Technology – Like the air we breathe

I notice that an Australian educator was quoted by the Times Educational Supplement as suggesting “technology is invisible now. Just like electricity, it’s there, it’s an enabler, it makes the connections work.” Indeed. I spent some time observing the implementation of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) in a secondary school last year, and one of my observations was that, in some classes, the teachers may well have been saying: “Right, take out your textbooks, and turn to p. 32”. What they were saying (some of them, at any rate) was, “Right, we’re going to take out our devices now, and open up Google Classroom”. Those words, used that way, sound very odd indeed – a little like saying, “Right class, we’re going to breathe now”.

By contrast, in three other school settings, where I was observing teaching practice and gethering qualitative evidence to support my research into flexible learning environments, the use of (digital) technology was integrated more seamlesslessly. Ironically, none of those schools have a BYOD policy, though one was making moves in that direction, while the other two merely supported the notion that each student was entitled to bring an appropriate digital device to complement their learning. (Reflecting on the difference between these schools and the BYOD school, I note that those with flexible learning environments also happen to work in a self-consciously ‘futures’ frame).

Two critical thoughts spring to mind when thinking about my BYOD participants: one relates to the digital natives/digital immigrants bifurcation; the other to the vision of increased cognitive load underpinning some taxonomies.

Elsewhere, I have joined others in challenging the notion of the existence of a ‘natives/immigrant’ bifurcation, for at least these reasons: it yields too easily to an ‘us vs them’ sceneario (ie the geeky teens who know all about that digital stuff vs the old dinosaurs who think faxes are modern and that there is an ‘interweb’). Second, the perpetuation of this myth allows some teachers (and parents) to really act like dinosaurs, and never challenge themselves to learn something new. Third, it presupposes all those born, say since 2000, are just ‘naturals’ with digital technology, and will ‘automatically’ know what to do with technology. Finally, and here is the space teachers should explore more, is the notion that all the members of the ‘Net Generation’ are using their digital technology in cognitively challenging ways. This is plainly not so. Like their elders, many (most?) young people have core functional uses for their devices.

Ruben Puentedura developed the SAMR model, a taxonomy that suggests teachers ought to aim to move from activities that are mere substitutes of pen and paper activities, to higher-order tasks demanding redefinition, in which previously inconceivable tasks are introduced. My own classroom obseravtions in the schools I mention above, suggest that this movement is not quite as simple as may be suggested by the SAMR model. If anything, the movement makes enormous demands on teachers’ time and energy, and that is before you get to thinking about their sense of personal confidence and skill in digital device use. In addition, schools find themselves under various forms of the neoliberal accountability regime, which includes National Standards and NCEA in New Zealand, for example.

There is an important sense in which the the two issues I am critical of, come together in the situation I described at the outset. Teachers who buy into the ‘natives/immigrants’ bifurcation may be reluctant to develop the skill set and confidence required to be effective in their seamless integration of digital technology into their pedagogy (doing and thinking), while simultaneously know just enough to get by, thus merely play the substitution game. Hence the odd comments about taking out devices now. Yet, if they recognised they have the ability to learn, they will find that they still do have something new to impart to their classes (who still do not ‘know everything’ about digital technology) thus allowing their students (and themselves) to engage with digital technologies in exciting, critical, and seamless ways.



University in 2016?


This is the title of a recent newspaper article that is more of a promo or advertorial on behalf of the university system in New Zealand. The article was well-timed to coincide with the publication of the results of the 2015 National Certificate in Educational Achievement – better known in these parts as NCEA. The article has something of a Polyanna feel to it, telling the eager young hopefuls that a university education is ‘a smart choice’, providing ‘better job prospects’, arguing that the unemployment rates of graduates are lower, and earnings higher. Readers (likely prospects) are reminded, that “if being employed is important to you, keep an eye on the employment prospects for graduates in fields that interest you.” The impact of the news of the likely cost of a degree is mitigated by the reminder that this is an “investment that will pay off over the rest of your life.” So, what is the cost? Apparently, $14 000 (NZD), which the average person takes 7 years to pay off.

Some critical thoughts come immediately to mind on reading this. One is self-critical. Just last week, I was appealing to university educators to remember to rekindle the ideal of a critical education, in anticipation of a new academic year (in the Southern Hemisphere, January is the start of a new academic year). I can’t help feeling a touch cynical, though. For one, two of my three adult children have student loans of around $60 000 each (and they have not been using their student loans to take ski trips). This size loan will take far longer than seven years to repay. Their cases are far from simply personal, and represent a major social issue for young New Zealanders – an issue with some direct links to neoliberal state policy. To gain a sense of what I mean, have a look at Student Debt and Activism in New Zealand, an entry on the Savage Minds blog site.

