Battle in Print: After the bubble has burst

Toby Marshall


Ten years ago New Labour started blowing one big digital bubble

In the 1997 general election, New Labour’s manifesto included a rather peculiar statement. Apparently their pledge to connect schools to the internet made them the ‘pioneer of new thinking’. At the time, the precise educational content of this ‘new thinking’ was unclear to readers, and perhaps writers, of New Labour’s manifesto. What was significant, however, was that New Labour felt that education’s future should be driven by technology.

At one level, New Labour’s perhaps inchoate aspirations for technology and education were worthy of support. In many other spheres of life machines have indeed liberated us from drudgery, from the backbreaking and mind-numbing aspects of labour. So why not in education? Why not dispense with its primitive means of communication and outdated administrative techniques? Why not use machines to transform both the division, and the productivity, of teachers’ labour?

At one level these aspirations could easily be supported, although, to be accurate, they were hardly an example of ‘new thinking’. In 1958, B.F. Skinner wrote an excellent essay - ‘Teaching Machines’ - in which he looked forward to a time when significant elements of the teaching process had been mechanised. Mechanisation, Skinner argued, would allow for greater numbers of students to be educated to higher levels. It would also give teachers time to focus on the high-value, and perhaps more uniquely human and rewarding, aspects of education.

In 1997, the key problem was that the incoming New Labour government had, quite literally, no other educational ideas, if we are to be generous enough to classify a faith in technology as an educational idea. Most importantly, New Labour lacked the most significant resource for any government in charge of schools - that is, an overall vision of the curriculum. In other words, they had no notion of what might constitute an educated 16-year-old, no sense of a universal democratic cultural entitlement, to which teachers and students should aspire, in order to prepare the next generation of citizens.

New Labour’s immiserated view was in fact the driver of its myopic fixation with technology. It believed that technology could push education forward because it understood the process of cultural transmission in narrow technical terms. In the absence of any ideas and values of its own, technology appeared as a radical agent of change rather than a delivery mechanism to be discussed after the necessary content of compulsory education had been clarified. The tendency to make a fetish of technology was revealed most starkly in the inflated language with which New Labour discussed Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Communications technologies didn’t simply offer a new range of exiting teaching tools - which would be reason enough to fund and support their development. No, ICT did no less that ‘revolutionise’ and ‘transform’ learning. New Labour’s promotion of ICT also demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the process by which educational change, and pedagogic innovation, might be achieved. By describing ICT as a ‘transformative’ technology, New Labour projected agency onto the machines, as if they would themselves miraculously raise teaching standards.

In 1997 it was appropriate to critique New Labour in the terms outlined above, as exposing the fetish of ICT revealed the empty perversity of New Labour’s attachment to ‘education, education, education’. How could they promote something they so evidently failed to understand? Today, however, advocates of New Teaching Technologies (NTT) confront an additional set of problems.

After the bubble has burst

Whilst advocates of teaching technologies should continue to expose New Labour’s machine fetish, they are also required to address the equally problematic reaction to New Labour. In 2007, many of those with power and authority within education remain fixated by technology, and seem almost incapable of resisting the temptation to frame messy, value-laden educational problems in neat techno-managerial terms. However, some influential thinkers are starting to question the value of ICT. Most typically substitute New Labour’s one-sided techno-boosterism with an equally deterministic, but negative, vision of ICT’s impact on the classroom.

I call those who systematically attack NTT the Anti-Moderns, as whilst they have few positive educational aspirations in common, they are united by an antipathy towards the digital. Intellectually, the Anti-Moderns come from a diverse set of educational traditions, including patrician conservatives, and the so-called ‘radical’ progressives. Importantly, the Anti-Moderns dismiss NTT in toto, arguing that their introduction into schooling dehumanises the educational process, undermines student engagement, or enables subliminal corporate messages to be inserted into an otherwise pure school curriculum. Like New Labour, they overstate the significance of these technologies and demonstrate a rather feeble understanding of the dynamics of educational change.

Proponents of ICT have been able to dismiss the arguments of the Anti-Moderns without too much effort, as whilst it is abundantly clear that much new technological activity in schools and colleges has been a glitz and gizmo displacement exercise, it is equally clear that this need not be so. There is a basic difference between the technology and its application. But just as one irregular from the Anti-Modern army has been dispatched with ease - educational technologists are always better armed - so another volunteer takes their place, because New Labour’s ham-fisted promotion of ICT acts as a recruiting sergeant to what would otherwise be seen as a romantic, nostalgic and ultimately backward-looking position.

In particular, New Labour’s promotion strategy has given succour to the Anti-Modern reaction for two key reasons. First, because New Labour has tended to adopt technology-oriented rather than knowledge- or practitioner-oriented promotion strategies, it has sought to limit the autonomy of practitioners. In others words, New Labour has sought to technologically determine teaching practice. Since 1997, the primary agent of compulsion has been the education watchdog Ofsted, both directly through its inspections and indirectly as the agency responsible for defining ‘best practice’. In Ofsted’s view, all teachers should evidence the application of ICT in the classroom.

