The promise of digital technology and schools
What is digital technology?
Digital technology, information and communications technology, computerised technology, and a lot of other variations currently exist under the label ‘information technology’. In a technical sense, all of these terms refer to computer-based systems – mainly software applications and computer hardware – that can be used to produce, manipulate, store, communicate and disseminate information. Since the 1980s, these systems have been evolving at a rapid pace and have taken many forms such as computers, mobile phones, tablets, and the internet, and all these digital technologies together have converged into an ever-growing collection of tools, artifacts, and applications.
Digital technology in schools and schooling
In the most basic sense, schools can be understood as the institution where children and young people receive education, usually under the guidance of teachers. Schooling refers to the processes of teaching or being taught in a school. This distinction may appear pedantic, but it shows the need to approach schools and digital technology both in terms of structure and in terms of processes.
The long-standing and widespread faith in the ability of digital technologies to transform schools must be seen in terms of wider societal concerns over mass schooling.
In terms of structure, schools should be seen as physical entities whose architectural designs and the organisation of space influence teaching and learning. According to Neil Selwyn, author of Schools and Schooling in Digital Age, in addition to this, schools have a number of social and cultural structures, such as the hierarchies of roles that people adopt within the organisation, hierarchies of knowledge that constitute curriculum and the organisation of time that constitute the school timetable. In short, schools should certainly not be seen simply as neutral contexts within which digital technologies are implemented and then used.
The long-standing and widespread faith in the ability of digital technologies to transform schools must be seen in terms of wider societal concerns over mass schooling. For the past few decades, many people have tended to view schools as a cause of concern than celebration. They believe that school systems are somehow failing to perform as well as they should. Stephen Gorard, Director of the Durham University Evidence Centre for Education, has termed a prevailing ‘crisis account’ of schooling where educational opportunities have come to be understood as increasingly polarised, and schools characterised by their apparently poor overall education standards.
The topic of schools and technology has brought together a broad range of interest groups. On the one side, there are a large number of teachers and other practitioners who extensively use digital technology in their work. On the other, we have a lot of educational technologists who develop technology applications and tools.
In addition to both these groups, there is a growing number of learning technologists responsible for designing and implementing pedagogies. Then there are academic researchers working within university departments of education who study and evaluate the use of digital technology in schools. Accompanying them are a group of policymakers who can influence the school technology policies at the national and international levels. Correspondingly, there are companies which develop these technologies and sell it to the school.
Finally, there are a number of advocacy groups that are concerned with this, including parents, employers, and community groups. All these interest groups collectively create a huge buzz relating to what school technology is and what school technology is capable of.
Neil Selwyn, author of Schools and Schooling in Digital Age, says that the incessant hyping of the educational potential of technology should be seen as a part of the wider tendency in contemporary society towards a ‘techno-romantic’ or ‘techno-utopian’ reading of the technological. This extreme positive attitude is accompanied by negative reactions from some other commentators.
According to Debb Keen and Tara Brabazon, concerns have been raised over the intellectual dumbing down associated with students’ and teachers’ use of technology. Apart from that, psychologists and biologists continue to point towards technology-related decline in children’s cognitive skills and mental performance as well as the imbalance in hormone levels. There are also anxieties prevalent that digital technologies may contribute to the increased disaffection among students for schools and classroom-based learning.
Hopes for schools, schooling and digital technologies
The most widespread hope for digital technology and education centres is around the perceptions of the better forms of education that technology-use can yield for individual students. The use of digital technology in education improves learning processes as well as empowers individual learners. Digital technology offers a basis for learning as a communal activity. Internet-based technologies support socio-cultural and constructivist forms of learning.
The centrality of digital technologies to socio-cultural views of learning is reflected in the emerging learning theory of connectivism. According to G. Siemens, learning is framed as the ability to access and use distributed information on a just-in-time basis. From this, learning can be conceived as an individual’s ability to connect to specialised information sources as and when required.
Digital technologies support teachers in a number of roles, including reducing their workload, support in tracking and monitoring the progress of learner, the management of learning materials and the summative assessments of learners and learning.
Some authors have also argued for distinct biological and neurological changes to the ways in which generations of technology-using learners are now able to learn and process information. According to Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, this claim is grounded on an emerging body of scientific evidence that suggests that young people’s memory and perceptual learning can be enhanced through engagement with digital technologies.
Digital technology helps the increased empowerment of individual learners. It enhances students’ control over what, where, when and how they study. It supports the capacity of students to build and maintain connections with various components of schooling. This is presented as personalisation of learning.
Beyond the context of the individual learner, digital technologies also bring a number of enhancements to teaching and pedagogy. Digital technologies support teachers in a number of roles, including reducing their workload, support in tracking and monitoring the progress of learner, the management of learning materials and the summative assessments of learners and learning. They also enhance their own learning about their subject areas, thereby offering a number of pedagogical advantages.
Apart from these benefits, digital technology is said to democratise educational opportunities and outcomes. Learners can enjoy a more diverse learning experience through the internet, both inside and outside the classroom. These enhanced opportunities are accessible to everyone regardless of geographical boundaries and economic circumstances. This leads to a widespread belief that digital technology provides an opportunity for schools and teachers to reconnect with disengaged learners. It also aids social relations along open and democratic lines.
Though digital technology in education has a huge potential, many of the debates and discussions around schools and digital technologies are not concerned with actual technical capabilities. Instead, they are related to a wide imagining of how schools must be altered to be in line with contemporary society. Even when the hopes and potential of digital technology in the education sphere have a great appeal, the ways in which these stories are repeated and retold in educational debates is a cause of concern.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
How would you describe the term “digital technology” to your students?
How would you explain the potential of digital technology to transform the educational system?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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