Technology, technique, and teaching

These are the slides from my recent talk with students studying the philosophy of education at Pace University.

This is a mashup of various talks I have given in recent years, with a little new stuff drawn from my in-progress book. It starts with a discussion of the nature of technology, and the distinction between hard and soft technologies that sees relative hardness as the amount of pre-orchestration in a technology (be it a machine or a legal system or whatever). I observe that pedagogical methods (‘pedagogies’ for short) are soft technologies to those who are applying them, if not to those on the receiving end. It is implied (though I forgot to explicitly mention) that hard technologies are always more structurally significant than soft ones: they frame what is possible.

All technologies are assemblies, and (in education), the pedagogies applied by learners are always the most important parts of those assemblies. However, in traditional in-person classrooms, learners are (by default) highly controlled due to the nature of physics – the need to get a bunch of people together in one place at one time, scarcity of resources,  the limits of human voice and hearing, etc – and the consequent power relationships and organizational constraints that occur.  The classroom thus becomes the environment that frames the entire experience, which is very different from what are inaccurately described as online learning environments (which are just parts of a learner’s environment).

Because of physical constraints, the traditional classroom context is inherently very bad for intrinsic motivation. It leads to learners who don’t necessarily want to be there, having to do things they don’t necessarily want to do, often being either bored or confused. By far the most common solution to that problem is to apply externally regulated extrinsic motivation, such as grades, punishments for non-attendance, rules of classroom behaviour, and so on. This just makes matters much worse, and makes the reward (or the avoidance of punishment) the purpose of learning. Intelligent responses to this situation include cheating, short-term memorization strategies, satisficing, and agreeing with the teacher. It’s really bad for learning. Such issues are not at all surprising: all technologies create as well as solve problems, so we need to create counter technologies to deal with them. Thus, what we normally recognize as good pedagogy is, for the most part, a set of solutions to the problems created by the constraints of in-person teaching, to bring back the love of learning that is destroyed by the basic set-up. A lot of good teaching is therefore to do with supporting at least better, more internally regulated forms of extrinsic motivation.

Because pedagogies are soft technologies, skill is needed to use them well. Harder pedagogies, such as Direct Instruction, that are more prescriptive of method tend (on average) to work better than softer pedagogies such as problem-based learning, because most teachers tend towards being pretty average: that’s implicit in the term, after all. Lack of skill can be compensated for through the application of a standard set of methods that only need to be done correctly in order to work. Because such methods can also work for good teachers as well as the merely average or bad, their average effectiveness is, of course, high. Softer pedagogical methods such as active learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and so on rely heavily on passionate, dedicated, skilled, time-rich teachers and so, on average, tend to be less successful. However, when done well, they outstrip more prescriptive methods by a large margin, and lead to richer, more expansive outcomes that go far beyond those specified in a syllabus or test. Softer technologies, by definition, allow for greater creativity, flexibility, adaptability, and so on than harder technologies but are therefore difficult to implement. There is no such thing as a purely hard or purely soft technology, though, and all exist on a spectrum,. Because all pedagogies are relatively soft technologies, even those that are quite prescriptive, almost any pedagogical method can work if it is done well: clunky, ugly, weak pedagogies used by a fantastic teacher can lead to great, persistent, enthusiastic learning. As Hattie observes, almost everything works – at least, that’s true of most things that are reported on in educational research studies :-). But (and this is the central message of my book, the consequences of which are profound) it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results.

Problems can occur, though, when we use the same methods that work in person in a different context for which they were not designed. Online learning is by far the most dominant mode of learning (for those with an Internet connection – some big social, political, economic, and equity issues here) on the planet. Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Reddit, StackExchange, Quora, etc, etc, etc, not to mention email, social networking sites, and so on, are central to how most of us in the online world learn anything nowadays. The weird thing about online education (in the institutional sense) is that online learning is far less obviously dominant, and tends to be viewed in a far less favourable light when offered as an option. Given the choice, and without other constraints, most students would rather learn in-person than online. At least in part, this is due to the fact that those of us working in formal online education continue to apply pedagogies and organizational methods that solved problems in in-person classrooms, especially with regard to teacher control: the rewards and punishments of grades, fixed length courses, strictly controlled pathways, and so on are solutions to problems that do not exist or that exist in very different forms for online learners, whose learning environment is never entirely controlled by a teacher.

The final section of the presentation is concerned with what – in very broad terms – native distance pedagogies might look like. Distance pedagogies need to acknowledge the inherently greater freedoms of distance learners and the inherently distributed nature of distance learning. Truly learner-centric teaching does not seek to control, but to support, and to acknowledge the massively distributed nature of the activity, in which everyone (including emergent collective and networked forms arising from their interactions) is part of the gestalt teacher, and each learner is – from their perspective – the most important part of all of that. To emphasize that none of this is exactly new (apart from the massive scale of connection, which does matter a lot), I include a slide of Leonardo’s to-do list that describes much the same kinds of activity as those that are needed of modern learners and teachers.

For those seeking more detail, I list a few of what Terry Anderson and I described as ‘Connectivist-generation’ pedagogical models. These are far more applicable to native online learning than earlier pedagogical generations that were invented for an in-person context. In my book I am now describing this new, digitally native generation as ‘complexivist’ pedagogies, which I think is a more accurate and less confusing name. It also acknowledges that many theories and models in the family (such as John Seely Brown’s distributed cognitive apprenticeship) predate Connectivism itself. The term comes from Davis’s and Sumara’s 2006 book, ‘Complexity and Education‘, which is a great read that deserves more attention than it received when it was published.

Slides: Technology, technique and teaching