Digital Teaching and Learning is Great (Until It’s Not)

The nuances of digital teaching and learning are often lost on Twitter and off-the-cuff blogs. Posts long enough to explore some of the finer points of teaching and learning today are often skipped over as being “too academic” or “too heady.” Nope, those posts aren’t written for teachers “in the trenches.”

I’ve moved fully into a coaching position with my district. One of my primary goals in this role is to help teachers digest and process what it means to teach effectively, equitably, and responsibly in a digital world.

We cannot separate ourselves completely from bits and bytes. The Internet has gone from being encased in phone lines to flowing in, around, and through us all day, every day. The Internet used to be hard to use. Now, it’s an expectation that it’s just there. The change in availability and usability means the user base increases exponentially while understanding of the mechanisms for use decrease.

With the explosion of online “learning media,” it seems that teaching can be boiled down to engaging videos and the right entrepreneurial mindset. The personal branding narrative of edu-Twitter and edtech in general is a byproduct of the deconstruction and dissolution of structured debate and discussion about solid pedagogical practices.

Intentionality in Instruction

Popular posts in the edu-blogosphere inevitably come back to teachers leaving the "sage on the stage" role to become a "guide on the side." The sentiment rolls off the tongue and it makes us feel good about making connections with students. But, it lacks the nuance necessary to have any kind of significant conversation about the differences between didactic instruction and active learning.

We have set up a false narrative. I do not have to remove myself as an expert in teaching and learning in order to make connections with students or allow them to explore their interests. The guide-as-greater narrative attempts to make the case that we are partners in learning, but not without the devaluation of a profession as a whole. As a result, schools are throwing students into virtual credit programs led by a single teacher at a dashboard and equivocating it with an in-person experience down the hall.

Sherry Turkle calls this out in Reclaiming Conversation in a chapter focused on changes in education practices which have shifted as a result of prolific digital resources. She doesn’t go so far as to say that Internet-ready tools are destroying a generation but she does call for specific behaviors to change on the part of developers and users alike.

Her most poignant observation was calling out the difference between the natural, as-is instructional setting with the digital, as-if representation. When students are working in the same space - conversing and collaborating with one another, they are experiencing community and content in a real way. “The message is the medium,” as they say, and when we connect teaching and learning with very human interactions, the content gains new relevance.

As a teacher, it’s still your responsibility to construct a learning environment where context lends relevance to the content, whether it’s through constructionist work or through direct instruction. Without intentional preparation and implementation, digital or tangible, instruction suffers.

Finding the Proper Place

Andy Crouch offers insight on technology being in its proper place in his book, The Tech Wise Family. He opens with a story about blitzkrieg cleaning when his children were young. Anything out after 10 minutes was either donated or trashed. (He tells a story about dangling favorite toys over the donation bin to speed things along.) The point being that a house is out of order when things are not in their proper place.

In the classroom, we make proper place decisions about everything, it seems, except for technology. Since we have it, the edu-Twitter cultural push is to use it all the time. Need to do an assessment? There’s an app for that. Want to encourage collaboration? Use this website. Ditch your books for Google because "they're out of date the minute they're printed anyway." The suggestions for technology uses for teachers starting out on this path are wholesale and without nuance and it's hurting educators across the world.

Technology is not taught in its proper place, and that is a problem. Just like intentional instruction, technology use has to be hyper-intentional. We’re seeing this right now as we move into year one of a distributed iPad rollout in our district. The iPad (or Chromebook or Surface tablet or Linux machine) can be a powerful tool for learning but only when it is in its proper place. Students need to be taught to use the hardware as an instructional aid. Teachers need to be taught how to design units and lessons which intentionally place technology in spots where it can be used for powerful purposes. It requires a cultural shift for all parties.

For teachers, it is much more than taking a plunge into paperless classrooms, making sure they’re a part of every Twitter chat they can get in on, and starting a blog. It’s important to remember that we are training future adults - we have to keep the long game in mind. Using some gimmicks now to keep students “engaged” for the day is robbing them of a life skill which can help them function as adults. Some growth may come through chats and blogging (my own growth included those things) but not without recognizing that they aren't required for change to happen. Instead of making flat recommendations about what people should do, we need to be approaching these conversations from our personal perspectives, telling stories of what worked - and, more importantly, what didn't work - as we grew.

Reading and Writing for Nuance

Another component of my work is staying on top of what teachers in the district are reading and talking about. I noticed our central library had a number of copies of Ditch That Textbook by Matt Miller. I grabbed a copy so I would be able to carry on a conversation with people who have read it.

If there is a book that exemplifies a lack of nuance, it was Ditch. Much of the book can be boiled down to:

  • Join Twitter.
  • Use Google Apps [G Suite] religiously
  • Talk about how awesome you are now that you’re on Twitter and G Suite.

Each chapter up until Section 4 - page 197 - read like a blog post pushing a thin implementation of tech for poor reasons. For example, much of the first section talked about the power of being paperless without really diving into instructional effectiveness. As I read I tried to highlight simple suggestions written as if they were the best solution to a particular problem in the margins. My intent is to go back through and try to identify instructional situations where those suggestions are relevant to give context to teachers looking for help in school.

The difference in tone between books that were all taking on the same topic is stark. Segmentation in a market (education is a market, after all, and edtech is a particularly lucrative submarket) and these books speak to their particular audience. After three months, I’m focusing on ways to bring teachers from the realm of edtech sex appeal into technology-rich instruction with fidelity to nuanced practice.

Making the Transition

I realize that some of the judgements I’m making are not fair at face value. I’m also very aware that changing practice takes a long time, especially if you’re searching for methods to change on your own without support. But, I’m not convinced that the path most teachers follow through the edtech regions is the best, or only, one.

The discrepancy between these books is stark. I don’t disagree that the more exciting changes come from trying apps and tools because they show off well. Changes in philosophy are harder to show in a Tweet and even harder to process and make essential in our day to day goings on. As a coach, it would be a disservice to not push teachers for the philosophical shift in everything I do, even through the lens of using a particular tool more effectively.

This is the spot when I would offer a handful of poignant, but not heady, methods for making the shift.

I don’t have any.

This is an intensely personal process. It requires reflection and relationships. The goal for teachers, in any case, is the same: improve teaching using resources intentionally.

Edtech preaches a wholesale shift away from the tangible in favor of the digital. Deniers push back with a deep-seeded reluctance to discuss new ideas or methods. I’m convinced that proselytizing either approach, while good for personal branding and making a name for yourself, is ineffective in the long run. Reading with a critical eye, looking for statements in absolutes and ultimatums, and thinking beyond short-term gains make the difference.


Featured image is abstract green flickr photo by dr.larsbergmann shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

One thought on “Digital Teaching and Learning is Great (Until It’s Not)

  1. Brian i always sppreciate your perspective and i particularly apprecite your candor in this blog. i think you hit me with your point aboit sharing shifts in philosophy being much harder than rolling out an app or “new” method. without the philosophy change there is no professional compass to drive the intentionality. while teaching philosohy differ and there is room for variety, at least changes and methods of those with an underlying philosophy can be respected as genuine, considered, and imtentional.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *