Archive for the ‘technology in education’ Category

Cyborg or Cyberpunk?

July 7, 2015

In a newspaper column carried in Fairfax newspapers in January 2015, the Fairfax technology writer, Blayne Slabbert, offers an analysis of why many people are afraid of technology. To sum up his case, he argues that Hollywood has promoted movies like Terminator and Robocop, where the antagonist is an evil machine predisposed to harming human beings. This has fixed in the public mind that technology is a scary prospect.
He goes on to asset that “People have always been afraid of technology. It started with trains, planes and automobiles and now it’s phones.” How does this assertion stand up to what we know and observe, our prior knowledge? Not very well. If people were afraid of these mechanical marvels why did they appear to be fascinated by them? Why do so many people own and regularly use cars, talk and read about them, complain about rising petrol prices and traffic jams? Surely this shows that people are fascinated by technology not afraid of it. The person who does not drive or who speaks out about the evil cars cause to the planet, is seen at best as eccentric. I can not agree with Slabbert’s main contention.
Further, in Terminator II both the villain and the hero are cyborgs making for a confusing claim that all the cyborgs are evil and the original Robocop was the hero. I hope Slabbert’s tech savvy is better than his movie knowledge!
He is really writing about people who do not use smart phones, who are not on Facebook and who are fearful Internet banking will mean they will be robbed. What percentage of the public hold these views? I don’t think it has been reliably measured. Instead we have pundits who assume that older people are digital immigrants or perhaps stay at homes. The media obligingly feed these fears with stories about people who do use these technologies and are bullied in cyberspace, have their privacy invaded by agents of the state and their life savings stolen at the stroke of a key by an anonymous thief in Moldova. Perhaps this is where this fear has its beginning.
The issue is worth exploring because industries where a detailed knowledge of ICT is required, are finding that some of their employees are reluctant to engage with the world of cyberspace. My experience though is that these employees either watched Robocop and Terminator to the extent they make Arnie jokes like “I’ll be back.” or they are blissfully ignorant of this aspect of our cultural space.
I also observe that, when the situation comes to compulsion, these employees either resign or learn the new technologies – and very few resign. What is really the case in my profession – teaching – is that some teachers limit their engagement with new technology, or do not initiate the use of technology in their practice. They use email and accept student work by email attachment but do not want to use Dropbox. They let students use word processors and spreadsheets but do not teach students how to use such technologies to their fullest extent. They make up text rich PowerPoints but do not experiment with transitions or adding sound effects and certainly have little knowledge of Prezi. Is this a problem of fear or just the same old problem that some people feel comfortable in their own space and see no need to extend their practice into new fields?
Curiously, I notice this is the same with students, the so called digital natives. Many of my students use Hotmail but feel no need to accept my invitation to move on to Gmail. They can use Facebook to chat or download pictures but not to assist in their studies. They can find ways to plagiarise their assignments but not set up a simple search using boolean logic. They can use a word processor but not the spell checker or formatting tools and have never used a spreadsheet.
Could it be that these people, adults and adolescents alike, do not suffer from a phobia but simply have no curiosity about what is over the next hill? Christopher Columbus wanted to know what was over the horizon. Most people in Europe at that time, never even considered there was something over the horizon. If adults have any fear about using technology, it is more a fear of seeming less than adequate, of appearing foolish in front of their managers and their peers.


Kindle or kindling

July 12, 2014

A column in The DominionPost (Plastic not as fantastic as real books 20 December 2013) by Rosemary McLeod argues against the e-reader and for the tactile experience of reading a physical book.
While she asserted she was not being a luddite, I couldn’t help comparing her to Socrates in Phaedrus: “if men learn this [writing] it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves but by means of external marks.” Then there was Johannes Trithemius who wrote in opposition to the invention of printing, yet had De Laude Scriptorium Manualium printed so it would reach a wider audience
Socrates, a master of irony, would have appreciated that the only way we know today of his distrust of writing is because Plato wrote down his argument. In the same vein, Rosemary McLeod asserts that e-readers are not the way to read the classics yet over ninety percent of the classics can only be read on an e-reader since they are out of print. These works, have been preserved on sites like Project Gutenberg so can be downloaded and read on e –readers. McLeod mentions Jane Austen specifically. While Pride and Prejudice is always in print and other novels are widely available in second hand book dealers and libraries, I doubt the apocryphal works such as Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon are available to most readers in book form.
Dale Spender in her book, Mothers of the novel, makes the point that Jane Austen was part of a greater tradition of women writers. There will be many who would like to follow up on her claims and perhaps appreciate where Jane Austen fitted in to her contemporary literary scene. These writers are also unavailable to modern readers, yet you can download Fanny Burney’s novels from Project Gutenberg and The Digital Library, – provided that you read them on an e-reader.
There may be many compelling reasons for not using an e-reader, but arguing they are unsuitable for reading the “classics” is not one of them.

