Let me put on the table from the outset that I am most definitely a technological Luddite. Being digital natives, my kids find it impossible to believe their father could be in any way a savvy user of technology, and compared to them that is true, but nevertheless like all of you, my life is now heavily influenced by technology, and as I explained to them my age gives me perspectives that youth won’t understand as our journeys have been fundamentally different. We live in the same world but our realities are very different.  Today I want to share with you my own thoughts on the digital world we now inhabit, and I don’t profess to have particular wisdom or authorities in this, but as an educator and professed life long learner I do have observations, questions, optimism and fears in the digital world we inhabit.

Central to this article is students and their learning, for if teaching is about anything at all it is about student learning, influenced and supported by effective pedagogy and practice by teachers who make a difference in the lives of students, and communities. The use of ‘tools’ must be in such a way as to engage students from their point of interest, for this is what good teachers always do, and digital devices or not, student interest and engagement ultimately remains the cornerstone of effective teaching and learning.

Our fundamental belief systems encapsulate the challenges, and opportunities afforded us by information technology. We need to be wise and faithful stewards of our past as we guide and affirm students in the here and now, while preparing them for what may lie ahead, of which none of us can be completely certain. Being uncertain of the future is in fact the only certainty we have. But at Yew Chung we have explicitly set ourselves the challenge of preparing our students for this future, of which we are all so unsure.

Our Motto says we will align with Arts and Technology while our Mission demands of us multiple manifestations of purpose and commitment to new directions, emerging challenges, individual and social responsibilities and the ultimate challenge of creating a better future. Our Vision clearly articulates the belief framework, history and ethos that define us. We have set ourselves ambitious ideals, as we should, and for us these ideals are very real. What our overarching ideals and aspirations do not do however is define how we are to do these things, for this is our work, and it is within this framework that we reflect on the role of technology in enabling us to effect the learning and character development of our students.

In researching the topic of technology in education it became obvious very quickly that without too much difficulty I could find any number (millions in fact) of dissertations to support any particular view I wished to promote. The Internet is literally full of varying opinions describing technology in education as the panacea of a greater promise, or the precursor to destruction of learning as we know it, and have known it forevermore. My point here is not to promote or denigrate either proposition, but merely to highlight the emotive and provocative terrain we face in an increasingly connected world, in which our students are far more adaptive than most of us (well I speak for myself here!).

Information technology is pervasive and intrusive, adaptive and innovative, but it is in the end just another resource, albeit with the power to change us irreversibly, as communities and as a species. Everywhere I look I see the impact of technology, in every facet of life, and if not careful it can suck me dry of emotion, energy, relationships and life itself. If I look at life through an alternative lens I can see another reality, a world full of different shapes, colors, textures, smells, sounds and mysteries. I can, if I so choose immerse myself in any kind of world I like, and see beauty in the written word, the mathematical computation, the scientific formula, a beguiling sonnet, the exhaustion of the athlete and the richness of human interaction. Technology is ever present in each of these worlds, and the challenge is to ensure the beauty and majesty isn’t lostin the execution and mastery of tools, at the expense of the feelings and emotional connections to our world.

Let us remember that technology is not a new phenomenon, in fact technological advancement is the very thing that has enabled humankind to evolve to our current state, for better or for worse, and us uneven as this development has been for particular societies and cultures, we are nevertheless where we are today because of constant technological advancement, mostly due to emergent intelligence and adaptive mastery of the environment. Throughout history humankind has been inventive and technologically creative, beginning with stone technology for butchering dead animals, using fire for light, warmth and cooking, domestication of animals, use of clothing, weapons, copper, the wheel, glass and on and on, to present day. The first major technologies were tied to survival and it could be argued that new technologies are needed now to save us yet again, this time from ourselves.

Each period of history is defined by technological advancement, from prehistoric, through copper, bronze and iron ages, including great civilizations, the Egyptians (will never forget the enormity of seeing the pyramids for the first time) Mesopotamia, Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians, the Chinese, the Greek, the Romans the Inca, and Mayan, Islamic world, Medieval Europe, Renaissance technology, the age of exploration, the industrial revolution, the 20th century, and now the 21st century. The pursuit of advancement through technology has been relentless and widely dispersed across continents and cultures, for all humankind are restless and impatient in the pursuit of knowledge and control. The most important technological inventions of the 20th century make for interesting reading, as identified recently by the US National Academy of Engineering, in order 1-20: electrification, automobile, airplane, water supply & distribution, electronics, radio & TV, mechanized agriculture, computers (8), telephone, refrigeration, highways, spacecraft, internet (13), imaging technology, household appliances, health technology, petrochemicals, laser and fiber optics, nuclear technology and materials science.

In the 21st Century we now find ourselvespushing boundaries even further, even quicker than ever before with electronics, the internet increasingly integral to every aspect of our lives, from leisure to medicine, from renewable energy to engineered food, from self managed and fully interactive devices such as cars, watches and forms of media to space exploration, artificial intelligence and robotics to more sophisticated ways of killing and watching each other.

It can be bewildering, and overwhelming, and without a moral compass and strategies for discernment, it can be a dark and difficult journey for any of us, but most particularly for our young people. This is where our P&O comes to the fore again as we strive consciously to provide our students with a safe environment for exploring and learning about themselves, others, and their world. It was Martin Luther King who said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character is the true goal of education”.

There is of course very much an upside to the continued development of technology, and most particularly information technology at our fingertips, but we have a responsibility to ensure we manage it, and not the other way around, for to return to an earlier statement, technology no matter how pervasive is still a tool, and should not substitute for meaningful relationships, which in our context is the all important teacher-student relationship. For this is central to effective teaching and learning, and while there has been a fundamental change in that dynamic because of technology, the centrality of relationships cannot be diminished, otherwise our humanity is at risk.

Bernard Luskin, an educational technology pioneer advocated that the “e” of e-learning should be interpreted to mean “exciting, energetic, enthusiastic, emotional, extended, excellent, and educational” in addition to “electronic.” This broad interpretation focuses on new applications and developments, as well as learning theory and media psychology. Luskin is imploring us here to be forever mindful of the many important elements that contribute to the full learning experience for our students, in which electronic is but one part. Let us for a moment reflect on the other adjectives used by Luskin, “exciting, energetic, enthusiastic, emotional, extended, excellent, and educational” for these words describe the learning environment in which students will most likely be fully engaged and learn more effectively. In other words, ‘electronic’ alone, devoid of the human spirit will be a sparse and barren form of engagement. Just think for a moment of the opposite of these words and you will fully appreciate the centrality of environment and emotion to successful e-learning.

Let me now turn my thoughts toward schools specifically for a few moments, and the impact of technology.

The current technology revolution is impacting and forcing change for governments, business, institutions, schools, families and individuals alike. Schools are at the forefront of this change as the revolution is one of social and knowledge interconnectivity. The rapid evolution of a web enabled environment that has transformed personal, wider social and business relationships and collaboration, and provided timely, personal and accurate knowledge to the majority of the globe, have combined with fully two thirds of the world just beginning to gain access to these resources that, only a few decades ago, were the sole domain of the affluent West. The “Face-book Revolutions” and subsequent fall of firmly implanted Middle East dictators is a potent example of what such “chaotic” social interconnectivity can achieve. Business has already responded by moving away from a vertical chain of command to horizontal collaboration and management. Friedman, in The world is Flat: The Globalised World in the 21st Century, calls this moving from vertical thinking (who controls and disseminates what), to horizontal thinking (what outcome do we want to create). (Friedman, 2006)

Children themselves have embraced these revolutions and are relying less on being placed in front of experts to be filled with ‘privileged’ knowledge, and are seeking content for themselves. Technology is becoming portable, intuitive, collaborative and integrated deeper into their everyday lives at a tremendous pace. It is estimated that around one third of students in developed countries access You-tube to learn something each week and over one third of teens’ social interaction occurs over a social network and the platforms for interaction has expanded rapidly. Mobile phones are now the single most used access point to the web, and teens type an average of over three thousand text messages a month (over six texts per waking hour). Over one billion information requests a day are answered by Google searches. Because students have so many more resources available to them instantly and in formats they prefer, they are beginning to overrun the idea of the teacher (and for that matter, parents) as the source of important knowledge. Schools in their present form are in danger of losing their utility to learners if they do not lead, or at least respond appropriately, to the revolution occurring around them, and should not be simply reacting to this, but adapting, innovating and leading in exploring it’s utility in an educational setting. Schools need to be moving towards reinventing themselves as hubs (or portals) of learning, organising, filtering and framing learning, no longer the place of knowledge dissemination. Further to this, schools should be placing increasing importance on teaching safety in a global online world, critical analysis of information, and synthesising ideas, and less importance on the tiered dissemination of predetermined content. Lee & Gaffney, in their highly acclaimed text, Leading a Digital School, see this issue as vital to the continued relevance of schools:

If they are to be relevant, schools must respond to the realities of the twenty-first century, learning to thrive in a knowledge-based society. Teachers must be new knowledge workers. This requires much more than the widespread use of technology in schools. It calls for systematic change in both organisation and environment, and transformative change in ways of imagining what schooling yet might be. It requires a dramatic shift from control to collaboration and co-learning. (Lee, 2009 PG108)

Thus schools have little choice in choosing to ignore these societal changes, but rather the choice lies in how much schools choose to reinvent themselves to stay relevant to the needs of their community.There is the chance, however, to see these changes as a way of transforming schooling. This obviously has implications for educational philosophy.

Moving toward a Digital School environment involves focus and changes at two levels: the school community wide administrative level and the teaching and learning level. At the school community wide administrative level, digital technologies offer the opportunity for schools to become a ‘hub’ – where all members of the school community have the ability to access and contribute to relevant information, as well as enhancing teachers’ organisational practice, content delivery and generally enlivening their teaching practice. Schools can work towards this by developing their ownonline learning management system that creates an online school collaborative environment between administrators, teachers, parents and students. Most schools already boast websites and one sided learning management systems that provide information for parents and other general information; the new learning management systems need to move more towards social network styles where content is included and updated by all members in the community, not just the school ‘gatekeepers’. Many schools still shy away from full collaborative systems and often manage their learning management systems more as a content based website, little changed from school’s existing basic website, rather than moving toward a guided ‘social network’ structure. (Lee, 2009, Pg.4).

At the student level, new technologies offer the opportunity for students to use similar technologies to what they are currently using in their private lives to collaborate academically with each other, experts in the field of study and other students around the world in real time to explore, theorise, create and publish. It offers the opportunity to enhance student interest and engagement. The outcome of these opportunities is to learn the collaborative and mass information manipulation skills that will enable students to operate in the emerging new world of work and community. Surgenor, in his article, ‘Cautiously Skeptimistic’suggests that schools should be far more focussed on giving students the skills to access, sort through, evaluate and synthesise knowledge collaboratively as this is what students will increasingly be expected to perform in a rapidly increasing number of careers. It is the information and communication technologies that allow and enhance these skills.

Many people say we’re in the Information Age, but it’s really the shaping of information into knowledge and applications that’s driving this new era. Being able to work and learn in this new environment requires people to possess skills and attributes that would allow them to shape, build, acquire, share and develop knowledge. They must also develop the ability to “unlearn” and “relearn,” as well as adopt new ways to collaborate, co-operate and innovate.” (Surgenor, 2010)

In order to move towards digital schooling at both the school wide level and the student learning level, a number of areas need to be addressed to ensure the process does not become unnecessarily prematurely derailed. Firstly, general teaching philosophy, as already broached, would need to be reviewed in the light of societal changes and, further to this, an understanding of what it means to be and run as a digital school understood by the entire school community. Currently, desktops (and laptops are included in this definition) are often seen as the core of technology in schools, with emphasis on word processing and website/document research. Student’s work is stored off-line and is not collaborative in nature. Without an understanding of the characteristics of a digital school, new technologies are often integrated into streamlining these activities and do not fundamentally change teaching methods and enhance learning. Digital Schooling is about accessing and contributing to intuitive and collaborative online environments, and hardware, whether desktops, laptops, tablets or smart-phones, are simply portals from which to access the online environment, which may be the school ‘s online learning management environment, the classroom’s collaborative space, or the student’s personal storage, collaborative space, social/expert interaction or online applications.

Secondly, professional development of technical staff, teachers, administration staff and leadership needs to be adequate and appropriate. It is often assumed that placing new expensive technology in the hands of teachers naturally results in (eventual) effective teacher uptake. Unless steps are put in place to address the uptake of new technology by teachers and school administrators, new technologies will drain school resources while providing little value adding to teaching and learning. Equally important is the school leadership‘s understanding of the technology. Lee, in ‘Leading a Digital School’, places particular emphasis on the need for school leadership to have a sound knowledge, not only of the general issues surrounding technologies, but a sound understanding of the technologies themselves, if they are to lead schools effectively.

Sugata Mitra, who pioneered the ‘hole in the wall’ experiment is now promoting Self Organized  Learning Environments, otherwise known as the School in the Cloud where children go on intellectual adventures driven by the big questions that their mediators propose. Mitra’s rationale for this is to provide children all over the world with the opportunity to tap into their wonder andcuriosity through collaboration with peers globally, anytime, anywhere. This is the ultimate school with no walls, a ‘virtual school’, challenging precepts of what schools have always been, a physical meeting place where learning takes place in an environment dictated by blocks of time,space, resources and a pre-determined sequencing of knowledge, skills and application.  In Mitra’s view none of these constructs matters anymore for the learning has been re-framed to constitute online collaboration across borders, boundaries, cultures, time and space.

So, what does this all mean for us? In summary, we need to be open to emerging trends and realities for it is pointless being in a world which is foreign to our students, for ultimately we need to meet them where they are at, and where there inquisitiveness takes them. However, change is most effective when incremental and taking small steps in the right direction is more important than being ahead of the wrong pack. Change is inevitable, and change is dynamic, but we are fortunate to have the constant of a philosophy and set of beliefs that gives us a secure framework within which to wrestle with these new realities, and within which educational technology is but one thread in the rich tapestry of our lives.We need to create the future we want, not the one that already is, and that is best done together in community.  May the future we want be the future our students deserve.

Norm Dean

About the Author: Mr Norm Dean is the Deputy Director at Yew Chung Education Foundation (YCEF). Prior to joining YCEF, Mr Dean was Chief Education Consultant of Educational Services Overseas Limited (ESOL) following a successful career with the Department of Education in Victoria, Australia, where his last position was Assistant Regional Director of Schools with responsibility for school improvement and performance.

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