Changing our default settings – part 1: Attitudes to educational technology

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The 40-minute talk I gave on Friday morning at the English Australia (EA) Conference was inspired by Neil Selwyn’s Distrusting Educational Technology. It was published early 2014 and I read it soon afterwards; it totally changed the way I think about technology and the world more broadly.

This is what I take to be Selwyn’s thesis:

Given all that we know about the social complexities of technology use in education…a pessimistic stance is the most sensible, and possibly most productive, perspective to take.”

It resonated very strongly with me as I reflected on my peers in English language teaching. My feeling is that there is a tendency amongst us towards an overly optimistic stance. This was my starting point and I designed a survey to test it out.

The bulk of my talk was focused on four questions:

  1. What do the results of my survey tell us about attitudes amongst ELT educators towards educational technology? In other words, what are our ‘default settings’?
  2. What do we know about the ‘complexities of technology use in education’?
  3. What cause, if any, do we have to be pessimistic? Why should we change our ‘default settings’?
  4. What practical steps could we take in response?

First, though, I explored what Selwyn means by a ‘pessimistic stance’.

A pessimistic stance

UntitledSelwyn’s pessimism is in opposition to an “unswerving faith in…technology’s capacity to improve education and most other things in society, often coupled with a sense of inevitability concerning the growth and use of computer technology” (Bigum & Kenway 1998, p. 378, in Selwyn 2014). He is critical of ‘technological somnambulism’, “the tendency for a majority of people to sleepwalk through their mediations with technology” (Selwyn 2014, paraphrasing Winner 2004).

But rather than a nihilistic pessimism, Selwyn’s is a ‘purposeful pessimism’ which involves:

  • “problematizing and engaging in systematic doubt”
  • “carefully focused and well-directed negativity and distrust”
  • “considering alternative explanations and perspectives, and maintaining a generally questioning approach to the established order”
  • and a willingness “to accept that digital technology is not bringing about the changes and transformations that many would like to believe”.

What are our ‘default settings’?

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I designed a survey to try to get an insight into ELT attitudes (be aware that you’ll be tracked by New Relic if you visit the site) and sent out the link via Twitter and the #AusELT Facebook group. There were 36 respondents in total, mostly in Australia and a couple from overseas. There are a number of fairly obvious limitations to my methodology (feel free to point them out in a comment!) but it did yield some interesting results.

The chart below indicates responses to the following set of questions/statements:

  • How confident are you generally about your ability to use new technologies for teaching/learning purposes? (1 = Not confident at all/3 = Unsure/ambivalent, 5 = Very confident)
  • How willing are you generally to experiment with new technologies for teaching/learning purposes? (1 = Not very willing, etc.)
  • There is pressure for educators to increase their use of technology for teaching/learning purposes. (1 = Strongly disagree, etc.)
  • Education can be improved by digital technology.
  • Courses that are partly online (i.e. ‘blended’) are generally more effective than courses that are 100% classroom-based.
  • How often do you use websites and/or apps for teaching/learning purposes? (This might include: inside or outside the classroom; websites and/or apps mandated by the administration of your educational institution) (1 = Never, 3 = Sometimes, 5 = Frequently)
  • How often do you ask your students to use use websites and/or apps for teaching/learning purposes?
  • How often do you read the Terms & Conditions of websites and apps?

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Perhaps the most striking result is the low frequency with which respondents read the Terms and Conditions (in retrospect, though, I should have asked about Privacy Policies as well/instead). Here are some accompanying comments from the survey:

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It’s also worth noting the relative ambivalence regarding the effectiveness of blended learning. The idea that it’s more effective seems to be taken for granted by many in education; I was surprised at this result.

I also asked the following two questions in relation to 16 different companies, some of which were suggested by members of the #AusELT Facebook group.

  • How aware are you of the activities of these companies or use of their products in relation to education? (1 = I’ve never heard of them, 3 = I’m quite familiar with them, 5 = I follow them closely)
  • How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the involvement of the following companies in education? (1 = Very pessimistic, etc.)

‘optimistic’ = ‘inclined to believe the company is likely to act in a way which serves my interests as a learner/teacher’

‘pessimistic’ = ‘inclined to believe the company is likely to act in a way which is against my interests as a learner/teacher’

It might seem fairly obvious but I hadn’t anticipated it: several respondents distinguished between two broad categories of company:

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These were the average ‘optimism’ ratings across the entire sample:

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On the whole, the education companies (Moodle, Pearson, Blackboard, TurnItIn, Coursera, Duolingo, SMART, Promethean and Knewton) rated relatively low on the ‘awareness’ scale, but relatively high on the ‘optimism’ scale, although there was a fair amount of ambivalence expressed overall. It could be argued that this combination of low awareness with slightly higher optimism provides some support my hypothesis that ELT educators tend to be overly optimistic.

Things get more interesting, however, when we look at comments about the benefits of technology and concerns respondents have about it. There were 252 separate comments in total across the survey; by my analysis 90 of them referred to benefits, compared to 46 which expressed concerns. I identified recurring themes and sorted the comments accordingly.

The table below indicates the various themes and the corresponding number of comments. You can read full comments exemplifying each theme here.

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Focusing on the ‘benefits’ for a moment, Selwyn points out that a number of them have been associated with various digital technologies for quite some time:

most digital technologies over the past 30 years have been accompanied by promises of widened participation in education, increased motivation and engagement, better levels of ‘attainment’, enhanced convenience of use and more ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’ provision of educational opportunities

The overlap between the survey comments and Selwyn’s analysis: is it a reflection of qualities genuinely embedded in the technologies? Is it a coincidence? Or is it something else? I would argue that there is indeed another explanation.

Part 2: Educational technology as ideology

Part 3: The Student Data Blueprint

Part 4: Unpaid digital labour

Part 5: The Five-Point Plan

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