Practice makes native

July 27, 2010

As we debate the validity of the digital natives/digital immigrants hypothesis, it is undeniable that younger users of new technologies seem more skilled at using it.  My point has always been that some older people can be just as skilled and that there are some young people who can not use computers.  Whatever is going on, it is not a function of a person’s age.

So how do we account for why some people have greater skill in using computers?   I think the answer can be found in the research into what makes exceptional people in any human endeavour: sport, games or more intellectual pursuits.   Anders Ericsson found that the key was practice.  These skills and abilities are achieved by practice. Rather than being the result of an evolutionary advance, (which is how I interpret Mark Prensky’s hypothesis) truly outstanding skill in any field is achieved with long practice which can not be done by cramming over several days but typically takes up to ten years.

The following exerpt from David Shenk’s The genius in all of us sets out the argument quite well:
“For those on their way to greatness [in physical or intellectual endeavours],
several themes regarding practice consistently come to light:

1. Practice changes your body. Researchers have recorded a constellation of physical changes (occurring in direct response to practice) in the muscles, nerves, hearts, lungs, and brains of those showing profound increases in skill level in any domain.
2. Skills are specific. Individuals becoming great at one particular skill do not serendipitously become great at other skills. Chess champions can remember hundreds of intricate chess positions in sequence but can have a perfectly ordinary memory for everything else. Physical and intellectual changes are ultraspecific responses to particular skill requirements.
3. The brain drives the brawn. Even among athletes, changes in the brain are arguably the most profound, with a vast increase in precise task knowledge, a shift from conscious analysis to intuitive thinking (saving time and energy), and elaborate self-monitoring mechanisms that allow for constant adjustments in real time.
4. Practice style is crucial. Ordinary practice, where your current skill level is simply being reinforced, is not enough to get better. It takes a special kind of practice to force your mind and body into the kind of change necessary to improve.
5. Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.

“Across the board, these last two variables – practice style and practice
time – emerged as universal and critical. From Scrabble players to dart players to soccer players to violin players, it was observed that the uppermost achievers not only spent significantly more time in solitary study and drills, but also exhibited a consistent (and persistent) style of preparation that K. Anders Ericsson came to call ‘deliberate practice.’ First introduced in a 1993 Psychological Review article, the notion of deliberate practice went far beyond the simple idea of hard work. It conveyed a method of continual skill improvement. ‘Deliberate practice is a very special form of activity that differs from mere experience and mindless drill,’ explains Ericsson. ‘Unlike playful engagement with peers, deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. It does not involve a mere execution or repetition of already attained skills but repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level which is associated with frequent failures.’ …

“In other words, it is practice that doesn’t take no for an answer; practice that perseveres; the type of practice where the individual keeps raising the
bar of what he or she considers success. …

“[One example of research in this field is] Eleanor Maguire’s 1999 brain scans of London cabbies, which revealed greatly enlarged representation in the brain region that controls spatial awareness. The same holds for any specific task being honed; the relevant brain regions adapt accordingly. …

“[Practice of the kind Ericsson described] requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond one’s capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again. …

“The physiology of this process also requires extraordinary amounts of
elapsed time – not just hours and hours of deliberate practice each day,
Ericsson found, but also thousands of hours over the course of many years. Interestingly, a number of separate studies have turned up the same common number, concluding that truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved in less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years’ time (which comes to an average of three hours per day). From sublime pianists to unusually profound physicists, researchers have been very hard-pressed to find any examples of truly extraordinary performers in any field who reached the top of their game before that ten-thousand-hour mark.”

Shenk, David, (2010) The genius in all of us, Doubleday, NY pages 53-57.

Ericsson, K.A. and Lehmann A.C. (1996) Expert and exceptional performance; evidence of maximal adaptation to task constraints, Annual Review of Psychology .

Maguire E.A., Frackowiak R.S.J., Frith C.D., (1997) Recalling routes around London, activation of the right hippocampus in taxi drivers, Journal of Neuroscience Vol 17 Number 18, September.

Facing the future: can Facebook be a future space?

November 13, 2009

My old school’s song has lyrics by its most famous principal, Frank Milner, a man born in the Ninteenth Century so his lyrics have a Edwardian feel but the sentiments can be quite modern. 