My second critical thought is prompted by the advice offered to potential undergraduates in the New Zealand Herald article to “follow your passions – study what interests you and what you love doing.” The New Zealand Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Steven Joyce, may beg to differ, however. In his economic view of the world, prospective students should be thinking strategically about their likely job and earning prospects in the future, much aided by the helpful Occupation Outlook app, which enables users to gain an accurate sense of job and earning prospects. There is a further twist to this tale, however, as coming to all New Zealand tertiary providers in 2017, is the intended policy requirement

to publish information about the employment status and earnings of their graduates broken down by specific degrees and diplomas…[thus] students will also be able to see what and where to study to improve their employment prospects.

One final point of critique: the work of Brown, Lauder and Ashton on ‘the global auction’ has helped to refute the linear idea that ‘learning equals earning’. Their research suggests that in the global knowledge economy, high skills are often made available at bargain basement cost, while for the elite, earnings are propelled ever-upward. Clearly, some sobering thoughts for academics and students alike, about to embark on the 2016 academic year.

Getting back to teaching as a subversive activity

Today, the 11th January, 2016, marks a return to work for many in New Zealand. Summer has barely begun (indeed the best is to come), yet the shift back into routine cannot be delayed any longer. Schools and teachers will make a more gradual awakening, coming fully to life by about the beginning of February. Prospective student teachers will have an even slower start, with their first semester commencing by the beginning of March, although the ones who are choosing the pressure-cooker, compressed Master level postgraduate teaching qualification make their start somewhat earlier (and this notion of a ‘postgraduate profession’ probably deserves its own blog posting sometime in the future).

Despite enjoyable summer days at the beach still to come, some of these students will no doubt be turning their thoughts in anticipation to the year ahead, as indeed, should be the academics who will guide them along the way. On that note, I thought about some of the exciting ideas I was introduced to in my first year of Education study, and amongst these were the ideas presented by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, in their 1969 book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  These authors have been credited with popularising inquiry learning.

Suppose (suggested Postman & Weingartner), all the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared…In other words, suppose that the most common material impeding innovation in the schools simply did not exist. Then suppose that you decided to turn this ‘catastrophe’ into an opportunity to increase the relevance of the schools…

[Now instead] suppose that you decide to have the entire ‘curriculum’ consist of questions. These questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view, but more importantly, from the point of view of the students…add the requirement that the questions must help the students to develop and internalize concepts that will help them to survive in the rapidly changing world of the present and the future. (1969, p. 65).

There are some remarkable features in this portion just quoted. The first is that it is the opening of a chapter entitled, ‘what’s worth knowing?’, in itself a critical question any educator (or prospective educator) ought to ask. Or, a question any critical educator should ask! And the answer is likely to have much to do with the final sentence of the quote above. That is a second remarkable feature of the quoted material, because it was written nearly half a century back. The insight suggested by Postman and Weingartner seems lost, however, on the army of commentators, experts and ‘modern educators’ who speak of educating and learning for the ’21st century’, using precisely the same words, yet in an evangelistic manner suggesting that they have just invented this ‘great new idea’.

A further figure of importance who suggested ideas that cohere well with those already suggested, was Paulo Freire. In particular, his notion of ‘problem posing education‘ is one that sits well with the idea of turning the questions students have into the ‘text’ of the class. In their quest for relevant knowledge, educators will do well to honour the insights of their predecessors, as well as to apply critical standards to their own work in the present.

A final thought then: a third remarkable feature of the quoted material from Postman and Weingartner is their warning that standards, texts and curricula impede innovation in the classroom. This is a warning that is often repeated, yet teachers and schools work in the midst of neoliberal  accountability demands and a public climate that projects teachers as part of the problem leaving them with few options, it seems. While this seems a dire note on which to conclude, as a new year begins to unfold, critical educators must continue to seek opportunities to teach subversively, if any of their dreams of a transformative education are to be realised.

The accidental meeting

University of Copenhagen

During 2015, I have enjoyed the privilege of taking a 6-month sabbatical from my university job. The focus of my sabbatical work has been my current project, which is to provide a thorough, critical, analysis of the development of flexible learning environments, which are all the rage in New Zealand schools. Sometimes referred to as ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) (the term first used by the New Zealand Ministry of Education) and as ‘Innovative Learning Environments’ (ILE) (the term the Ministry now prefers), these new building designs provide flexible, transparent and permeable spaces to encourage innovative teaching and learning. In turn, these innovative practices are geared to the provision of educational experiences more in keeping with the 21st century, than the ‘industrial age’ model of schooling is able to provide.

