I can remember the heady days of the infant internet and the promise of an online world filled with opportunity and adventure. We were members of the new underground movement, hypnotised with bright lights and electronic networks. Bespectacled teens huddled together over dial-up connections wondering if the new age of connectivity meant that geeks might actually inherit the earth.
If you ever find a first-generation enthusiast and ask them about the promise of the internet, I assure you the response will be that we dreamed of an online world where unicorns frolicked in sunny uplands and a person would be judged, not on the colour of their modem but on the content of their forum posts.
Things have changed, haven't they?
It is worth remembering that once, the promise of the internet was a vision of a humanity connected, informed and integrated as a truly global community.
Skip forward to 2019 and I, like many other teachers, find myself viewing the internet, not a place of digital enlightenment, but as a gloomy kingdom of dark agents and even darker opinions. How our online culture had been corrupted had been gnawing at me for some time before I stumbled upon the LSE’s report Tackling the Information Crisis: A Policy Framework for Media System Resilience in January. I had been teaching for a couple of decades and this short report helped me to put into perspective why learners had been recently growing weary and disengaging with (online) learning.
What had changed in recent years? Well, it looks as though my learners have started suffering from the information crisis.
Put simply, there is a crisis of trust in information. While technology offers unprecedented potential to support informed debate and decision making, the threats to reliable information and public debate are growing.
Reading the report added to a strange group of inspirational bedfellows that already informed my teaching practice. Feuerstein’s thoughts on cognitive development, Leonhard’s fears for a digitally obese tomorrow, the “every child matters” wind change in assumed parenting skills in the Nineties and not forgetting Neal Stephenson’s visionary post-cyberpunk novel The Diamond Age.
So, in whirlwind fashion, these are the guidelines I use in my digital classroom to reduce the impact of the information crisis, and I recommend them for your consideration.
Do not assume normal psychological development no matter how adept at using technology your learners are. Differentiation in this arena can be difficult when teaching tech: learners can often seem to be more able digitally. You may be dealing with a range of developmental issues that social media and technology use is obscuring.
Don’t make it too trendy
Learners are not making value judgements on technologies’ aesthetics, they are engaging in binary choices of usability for their digital lifestyle. Learners tend to accept any link to technology and reject it later if it is too difficult or time-consuming to use.
Give don’t take
Never make a choice about your digital classroom based on your convenience over the learner’s support. Online tools for learning only really work if they support the learner first. Reducing your admin, data farming or assignment collection are not primary choices, they will come as a by-product of good digital learning support.
Monitor and guide
Never leave learners alone on the internet (particularly at lower levels). The information ocean is toxic to learning if you do not have the skills to navigate it. Don’t let independent learning drown in the high seas of Wikipedia, Google and YouTube.
Be the inspiration
You are there to engage your learners, not the tool. Technology will engage if you let it but there is a cost: your learners' attention.
A word to the wise. Be careful if your motivation to use online tools is to save teachers’ time and effort. The FE sector suffers persistent underfunding from government, all the while facing some of societies’ most challenging learners. It’s really not unimaginable how certain parties could look at a web-enabled, time-saving app is it?
While AI might soon be able to automate skills training, could this automation really match a learner’s complex and individual need to the requirements of a formal curriculum? I suspect AI will have its limits with understanding the subtleties of teaching inside a unique learning journey and teaching well.
Ken Crow is an FE lecturer in games design in Sheffield, South Yorkshire