jeudi 9 mai 2013

Motivating teachers to integrate technology by simplifying the environment

Motivating teachers to integrate technology by simplifying the environment

The challenge

No one is against virtue. Very few people will tell you that students don't require technology in class nowadays. Some will of course, but a large proportion of teachers will support the premise that leveraging technology in some fashion is desirable. Most often, their challenge they express lies with the "How", even if the "Why" might still be unclear.
Why then ?
Too many people still think that classroom technology is about kids learning to use it. That is, using software, creating and managing documents, doing research, etc. Certainly, we could say that students might not already be software specialists and their search techniques might need some work. In fact, they are often proficient at using technology for their personal use, like,Facebook or sometimes, email, but they mostly master the basic aspects of using the web. Not all of them. Some have developed their skills more,than others, but in general, they are not experts, like the majority of today's computer users. But the main difference between them and most of us, who were born in an era where technology was not as prevalent, is that they know how to discover and use what they need by trying and exploring. At least, until they unravel the tools they need. The non-digital amongst us have the added challenge of wanting to know the workings of specific tools so we can be sure not to break anything, before we actually try anything. We want a "course" on the tool, before we explore.

So the "Why" is not so clear. You could say students need to learn using technology, including its distractions they cause. Otherwise, how will they learn to deal with these effectively when they reach the workplace and actually have to face these distractions? But mostly, they must learn using tools they find relevant and with which they are familiar, part of the world they were brought up in and which are an integral part of who they are. Remember that these kids are exposed to fast-moving media, video games, computers and cell phones, portable game consoles, iPods and all the rest and have been since they were born. If they need an answer they can find it. They know where to find it in seconds and how, so the actual answer is irrelevant to them until they actually need it.

But in class, we are often still trying to teach them facts. We certainly try to put things in context, but still, facts are very much at the center of their learning experience. These contexts are built to allow them to learn better, but to them, this is still static or irrelevant information. Even technological facts, like learning to use software or "building a PowerPoint". To them, adults can rarely show them that much about technology, as often, they will know another way to do something which works for them. They'll use a web site to create a presentation or some other tool. For them, that is not important in itself. They actually know that if they need to learn something on a piece of software, like Photoshop for example, they will use their favorite search engine, YouTube, to learn what they need.

Technology can certainly play a role in making their learning environment relevant to them and thus add a level of motivation. But to think that technology itself, it's mere presence, is enough to motivate them is unfounded hope. Looking at the intense purchasing of interactive whiteboards in schools is an interesting display of this. At first, they are a novelty and increases motivation, but students quickly learn that often it is basically lipstick on a pig. Same information or concepts we were trying to teach them before. In an article on this topic, L’envers du tableau : ce que disent les recherches de l’impact des tbi sur la réussite scolaire, Karsenti, Collins and Dumouchel, eraser cheers from the CRIPFE (Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur la formation et la profession enseignante) directed by Dr. Thierry Karsenti who holds the Canadian chair on integration of technology in education, arrive to the conclusion that the IWB can be a good support for good pedagogical practice, but that its motivational effects can be short lived. In our discussions, Dr. Karsenti and I have discussed many times that they also encourage the use of more "directional" practice in many cases and could interfere with more socioconstuctivist approaches to teaching if teachers only focus on these as their main tool.
So, lots of disenchantment and very quickly, the IWB lose its motivational effect and becomes just another tool.
True change must come from the teacher and the learning environment itself. This is a deep change which has been at the centre of the Quebec Education reform and on which the Quebec Education Program is currently built and has been since the late 90s and until now, even though it has been adapted a bit since.
But in fact, this change has been fairly superficial for many and has not taken off as hoped..
Information and Communication Technology a part of the program but have often been placed aside for many reasons. They were defined within what was called cross-curricular competencies, a word few normal people ever understood. Basically, this competency is all about using ICT at the right time and right moment and to support a pedagogical process. Certainly not learning how to use the tools themselves, although students learn this thought their use as a tool.
Use of ICT must bring something more to the pedagogical process. Indeed, it is when this pedagogy, tied to the content knowledge and technology are infused together that the results are more visible. This is what a model called TPACK (Technology, Pedagogy and Content Knowledge) tries to explain. How these three elements must be combined to be effective. Generally speaking, this means that when technology supports a truly pedagogical process tied to the subject matter, it will have great effect on learning.
Ok, so how?
Some teachers have been leveraging ICT for a long time and in various ways. Sometimes with clear pedagogical intent, sometimes with more focus on student engagement itself, encouraging the development of cross-curricular competencies, which is actually quite positive. Others, even if they are still part of a minority today, define their activities by selecting their pedagogical objectives, and then, based on these, choose the approach and tools which enable the development and assessment of these objectives..
Others have not yet found this link. They are convinced that ICT must play a role. They know that students should be able to use the tools to learn, but the path to do this eludes them.they explore ideas, mostly leveraging their own experiences as technology users. Students in their class will,thus use ICT for research, word processing and perhaps create "PowerPoint" presentations. This is a necessary first step, but how to go further? What lies ahead?
Dr. Ruben Puentedura, researcher at the MIT, has developped a model to define the various levels of integration of technology starting at this first level of basic use. Then, three more levels are defined over this ne and going from one level to the other raises student achievement In a marked way. You can learn more about this model,called SAMR on Dr Puentedura's site. The ultimate objective is to transform pedagogy so that ICT can play their proper supporting role in the transformation of pedagogical practice.

