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The Scourge of Low Expectations

How clearly can you articulate your expectations for what a technology-rich environment makes possible for learners?

Do you remember the early days of computers in schools? When the pure novelty of a new software application caused excitement and ‘engagement’ from students? Many of us had little idea of the real implications, but we were all starting to understand that an unprecedented shift in our thinking about how young people might learn was taking place.

These were the times of occasional access to computers in labs, when restricted access to ‘computer time’ heightened enthusiasm for whatever latest program the school had been able to afford. These were times when, with each new generation of software, we learnt a little more about what could be done…and it all added to our expectations of what this might make possible for learners….but few were articulating it very clearly.
But it was a slow process. Many, for too long, were distracted by the increasingly sophisticated animation, by alluring sounds, rather than the pedagogical possibilities. It wasn’t so much a case of right or wrong products, but rather poor or powerful…Maths Blaster sold millions and drilled the living daylights out of young minds, Microworlds sold hundreds of thousands and empowered them.

But it was a learning curve for all of us. It was a time when we all learnt what mattered, and what was really worth doing; an ultimately it helped define our expectations of what technology might make possible for young learners. While Alan Kay and Seymour Papert had, in 1968, a crystal clear picture of powerful computing for young people, for most of us that took some time, and exploring those early programs was part of that process. But not all have been that fortunate.

Not everyone has that background, and not everyone learnt from it; in fact one of the greatest ironies we face in our use of computers in schools today, is that so many have such little knowledge about just how much is possible. While we are now in a time when we can genuinely believe ubiquitous access will be a reality for most young people in the near future, our ambition for what that will make possible for them is sadly lacking.

It isn’t that all teachers or school leaders should intuitively know just how powerful those possibilities are, but rather that so many have either not been through the learning journey of earlier days, or are not experienced users themselves. This quite simply leads to low expectations; too often very low expectations, where the digital medium simply becomes a substitute for pen and paper and students browsing, word processing, and dabbling in simple applications can dominate classroom computer use.

To some extent the rapid take-up of 1 to 1 over recent years does explain the situation, but if allowed to continue it will set back a lot that has been achieved in recent years. The public and politicians will very quickly start questioning the value of public monies that have been spent if we are not able to lift expectations about what ubiquitous access can make possible for young learners.

Sadly, the problem has been exacerbated over the past two years with the introduction of slates/tablets and the like, and while Apple may well wish to celebrate the explosion of sales for iPads in schools, its growth in part can be put down to the fertile sales environment that low expectations made prevalent in too many schools.

This is NOT to say that there isn’t a role for such technologies as companion devices; I think iPads and their ilk can be the ideal complement for teachers in the classroom, and for many teachers and students, the move from 1 to 1, to many to 1 will be a rapid shift. However for too many students the use of these devices is focused around substitutive, trivial applications that lower, rather than raise the bar for what they can do. This is compounded by people confusing their price, and potential to be the medium for textbook substitutes, with their role as the prime and most appropriate medium for learning. They also fit very nicely into students as consumers, continuing to do much of the same things they always did, without allowing the technology to in any way be disruptive.

Let’s hope that what we are seeing is a passing phase like the early software applications were; that the shiny new ‘cool’ technologies, are just taking time to find their rightful place, and that we focus our energies on being able to better articulate the possibilities 1 to 1, many to 1 offer young learners, and in turn help everyone significantly raise their expectations.

….as always, I’m interested in your thoughts…

September 27th, 2012 @ 12:04PM

Technology outperformed teachers?
Great Editorial Bruce! Students are not Consumers, Kids are consumers: that is the fight we must engage, so that technology won't become the "holy grail" of teaching. I love using technology (and have lots of gadgets) but I keep in mind the best way to improve teaching with them.
Posted By: Luis Fernandes on October 4th, 2012 @ 8:37AM
Technology and Expexctation
It's been really tough to fulfill the expectation of user, since every user wants something new and different. As soon as technology is growing user's expectation is becoming more and more.
Posted By: Ron Harris on December 6th, 2012 @ 6:07AM