SITE 2013 musings

I’ve just got back from an interesting week at the SITE 2013 conference in New Orleans, run by the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education. It was the first time I’d been to a SITE conference, though they have been running for 24 years and I have more than a passing interest in teacher education, as that is my ongoing role as honorary faculty fellow at the University of Brighton and one of the reasons for setting up the Landing. It was an impressively organized and lively conference supporting a very rich community of people who sustain relationships between conferences and for whom SIGs are at least as important as the papers and roundtables of the conference itself. I was presenting a paper that I and Terry Anderson wrote about the value of the Landing in supporting a community of teachers. Not one of our best, though I think there is a bit of mileage in the notion of distributed transactional distance among networks and groups of people who are simultaneously learners and teachers.

A lot of the papers were about schooling of kids, which is a little outside my main areas of interest. I sat in on a fair number, however, out of curiosity and an interest in educational systems in general. Depressingly, a great deal of school education seems concerned with conforming to restrictive legislation and standards, meeting quotas, and controlling crowds of kids and their learning. The relatively small number of papers actually concerned with learning seemed to take these horrific premises as givens, though there were some innovative solutions to the problems.

While there was quite a bit on the usual learning technology suspects – mobile, social and blended learning, MOOCs, simulations, virtual worlds, Facebook, wikis, e-portfolios, etc – by far the most dominant theme was around uses of TPACK, Punya Mishra’s framework of technology, pedagogy and content knowledge, and their overlaps and contexts. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I am delighted that teachers are enthusiastically acknowledging that it is not just about content and pedagogy, but about other technologies too, and that technological competence is being treated with the respect it deserves. I am less happy that ‘technology’ almost ubiquitously means things with microchips inside them and/or the software that runs on them. This is a naive and simplistic view that suggests technology, pedagogy and content are separate and separable, and underplays many enormously significant technologies like course schedules, curricula, techniques, legislation, rules of behaviour, classrooms, corridors and school hierarchies (though oddly includes technologies related to content like lab equipment). I don’t think this is what Mishra actually means, but it appears to be the dominant interpretation, and it is depressing to see how wholeheartedly the education community has taken to the easily applied framework to assess the ‘different’ areas of knowledge without reflecting on what any of it actually means. The basic message, that everything should be orchestrated as effectively as possible and no part of the system and its context should be ignored, is a very good one. Unfortunately the artificial schisms that are introduced as as result of its application are not always helpful. 

It once again occurred to me, as I listened to relentlessly positive reports of the effectiveness (seldom ineffectiveness) of various interventions, that educational researchers, especially those reporting on their own interventions, are almost always the worst people to do educational research. Their passion and interest almost always trumps any tools, techniques and trickery they use. Our paper for the conference was no exception. Such stories are very good as long as that is all they are portrayed as being and there is no pretence of doing science. I’ve been talking about organizing the journal/conference of failed educational research for some time and really should get around to it soon. Just once in a while, it would be really good to hear someone say that they tried something that didn’t work at all, where everyone learned less, where they screwed up the pedagogy, made a hash of the research methodology, and where the tools they used or created were just pants. We’d all learn a lot more from that than from the countless pieces of meticulously engineered statistically valid nonsense that miss all the important factors and explain nothing. 

This was also my first visit to New Orleans. I didn’t have anything like enough time to explore it as much as I’d have liked, but I saw enough of it to fall in love with it. It is a city of magic, music and ghosts, filled with gentle, generous and utterly weird people. Wonderful.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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