But, this is hard!
Yes. A true integration of technology is not simple. To have a marked effect on learning requires effort. One must question their practice and approaches, work on them, modify them and ultimately transform them. This should be true with or without technology to be relevant in this new world. Not simple at all. This requires effort and time and also a profound conviction as it requires time and a questioning of oneself. But step by step, this is achievable. Once we are conscious of this transformation and of its importance, then we can start with Substitutive uses of technology (the "S" in SAMR). Then, over time, change our rules to allow Adaptation of the tasks to leverage the tools (2nd level) and eventually be able to Modify the tasks (3rd level) to take full advantage of the new tools and finally Redefine the activities to create new ones, previously impossible to,do (4th level).
Actually, the more we move up the SAMR scale, the easier the management of technology becomes as students take control of which tools they will use as the teacher stops "controlling" their class and allow students to explore and find their own way to reach the stated objectives and challenges. This transformation is definitely more pedagogical than technological. Less management of the tools, no need to be an ICT expert for the teacher who defines objectives to which the students must respond.
This is a long-term path and must leverage technology, whichever one. But one must have prevalent access to working technology. This again, is not simple.
Start with a sandbox
In order to allow teachers to develop this, one should not impose complex tools on them. A teacher has no time to manage cables, constant passwords, work tools which require hours of learning, bugs, delays or complications.
A teacher wishing to develop their level of practice to reach richer and richer contexts with their students must be able to use technology in a transparent manner. Simply use it and allow their students to use it. He or she must learn to manage technology and students, helping them develop responsable uses of technology. A teacher must face classroom management situations which involve distractions. But without this rich but simole technological environment, they will not be as able to explore deeper technology infused activities as easily with their students.
Time is a very precious resource for any teacher. Time used for managing technology must not interfere with regular classroom prep time. Activities involving ICT must replace other activities and not be over and above. In many cases, such activities must often be attainable within one period, whatever the SAMR level they are at. Or at least, if the activity must be prolonged, it must be easy to continue it at another time.
It is thus imperative that the environment simplify all this management and unfortunately, it is rarely the case. Most often, even the definition of "simple" poses a problem.
Frequently, IT departments responsible for the tools used in classrooms feel obligated to put strict measures in place in order to ensure technology offer such a stable environment. The fewer the problems, the more stable the environment. This is a great objective. Unfortunately, this often implies that teachers cannot explore new tools and processes. They are limited to the selected software and tools and cannot try or use anything else. The installed software is very often too complex to really use them well, at least, for the majority of teachers, who prefer remaining pedagogical experts and not software experts. For this majority this controlled environment has two effects. If they are at the Substitution level, they can work it out since pedagogy does not change much at this level, although the added access to the Internet is a great resource. But if they are at the other levels, especially Modification or Redefinition, the tools are usually too limiting and complex. This discourages many of them. Only the more courageous and profoundly convinced teachers, those more comfortable with technology, will leverage these tools. They will face the challenges because they are used to dealing with them. For the others, they are typically content with staying at this level or might not be aware of other levels to explore.
For advanced users, everything is "Simple"
A person comfortable with technology will rarely state that something they know how to achieve is complicated. They will have a tendency to say "It's easy, let me show you". And they are right of course. For them, that task is simple for them. Simplicity represents our comfort with the steps involved in achieving a goal, not an intrinsic quality of the task itself. So a user who is comfortable with video editing and familiar with more advanced tools like Adobe Premiere or others will not find video editing using such tools complicated. Same thing goes for the whole technological environment, wether it is Windows, Linux or the Mac. A user of each of these environments will achieve their goals without issue, of course. The environment makes little difference to them.

