool in groups). It hasn’t all been plain sailing – there have been issues with saving student work; with failures with Apple TV etc., but our use of ICT as a tool for learning has multiplied nearly exponentially – frequency and familiarity matter. We are moving beyond the ‘distraction stage’ of the new technology, where students may be at risk of remembering only the use of the new tool, rather than committing the knowledge and learning to long term memory. We are moving into a stage of greater familiarity, and with sound pedagogy, we will continue to make marginal gains in our teaching and learning using these powerful tools for learning.

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About huntingenglish

I am an Assistant Headteacher and English Subject Leader at Huntington Secondary School, York. I like to read, write and talk about teaching and learning. I blog regularly about my main interests: successful teaching strategies, coaching, teacher improvement, with some political arguments and miscellany along the way. I am currently writing a book for new English teachers, to be published next year.

8 responses to “The Three Fs for Using Technology in Education – Flexible, Familiar & Frequent”

  1. fullonlearning says :

    Thank you for this very thoughtful and insightful post, Alex. Your experiences with the iPad project have clearly been learning-driven and as result, your reflections keep you focused on the pedagogical implications for the adoption of new technology. Let us hope that the days of a one-size-fits-all model of booking a computer room to use the one available type of software and hoping that by the time we’ve taught our planned lesson, we’ll be ready to use the equipment are about to fade away.

    The opportunities for learning-driven, ‘flexible, familiar and frequent’ use of appropriate technology are clearly here. With powerful contributions like this post to the increasing evidence base on what the impact on learning is, let us hope that the researchers are already collating, analysing and disseminating to make the path easier for those to follow…in the meantime, please keep us informed.

    • huntingenglish says :

      Thanks for your feedback Zoe. Hopefully we can add to that research this year, in a small way, with our project. The only issue is finding the time to reflect upon the process. We are constantly looking for time to review, reflect and refine in the daily hourly burly. Having experienced the flexible model of technology the idea of going to computer rooms feel anathema and wasteful of precious learning time.

  2. kevenbartle says :

    Loving seeing how this is developing. Will be recommending to my new OPP group of volunteers. Will keep on watching and listening to how things develop. Love that pedagogy, not hardware, is at the heart of this.

  3. mauriceabarry says :

    Seems to me one important “F” is left out here. “F” is also for ‘Fit.’ “The Curriculum” is what all of this is for. Technology–and in this post we are referring specifically to electronic technology–is just a tool; a means. It is not the end.

    • huntingenglish says :

      I refer repeatedly to technology as a tool. All of my writing about technology makes clear that pedagogy, not technology, is the driving force. I do think at the technology helps lever the pedagogy – which is the point I hoped to convey in my blog post!

  4. oliver caviglioli says :

    We’ve just mapped out a series of links between evidence-based teaching techniques, visualised as HOW2s, with generic digital technology categories you may find useful. It’s free. Find it at:

    http://teachinghow2s.com/workspace/uploads/resources/ebt-how2-technology-mix.pdf?dl=1

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