Thursday, 07 August 2014

Teaching and technology

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There is a huge disparity between the people who decide how and where technology is used in education and the students themselves, how they use and understand technology. Schools are failing to keep up with the changing technological world in which our children will eventually live and work. What is holding them back?

If we are to believe a recent article by Phillip Heath, Chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools in Australia, children are growing up more quickly and are at an unprecedented risk from the dangers of technology. Not only is this an exhausted generalisation with no supporting evidence, it’s also based on the most superficial of judgements.

Heath is calling on the government to address the cyberbullying in schools and he places the onus on the soon-to-be-appointed Children’s e-Safety Commissioner, who must be ‘technologically nimble in their response to dealing with cyber bullying’. For Heath and AHISA, the position will affirm to students that their safety is paramount, and that bullying and intimidating behaviour online will be answerable to a higher authority.

While students are exposed to technology and information at a rate far beyond that of any preceding generation, it does no one good to judge on differences and fail to acknowledge what is consistent. Cyberbullying is still bullying, but because it happens in a different arena, across a rapidly changing medium, teachers are uncertain in their response.

It’s an issue teachers are forever trying to deal with. How does traditional education reconcile itself with exponentially advancing technology? How can the profession counteract the division between the so-called digital immigrant educators, and the students who were born into a technologically advanced era?

For too long, schools, universities, teachers, principals and education ministers have all treated technology as a paradox. On one hand, its all-pervasiveness is accepted as a foregone conclusion, and teachers are instructed to welcome it into the classroom with a warm embrace. No longer are phones confiscated on sight, or headphones seen as a passive-aggressive stance against the learning environment. Victorian Certificate of Education study designs carry an ICT logo for learning ideas, treating them with special merit and weight not only for the students, but for the reputation of the school that implements them. Technology has become the token inclusion in schools everywhere, a shiny yet disruptive toy, distracting anyone from considering whether there is actual merit in its use.

On the other hand, education as a profession is terrified of technology. Knee-jerk policies are implemented to deal with perceived risks and dangers from its use in the classroom, and terms like cyberbullying and cybersaftey are bandied about to mask our fears of unknown mediums. Teachers are actively instructed to dismantle or lock down social media profiles and run the risk of losing their jobs merely for being an active and participatory citizen, while students are barraged with the idea that at all times someone is out to get them, steal their identity and ruin their lives in the magical ether of the Internet. Rules are created assuming the worst about students – plagiarism, cheating, bullying – and any benefits of the technology is diminished.

And while we busy ourselves considering a move toward online exams and assessments, students are still learning in a paper-and-pencil vacuum. Schools in Victoria are overhauling their traditional learning patterns for integrating iPads and laptops and social media forums into schoolwork, but by Year 11 students are asked to forgo everything and revert to set conditions with only a dictionary and a few higlighters for back-up. The VCE English exam is still three hours of handwriting essays with unsighted prompts. As a result, teachers lament the lack of quality handwriting, to the point where the latest draft of the Australian Curriculum reintroduced legible handwriting as a necessary skill. And yet this is despite the weight of research in favour of a mix between handwriting and typing, particularly preferring the latter for the extended written tasks so common in VCE. Even the maligned and limited NAPLAN testing is unable to move online, meaning parents and students still need to wait months for their results.

So which is it? Use more technology, or back to basics with handwritten assessments? The message, despite being loud, is mixed. Technology has become both the badge on which to hang a school’s worth, but also the scapegoat of our inability to create meaningful learning.

The reasoning behind this isn’t difficult to understand. Schools are built on an industrial model of the old teaching the young at incremental levels, until they are considered old enough to be knowledgeable. And yet we have a situation where the students have all the technological knowledge, but the teachers are responsible for implementing and monitoring its use; and they are outpaced at every turn.

We don’t need an e-Safety Commissioner, any more than we need special designations for assessments that use technology. Schools need to reflect the world students will one day enter, and that requires knowledgeable, flexible and lateral-minded guidance on the uses and benefits of technology. What we currently have is an education system that is terrified of technology because it has no understanding of it.

Complaints about handwriting or plagiarism are wilfully ignorant of the true value of learning in a technologically flexible environment. That these complaints come from active members of the profession illustrates how much of a divide there between teachers and students. Our education system is suffering in its constant reliance on outdated and obtuse perspectives on technology, students and learning.

In his article, Heath acknowledges the distance between the e-Commissioner and the students themselves, offering evidence that bullied children are more likely to seek assistance from those close to them. For students, it’s never about the technology, which is just a means to an end. They still understand the value of human connection, of meaningful exchanges, and take comfort in responsible sources of wisdom and knowledge.

Classrooms may be different, just as curriculum and homework may arrive by different means. Unfortunately, education in Australia is once again left in the hands of those who seem poorly equipped to take care of it. And once again, education is at risk of being confined to an archaic dungeon, particularly when it comes to the unhappy marriage of teaching and technology.

Craig Hildebrand-Burke

Craig writes fiction, opinion pieces and reviews of books and film.

Currently, he writes twice a week for Momentum Books, blogging on books, reading, writing, film and TV.

Follow Craig on Twitter @CraigHB