Raging against the machines? Not really. Adventures in misunderstandings

15th February 2015 at 13:17


I'm frequently accused of being a technophobe and an enemy of the digital learner. It's true that I have a hearty scepticism about tech adoption and integration in the classroom, because I have yet to see strong, wide-ranging evidence that convinces me its introduction improves educational outcome significantly for the majority of children. 


But that doesn't necessarily mean:


1. All tech is bad in the classroom

2. It never works

3. It doesn't help teachers teach or learners learn


I take those as read, but many people, especially those who seem to have a passion for tech, take umbrage at the merest hint that you don't share their enthusiasm for digital revolutions. Nuance is the first casualty in the great techno wars. Incidentally, I don't know what tech enthusiasts get so upset about: after all, they won. Every classroom has an IWB, whether it needs one or not. VLEs proliferate, and everyone, from Ofsted to LEAs, congratulate you on tech adoption no matter what its impact. Just its mere existence appears to be a modern Shibboleth of groovy futurism and innovation. If it's shiny, it must be valuable. 


One of my related concerns is that a great deal of tech research that substantiates the claims is driven by commercial interest, or is merely advocacy dressed up as science. I've poked my nose into this world quite a bit and routinely find research approvingly conducted by the company being researched, research that references its own authors, or other tech websites, and so on and so on. Notice I don't say all research. Just a hell of a lot of it. 


This weekend, for instance, a quote I gave to a national newspaper gave some offence:


"You hear people say that children must have iPads in order to be 21st-century learners, but when you look at the research that tries to substantiate this claim, it’s normally written by iPad manufacturers and technology zealots, and that’s fine, but don’t pretend it’s research. Children don’t have the time to waste on that rubbish, especially poor children.”’


That was seized upon by one blogger as meaning, "I hate iPads", which then became, "I hate evidence" and it all went a bit mad. 


He misunderstood one sentence, then built an entire blog around what is essentially one of the longest straw-man arguments I’ve seen in a long time.


I’m happy to defend, or amend at any time, whatever I’ve said. I’m less happy with someone creating a position, attacking it, and then super gluing my name to it. It would have been the work of a moment to ask me to clarify what was – I’ll concede – a short ambiguous statement with a variety of possible meanings *before* writing about it, but I understand that it wouldn’t have been such a controversial blog.


What I meant was that in my not-inconsiderable experience of looking at research claims for IT adoption, an enormous amount is often the produce of commercial interests, or simply advocacy and sales dressed up as sober investigation. So far, so good. That’s the ‘rubbish’ on which children don’t have time to waste – the poor research. Not iPads or tablets or apps or any variety of edu-tech wonders. I have no issue with such things per se. More importantly, I don’t have an axe to grind. I love using tech myself, and I sometimes find it useful in the classroom. I do rail against those who claim it has magic powers, or those who argue for its wholesale adoption without considering the consequences of poor integration, or those who think that, by itself, it will be the simple solution to a complex problem. 


Of course tech can be integrated well, given the right context, strategy and users. A statement of such obviousness scarcely need be said; you could say that of any tool. I once used a carrot as a key prop in a lesson. You don’t hear me railing against carrot adoption though, because they don’t cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to install, maintain, and they don’t break very often. It’s the practitioner far more than the tool that counts.


I grant all that isn’t conveyed in one sentence, but few sentences could labour so hard. It was a phone conversation between me and the journalist who has, to her credit, faithfully transcribed what was said. If it had been a pre-written manifesto or a mission statement, I’d understand the reaction, but from a snippet of conversation? I fear some people's standards of idiomatic clarity are high indeed.


I’m not free from bias – no one is – but I struggle against it as much as I can. I try to make my observations based on evidence. That’s why I started researchED, because I was tired of the swamp of claims that people could make about the classroom without much to back it up; not just tech, but also tech. And as I said, as far as tech v no tech goes, tech won, congratulations. People like me are like John the Baptist, raving in the wilderness. To argue against tech adoption is an act of insurrection these days. 


But poor children have fewer chances than anyone else, and if a school or a district or an LEA floods their classes with ill-conceived IT strategies that could have been profitably spent on another teacher or similar, then yes, that does matter.


If tech adoption were cheap or easy, and didn’t take much time, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. But if you want to persuade people that it’s right for them then it’s not unreasonable to ask what evidence is there that this will have a positive impact before they money on it. That’s just good governance. And sure, it’s early days yet for the evaluation of its efficacy. All the more reason to show caution along with all that exuberance and zeal, especially when tax dollars are at stake.



Tom Bennett,

Writing a blog on an iPad then tweeting about it,

Hater of technology as an educational tool