Although most of my sabbatical time was spent working from my desk at home, I did spend a fruitful three weeks in Europe. The first of these three weeks was in Copenhagen, where I met two associates,  Eva Bertelsen (University of Copenhagen) and Lisa Rosén Rasmussen (Aarhus University). My friends kindly introduced me to several individuals and accompanied me to visit several schools and university campuses in Copenhagen.

One of these visits was to a newly modelled building at the University of Copenhagen, where we met the architect (‘Thomas’, for anonymity) who managed and executed the design and implementation of the new build. Amongst the innovations related to the new design was the location of the lecturers’ offices (partly glass-walled) within the library, located on the visible second level. Part of the thinking here, Thomas explained to Eva and I, was to

create the possibility of what we call the accidental meeting between lecturers and students…[If a student was]…sitting there reading and a lecturer is returning from their office and [the lecturer]…see[s] [the student] reading whatever book and say, ‘oh this book is actually quite nice, but in comparison with that one it would be brilliant’. So it’s like six seconds of instruction that would make a connection and confirmation of being there…

The photograph attached to this blog fails to capture the dramatic visual effect of the building and the area described by Thomas, but its ironies are what interest me here. The glass, and its implied transparency, are reminiscent of Foucault’s notion of surveillance. In a neoliberal educational climate that favours accountability regimes (checking-up; checking-on; evaluating performance), marketisation (competing for students) and public choice (‘the student experience’, as my university calls it), the following from Thomas has a chilling ring:

As I said [earlier] when you came to work here you didn’t know where the people were teaching or they were preparing or concentrating or they were out travelling but you can’t share anything because you had no idea what’s happening. Present, not present, no idea. We [the planning team] discussed [creating] a culture being present. It was quite important to have that, we want to be there, we want to participate and share both culture and knowledge. (Emphasis added).

So the physical vision of lecturers at work, in their offices, or of walking between the shelves towards their offices, may be more about ensuring that they can be seen to be doing their work, than about providing opportunities for them to be conducting quality research, for example, or developing exciting programmes of learning. It may only incidentally be  motivated, as Thomas suggested, by the desire to create the chance of ‘an accidental meeting’ of students and lecturers.

Taking even this motivation at face value however, what does it mean in a lecturer’s life to accidentally meet a student for ‘six seconds’? Imagine any chance encounter – there is little likelihood it will ever only be for six seconds. Call it a minute – imagine this multiplied say half a dozen times each day. That is half an hour each week (seeing as we’re counting). Back to the neoliberal demand for accountability and the intensification of work flowing from these demands – academics and teachers are required to do more and more with less and less. Yet here is an opportunity (in the name of transparent learning, and making knowledge public) to add further stress to the work of the lecturers in this building, by the further erosion of their time resulting from ‘the accidental meeting’.

The visually pleasing, more comfortable and more environmentally-friendly buildings increasingly appearing on the educational landscape offer many teaching and learning opportunities, but may also come at a cost, namely that associated with an underlying intent to promote an agenda less concerned with aesthetics, environment, personal comfort or education, and more concerned with promoting an economic vision.

Measuring social skills

In the current century-indeed, the current decade-the concern of many educators is with the assessment of ‘soft skills’ or competencies, beyond the usual academic skills. Many national curriculum statements and documents (such as The New Zealand Curriculum) are now as likely to refer to some kind of soft skill or competency development as they are to academic development.

Schools (and universities) have developed a range of methods to assess academic progress. Measuring though, whether a student or child is learning ‘self-management’ or is an effective participator, or has developed empathy, is a quite different issue. Many of these skills are regarded as important for their potential to add to a school-leavers’s job adult performance.

It may thus be of some interest to those who are calling for greater emphasis on assessing competencies that Andreas Schleicher, the  education director of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has made an important announcement commenting on this very issue. The much-vaunted (and much-despised by many educators)  PISA (Programme International Student Assessment) testing regime will now assess collaborative problem-solving.

Whether this new slant on PISA testing is going to have any benefit to schools, teachers or students in OECD states remains to be seen. Given, however, the track record of the OECD global governance and the mania surrounding its league tables, it may soon be noted that some states ‘could do better’ at collaborating, leading to fresh rounds of anxious navel-gazing.

To read more detail, see