Where the Mac has helped with the comfort level of teachers is in more complex tasks, combining multiple media types. Video editing used to be simpler on a Mac for example. Nowadays, one can be quite effective using recent tools on a PC with such tools as Adobe Premiere Elements, or perhaps Windows Movie Maker, although its capabilities are more limited than others. You might have to pay for the more advanced tools, but even counting this in the equation, the PC remains less expensive than a Mac. But if you start exploring other media types, like photography or music, you start having to add more and more software, from a variety of vendors and with varying degrees of interoperability. The price difference becomes smaller and smaller and even sometimes falls in the favour of the Mac in some cases. But over and above price, the Mac's environment and the integration of various software means that the tasks themselves require less steps on the Mac. Hardware and software being made by the same manufacturer, everything works a lot more fluidly and intuitively. They require less steps. In this case, simplicity is defined by the interactions between software tools to attain more complex objectives, not to understand the use of a specific software package. In certain cases, this has helped teachers become more comfortable with ICT and allowed them to explore the potential of the tools themselves and even to start exploring new pedagogical approaches.

An obvious scenario
In 2003, the Eastern Townships School Board started a one-to-one laptop project, in which each student from grade 3 to grade 11 was to receive their own Apple laptop. Over 5000 students were involved. Each teacher also received their own laptop, over 450 of them. This in a school board with no previous experience with Apple products.

This uniformity and the ease of use of the tools as well as the support and training provided over the first 7 years resulted in a progression of the level of technology integration became richer and richer according to the SAMR model. So much in fact that after that period, around 87% of teachers use technology at some level or another on a daily basis. Most of them could not live without it.

Then, over time, as the tools broke down and became obsolete, older devices were replaced by less expensive solutions like netbooks and iPads. They also had to be shared instead of having one device per student. Mind you, some of the machines in usage today are more than 8 years old, which is excellent for a laptop which was brought home every day for many years. So year after year, the environment became diversified. Even in a single classroom, multiple types of devices could be found, and this became a big challenge for teachers to manage. A great many of them got discouraged and started using less and less technology, at least for more evolved projects. Teacher practice was clearly affected and started going back down the SAMR model and this also affected pedagogical practice which became more "traditional" in nature for many. It required too much work to continue these types of projects for those who had experienced them. The netbooks did simply not enable more advanced tasks. Shared iPads were difficult to manage, but did offer an amazingly stable environment which simply always worked. But sharing them made it terribly complex to have lasting projects which lasted more than one period, which discouraged teachers from experimenting with them as much.

With a new version of this project being prepared, tools which simplify the environment while allowing richer tasks will be the key to a successful strategy.
A technology environment which simplifies exploration and enables rich projects has a huge impact on teacher practice. Such an environment allows them to explore richer pedagogical approaches as well as increase the integration of technology in their pedagogical activities. If we simplify the environment, we encourage teachers to move up the SAMR model. Simplifying the environment is thus of utmost importance on the road to increased integration of technology in pedagogy.