“Facing the future with nought to dismay us

We shall not fear what the years may unfold”

This song has always seemed to me to be a call to embrace the new as opportunities, not threats, so I am one of the Woodstock Generation who tweeted on Facebook about it being forty years since Woodstock.  (You would be surprised how my Thirty Something colleagues and my Generation Y sons reacted to that post!)  I also set up this blog to explore how the new information and communication technologies could be used in education.   I am aware of others older than myself, who are also tweeting and blogging and supporting my point of view, which is why I reject the opinion that older people can not adapt to these new technologies.

Yet it is true there is resistance  and disbelief  throughout the community that there can be any value in social media.  Last year while exploring with other residents of my community the idea of e-government at the local level, the convenor spoke of “silent resistance”, the phenomenon of decision makers and managers who, while speaking in support of change, will themselves revert to older methods and express an unwillingness to make the changes in their own lives.  Dennis Littky and Robby Fried, in 1988 called this type  “the Glad-Handing Administrator”.

Today I write about a challenge issued by The Learning Circuits Blog to discuss this issue, although I disagree with the writer’s analysis which sees the issue as a generational one.  Just as there are those of the Woodstock Generation open to new ideas, there are those in Generation X and Generation Y who have closed minds, – the Champions of Inertia  and the Programmatic Power-Mongers described by Littky and Fried in their article.

Is the issue all doom and gloom then?  I believe human beings have a capacity to keep on learning all their lives.  The motives which work against them adopting change are the same things which motivate our economy, fear and greed, perhaps with a big helping of ignorance.  Bolstered by the negative publicity towards new media by the traditional news media, many are fearful of what they don’t know.  They are fearful of appearing foolish if they “get it wrong”.   They also can perhaps glimpse that the new age of collaboration means that traditional hierarchical power structures will become irrelevant and, with it, the loss of their own positions of power.


Littky, Dennis and Fried, Robbie (1988) “The Challenge to make good schools great” NEA Today 6 No. 6 (January) P4-8.

The devil you know

October 6, 2009

The research supports the evidence coming from the media and the conversations of most adolescents.  Social Networks are big.

The media focuses on the negative.  Tonight we have a repeat television story  about how a hoax site was used to undermine a 15 year old girl’s self esteem and encourage her to join a suicide pact. The radio had a story about how a fan obtained the contact details of a celeb on Facebook.   No wonder most older people treat this new medium with suspicion.

Academic research is more objective and more positive.   Without dismissing the harm caused on social network sites, we should see that the overwhelming majority of young people use these sites without any adverse effects.

As I have argued in posts about using texting, we are in danger of letting the opportunity to use these sites for educational purposes go begging.

It seems to me that Facebook because it allows add-ons has more potential than the other sites which evolve much more slowly.   One use I quite like is the ability to add “causes” to your Facebook profile.  This allows like minded people to network and so become a more cohesive grouping which can act together.

We don’t ‘low no natives round here

August 21, 2008

I have just attended the DEANZ conference in Wellington, New Zealand and been struck by how criticism of Mark Prensky’s digital natives metaphor has now become mainstream thinking. While it is high time his views were subject to scrutiny and judged for their worth, I would be concerned that some of his less well promoted ideas might be lumped in with the digital natives idea and rejected without being examined.

In particular I refer to his ideas about the merits of cell phones as teaching tools.  While Prensky’s ideas of how cell phones could be used are not developed, he is aware of the huge potential.  I’ve covered this in earlier posts to this blog and in other media, but the reports of how cell phones are being used proliferate in the media.  The New Zealand Education Gazette 11 August 2008 reports how Nathan Kerr of Onehunga High School sends teaching notes to his students’ cell phones.

However, the merits of this initiative are reduced by Kerr’s Prenskian analysis of his project.   Kerr is quoted as saying “The most important thing to remember about the mobile teaching project is that it is student driven, they know a lot more about the type of technology than I do.”  Well, excuse me, but when did we last hear about a student compressing teaching materials and sending it to cell phones?   Surely what Kerr has done shows just the opposite, that he knows more about the technology than they do?  Prensky has a lot to answer for.

The second question about why other teachers aren’t using mobile technology is not answered in the media reports.   The answer to that question does swing the debate back in Prensky’s direction.  Many teachers and school administrators see cell phones as threats, not as opportunities.  Accordingly, money is not budgeted for these new approaches and teachers are discouraged.   When a teacher provides the resources themselves, they are met with obstacles, prohibitions and downright hostility.  As I have said in other posts, there are systemic obstacles to adopting new technologies, not so much the digital immigrants imposing their ways of life on the natives, but a Praetorian guard working to preserve the power of the elite, who talk the need for change while working behind the scenes to prevent any change threatening their way of life.