Amongst practitioners this crude approach has generated legitimate resentment, as many feel that if they are to be held responsible for their students’ understanding they ought to be given operational freedom to decide how to best develop this understanding. Sadly, Ofsted’s approach has resulted in too many teachers experiencing a technology that should amplify their agency, making them into bionic pedagogues, as the reverse, as a technology that enslaves them. ICT for many teachers is something that is imposed on them as a means of regulating and standardising their classroom practice. And many engage just enough to keep the inspectorate off their backs.

Secondly, New Labour’s overselling of ICT has given the Anti-Moderns an easy empirical victory, as these technologies have quite patently not transformed learning, nor will they ever. Real ‘transformation’ of learning would in fact require innovation at a far deeper level than a simple shift in the communications media employed by practitioners. Today, the Anti-Moderns are calling the government’s bluff - where is the much-heralded digital revolution, they crow. Empirical studies in fact demonstrate what most thinking educators had always guessed: that there is no simple correlation between access to NTT and improved standards of student understanding. In some studies the two factors have indeed been positively associated, but in others the reverse has been shown to be true; in other words, the use of ICT in the classroom has been associated with comparatively weaker levels of student understanding, as measured by examination performance.

By making an effective and honest case for NTT we will overcome the Anti-Moderns

There are a number of points that advocates of ICT need to repeat at every possible opportunity. Educators, we should argue, need to approach new teaching tools with an open, if not an empty, mind. This doesn’t mean that we uncritically adopt every new technology simply because everything new must be good, or because we believe that it will make us appealing to the students. Young people quite rightly lampoon ‘hip’ teachers who try, and necessarily fail, to appropriate alien forms of digital youth culture. Students come to school to learn what peers don’t know and their parents can’t teach them.

At the same time, teachers and lecturers should operate on the assumption that their methods are imperfect and that using a new technology might enable them to take a step closer to perfection. Rejecting new technologies in general is the response of a deeply mulish pedagogue. Making a strong case for technology does, however, require that we articulate the link between particular applications, specific subjects and their methods of operation. In my field - moving image education - the case for ICT is of course relatively easy to make, as digital projection technologies, interactive whiteboards and desktop editing packages have greatly enhanced our ability to engage young people in film and video.

Equally, advocates of ICT should insist on the distinction between the technology and its application. So whilst it may be true that internet access in the classroom can facilitate superficial desktop knowledge surfing, as the Anti-Moderns are wont to argue, it is equally true that it is the teacher in that classroom who is in fact responsible for this superficial usage. Technology, it is quite easy to demonstrate, need not be used in the ways that its critics describe. And only those with a principled, although intellectually weak, a priori objection to technology would seek to deliberately conflate ICT with its application. Anti-Moderns do this in order to bolster their otherwise rather complacent view of teaching. Ironically, they also diminish the creative agency of practitioners by claiming that ICT’s outcomes are predetermined. In fact, practitioners can re-purpose technologies to suit their own educational objectives, whatever the intentions of developers.

Promoters of NTT must also separate out discussions of educational objectives from debates about the means by which these objectives might be realised. ICT, as is often said but rarely understood, is nothing more than a tool and it can be no more effective that the pedagogic thinking that informs its application. Sadly, too much of our contemporary understanding of pedagogy is at best banal, or simply wrong. And often the discussion of ICT is a cipher for conveying philistine perspectives and approaches, which probably wouldn’t stand up if they were analysed independently. Contemporary examples include the discussion of technology and active learning (in which ICT is said to enable students to become autodidacts), or the debate over personalisation and new technologies, where ICT is said to facilitate forms of education in which the preferences of the learner, rather than the integrity of subjects, are given priority. Sadly, limiting constructivist viewpoints such as these tend to dominate both discussions of NTT and pedagogy.

Finally, advocates of NTT should appreciate that discussions of ICT are intimately bound up with the politics of change management. Promoters of digital teaching tools need to take care that forthright advocacy doesn’t morph into models of best practice which are then imposed on reluctant practitioners. Imposition of this type can only undermine a professional’s sense of ownership over their work, whilst encouraging superficial and tokenistic engagement with technology. Instead of seeking to digitally determine patterns of teaching, promoters of NTT should instead defend the autonomy of their colleagues as a precondition for innovation. In practice, this means that if a teacher explores a new technology and finds that their existing methods are more apt, then this decision should be respected. If we want teachers to take responsibility for their actions, then they must surely have freedom to choose their methods - each teacher a master of their classroom.

Toby Marshall is a curriculum manager at Havering College of Further and Higher Education and writes in a personal capacity. He teaches A-level Communication, Film and Media Studies and can be contacted at tobymarshall@aol.com.

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