By Sam Sellar, Manchester Metropolitan University
In my first year of teaching, the governing council of my school asked me to purchase a popular brand of interactive whiteboard for use in each classroom.
I knew slightly more about computers than the other teachers, so I had become the de facto IT coordinator. We purchased a set of five whiteboards and projectors, which was a significant investment at the time, and began using them in our teaching.
I remember that after a few months of experimentation we were ambivalent about the benefits for teaching and learning. Our decision to purchase the whiteboards was driven by marketing hype about the ‘next big thing’ in educational technology, rather than by our pedagogical needs.
I was reminded of this experience by the example that Maurie Mulheron shared in the previous post on this blog. Maurie described how overhead projectors that replaced blackboards in Japanese classrooms during the 1970s had unforseen negative consequences in mathematics classrooms.
He used this example to demonstrate why teacher professional knowledge should drive the use of educational technologies, arguing that ‘that teachers are in danger of losing control of who teaches, what is taught and how we teach, as education businesses move to directly influence politicians, advisers and policy makers’.
The question of control in education is a critical one. Stephen Ball has argued that struggles over ‘who controls the field of judgment’ have defined education reform movements for decades.[i] The introduction of audit culture in public education systems, which has tied judgments about the performance of teachers and students to numbers and comparisons, has had a dramatic impact on what counts as good teaching and learning.
The growing influence of the education technology industry is also shaping these judgments as schools and governments purchase new software platforms to generate, analyse and use data to inform policy and pedagogy.
We can think about struggle over control of the field of professional judgment in defensive terms: for example, keeping unproven technologies and dubious commercial interests out of schools.
But the inevitable corollary to this position is the question of what educational technology we want in schools? While a cautious, critical approach to new educational technologies is important, we need a complementary offensive strategy to enable pedagogy to drive educational technology.
Getting out of the way of teachers
Education has been heralded as the biggest growth industry of the 21st century and the education technology market will help to drive this growth. Big education publishers, like Pearson, and technology companies like Microsoft have been working hard to carve out their share of this market.
But there are also many smaller ‘mom-and-pop’ companies with different corporate visions and strategies. In some cases, these companies have been setup by former educators or parents to serve local or regional markets and they aim to establish close relationships with schools in order to meet their specific needs, rather than pursuing the Silicon Valley dream of ‘disruption’.
As part of an international research study on data infrastructure in schooling, we have been talking with staff from smaller education technology companies.[ii] In one interview, we were told how a company that provides bespoke student information systems to schools were not interested in the data-driven, automated revolution of schooling promised by big multinational players.
Instead, this company sought to complement the work of teachers by employing staff who had experience in schools, listening closely to the needs of their clients and designing their technology to be as transparent as possible. The aim of this company, as described to us, was to ‘get out of the way of teachers’, rather than to revolutionise or replace them.
Of course, we can interpret this vision as an attempt to benefit from the negative press surrounding some big education companies and to carve out a distinctive market niche using the language of corporate social responsibility.
But this isn’t necessarily a problem; indeed, it could be an opportunity for the teaching profession to exercise control over what counts as good educational technology at a crucial moment in the development of the industry.
Pedagogy driven technology
Education International has published an International Protocol on the Use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Education, which acknowledges that ICT is ‘an integral part of the provision of quality education for all’, provided that it is used ‘under the supervision of qualified well-trained professionals with the expertise in pedagogy … to ensure that its impact does not damage or undermine the learning process’.[iii]
Education unions should insist on educators being ‘involved in the design and development of appropriate ICT for education purposes’. But how can unions enable pedagogy to drive technology in this way?
One possibility is for national unions to develop and publish education technology guidelines that specify the characteristics of education technologies that members want in schools. These guidelines would need to move beyond statements of principle to become working technical documents that provide a reference point for schools, governments and commercial actors.
As a new teacher confronted with managing education technology procurement, I would certainly have welcomed a set of guidelines that helped me to think about relevant pedagogical issues, what I should be asking the vendor and the contractual terms I should have insisted upon. I suspect that some of the companies we have spoken to would welcome this guidance now.
Increasingly, devolution of budgetary responsibility enables big companies to ‘unite and conquer’ by developing generic products and marketing these directly to schools. As a response, we need a collective politics of education technology procurement that enables schools and teachers to shape the standards that underpin education technology markets and to negotiate in powerful ways when they engage with education technology vendors.
Guidelines developed by education unions could even be used to endorse vendors that are focused on supporting the work of teachers, putting pressure on other vendors in the market to shift their corporate strategy.
Developing education technology guidelines is one way that unions could mobilise the expertise of teachers to shape debates in the educational technology industry, thereby exerting more control over who creates educational technologies, what they do and how they are used in classrooms.
Dr Sam Sellar is Reader in Education Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. Sam’s research focuses on large-scale assessments, data infrastructures, commercialisation and accountability in schooling.
[i] Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of education policy, 18(2), 216.
[ii] The project is titled Data infrastructure, mobilities and network governance in education and iss funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery Project scheme (DP150102098). The Chief Investigators are Bob Lingard, Kalervo N. Gulson, Sam Sellar and Keita Takayama. The Partner Investigators are Christopher Lubienski and P. Taylor Webb.