The tribe that crossed its head

November 1, 2007

The idea of the world being divided on generational lines between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” seems to be a widespread belief among educational managers. Its origin seems to go back to the American software developer Marc Prensky, who has written several books on educational technology. (You can access his blog from my blogroll.)

The problem is that for teachers working daily with the so called digital natives there appears to be scant evidence for Prensky’s claim. Yes, many adolescents are very skilled at using new technology and knowledgeable in a way their parents are not, but Prensky’s claim is a generalisation and like all generalisations it is very easy to disprove. Teenagers exist out there who can not use computers and cell phones and more importantly don’t want to. Nor are these all from communities which have turned their backs on new technologies. I’ve actually taught students who couldn’t use email but who had parents who were very computer savy; the exact opposite of what Prensky is claiming to be the case.

Now academics are examining Prensky’s claims in more detail. Gregor Kennedy head of the biomedical multimedia unit at the University of Melbourne says, “The data is showing that there is certainly a percentage of students who aren’t as technologically adept as some of the commentators make out.”

Prensky’s second claim that through their experiences using electronic media has meant that “digital natives” have their brains wired differently to the older generation. This is a view which resonates with me as the father of a thirteen year old with classic autism and profound intellectual disability. I might like to say his brain is wired up differently but the various brain scans and other neurological investigations didn’t find anything different about his brain or that of any other person with autism. The same is true with Prensky’s “digital natives.” This is not a “tribe that has lost its head” or found it again. Their heads are where they have always been, squarely between their shoulders. There simply is no evidence to back up Prensky’s claim.

Prensky’s loudest claim is that the education system is outdated and needs some fundamental changes to be able to cater to these new students. Well, the families who make up the autistic community have been saying this for years so I’m not going to argue with it, except to observe that these claims are being promoted by self-serving administrators who posssess the hallmark of the true reformer, a person who wants to change everyone but themselves. Ask Prensky’s more vocal disciples. What are they doing to show their commitment to changing the education system? Do they have a blog or use wikis to encourage collaborative and networked approaches to educational administration? Some do but many do not.

I’ve been in education long enough to see the way new approaches appear like new fashions in clothing and music only to disappear, as another new approach rises to take its place. This is a pity because personalising education does have the potential to improve motivation and outcomes for the students who are not succeeeding in schools. It would be a pity if this approach was to disappear now that Steve Maharey has resigned as Minister of Education and his successor, Chris Carter promotes some new enthusiasm of his own. However, I recall that “Parents as first teachers” lasted as long as Lockwood Smith was Minister of Education and I am not optimistic.

And let us also realise that Prensky’s claim is yet another generalisation. Our present system is working very well for many of our present students and there is no reason to believe it will not continue. Let us promote innovation not because all the old ways are not working, but because issues of equity demand that we do something for students who are not succeeding at school. Yes, we have students who are persistently truant and leave school without qualifications but these students have always been there. Once schooling was just for the sons of the nobility and gentry. After all, the word “school” comes from the Greek word for leisure. We have progressively extended the opportunity to attend school to the sons of the middle classes then to girls and finally to the children of working class families. The present group causing concern are part of a large underclass which we have created. When their parents left school before the school leaving age we just turned a blind eye. If we didn’t see it happening, we could pretend it wasn’t happening.  Now that is no longer acceptable. What has changed is not the students but our attitude towards underachievement.

The sound of one tree falling

May 27, 2007

Move over e-learning, mobile education is here to stay

May 2, 2007

Playing the devil’s tunes

March 1, 2007

The Salvation Army used to have a saying, why should the Devil have all the best tunes? What was meant was that ideas and initiatives meant to be used for some commercial or even immoral purpose could be taken over and used in another way to serve a nobler end.

The idea has enormous merit. My immediate interest is in whether what are commonly called Web 2.0 applications could be used for educational purposes. In New Zealand the websites most commonly visited are TradeMe, MySpace and Bebo, all Web 2.0 applications. While it would be difficult to see TradeMe as having a primarily educational function – the other sites foster interaction and discussion, essential functions of any educational activity.

I intend this blog to demonstrate a third kind of Web 2.0 application, blogging but it can also serve the purpose of reporting on my research into what can be achieved in Web 2.0 applications