When thinking about the next steps in educational technology, the first things that jump to mind are the “flashy” technologies which appear to represent a jump in capabilities. Virtual reality (VR) is one such technology. My thoughts jump to how we might use Microsoft Hollow Lens and the Sony Playstation VR Headset. Augmented reality in the form of Google Glass is another technology which is also a hot topic, although part of the functionality is already available in AR apps for tablets and smartphones, albeit without the ability to wear the tech relatively unobtrusively. MOOCs are another area which is often cited as the next big thing, although I have to admit that the reality of MOOCs is that they have been around for a while now. The use of digital badges is another area that many educators get excited about in the ability to recognise students and also staff for their achievements. Many would say that Makerspaces and 3D printing are the future as these are exciting emerging technologies just in their infancy.
This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of UKEdMagazine
However, it is not the technology mentioned above that is central to education technology decision making. The central factor is that of learning. In relation to technology, the issue is which technologies would allow us to enhance or even redefine the learning experience?
The learning experience is very much a social endeavour taking place between students, their peers, their teachers and many others. As such, although Virtual Reality is very interesting and attention-grabbing, I don’t see it being used on a wide scale in classrooms, at least for the next few years. VR encases the user in a virtual world, thereby cutting them off from real-world social interaction. Augmented reality, on the other hand, still allows for the social interactions with others involved in the learning experience, with additional digital information overlaid onto the environment either via wearable devices like Google Glass or via handheld devices. That said, I believe AR will only see limited use in education due because of a lack of access to high-quality content and the relatively high skill and technical level to create content for class teachers and students to interact with.
MOOCs have been around for some time, and although they are great for those that wish to pick up new knowledge and skills in new areas, they rely very much on an individual’s motivation. In my experience, self-directed courses often suffer from issues in retaining students from the start to the end of the course materials. Motivation wanes, and users do not complete the full programme. I can see MOOCs being a tool in the toolkit, but not the wide-scale educational revolution which many would have us believe.
I very much like the idea of digital badges to recognise student achievement and learning. The challenge here is to provide worth to badges and to ensure equivalence and consistency in badge value. I would say I am reasonably optimistic about the potential for digital badges; however, I suspect the complexity of the educational system with different qualifications, awarding bodies, and many other factors, will result in this potential not being realised.
Makerspaces are another area I very much like; however, they rely on a change to the structure of learning. They rely on a focus on problem-solving as opposed to on learning about discrete subjects in discrete lessons. If we can make time available for such problem solving, then makerspaces and the associated technology such as 3D printers could have a significant impact on learning, and I would suggest that there are already some schools where this is in evidence.
Back in 2001, I clearly remember when the college I was working in took possession of some interactive whiteboards. At the time, there was much fanfare about the potential for the whiteboards and the functionality that came with them. Staff wanted to be in the rooms where they knew whiteboards were located. IWBs were the “shiny new thing” which everyone wanted. I now am not a fan of IWBs as I don’t feel they ever lived up to their hype, yet I know some teachers who love them and who have been deeply annoyed to join a new school in which IWBs hadn’t been installed in all classes. This, to me, hints at the real issue at hand. If we are searching for a piece of technology which will enhance lessons in general, we are just not going to find it.
I am a big fan of the iPad and associated apps for use in classrooms, yet I acknowledge that there are occasions when the iPad is not appropriate for the learning taking place. There are occasions when it is inappropriate to use technology at all. So if this is the case, should we be looking for the emerging technology which will change lessons at all?
My opinion at this point is we need to adjust our focus from the ‘macro’ to the ‘micro’ and, rather than focusing on education and lessons in general – instead focus on the students in front of us. We need to find out which app or technology is best for them by using our professional judgement, asking them and by trying different approaches.
I remember one group of students who loved singing, so I had them demonstrate learning via songs, writing the lyrics, recording, mixing and then presenting their songs. This worked for them in that they enjoyed the lessons, became engaged in the activities and then achieved well both in my eyes and against their own expectations. Audio recording technology is nothing new; however, using it to create musical evidence of learning was new, at least to me and the students. Another key issue is that educational technology isn’t necessarily about using new or emerging technologies but also about using existing technologies in new ways, all with learning as the key focus.
The key is to stop looking for a generalisable solution and focus on the students in front of us and on the learning. To stop looking for new technology and instead focus on improving our teaching. I started out by asking the wrong question, ‘Technology: What next’. The question I should have been asking is:
Learning: What next?
An educator with a passion for educational technology combined with experience working in the primary, secondary, further education, higher education and international schools. Also currently a Microsoft and Google Certified Educator and a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert. Find him on Twitter at @garyhenderson18 and read his blog at techandlearning.wordpress.com.