A constant and changing challenge

IEUA-QNT member and Curriculum Leader English at St Benedict’s College in Brisbane, Chris Carlill, discusses the current debate surrounding the use of technology in schools and to what extent it works as a resource in collaboration with the knowledge and skills of teachers in classrooms.

Technology in schools is embedded in broader narratives about educational change. Two fundamental logics drive the narratives: instrumentalism and determinism. Instrumentalism follows the logic that people use technology to meet a need, as a means rather than an end. In contrast, determinism posits that technology shapes who we are, how we behave, and our future as humans. Educational leaders find it difficult to reconcile and enact these two logics.

Invariably, innovation imperatives from school leaders, driven by instrumentalism, determinism, or both, lead to ‘must have’ and ‘must do’ downward pressure on teachers, students and parents with the inherent risk of educational and social failure as a primary motivator. Furthermore, it places added demands on teachers, especially in terms of professional development and self efficacy. In relation to teaching and learning, technology may enhance collaboration in some instances, but with an added layer of expectation and entitlement that sees teachers being at the beck and call of students outside established hours of duty.

What is missing in the debate is advice on the balanced use of technology in teaching and learning. Portable devices and learning management systems, despite their ability to be promoted in a competitive educational marketplace, only seem to perpetuate the delivery or reception mode of teaching and learning. Closing the lid and experiencing real face to face interaction may be an old fashioned concept, but it really is the best way to join the conversation and build relationships day to day.

What schools need is evidence based direction on how to help students be more responsible and reflective regarding their use of devices in class. Over-reliance is a stressor as much as enforced ‘digital detoxing’. Students’ ability to self manage their engagement with technology, like so many social behaviours, begins with appropriate modelling at home. Unfortunately, many parents see technology as a vital function of preparing for the future and support usage with little regulation and intervention. It is like letting kids eat what they want when they want because they like it, even though we know the consequences. Instead, the implementing of control measures falls to teachers who have to compete with technology, rather than finding where technology can complement.

A dimension to this debate is the growing call for handwriting to regain a place in classrooms from prep to senior years. This is not some reactionary Luddite call to arms, but a gesture towards a more balanced, slower rate of information acquisition, processing and application of learning. Problem solving is not always one click away. Students, individually and in groups, need to ruminate on problems, to struggle with cognitive dissonance, to sketch, label, erase, and re-do. In this case, the messier the better works for many.

Technology in schools is a constant challenge that exists within ongoing change processes. Learning to use or using to learn is an ongoing dilemma for all stakeholders as new iterations of technologies emerge. School leaders have to show resolve and flexibility when deciding on implementation imperatives, both in the short and long term.

The credo of ‘useful, usable, and used’ can help guide decisions about technology in the classroom without getting locked down in future proofing and what makes up the best blend. Teachers and students need time to engage in hands-on processes, regardless of whether the tablet is made of slate or plastic and glass.