Response to an email on the use of technology in the classroom

I just received an email from someone who read my article in The Conversation, “Technology is no longer a luxury for universities – it’s a necessity“. They asked two questions and I thought I’d post my response here. The questions were:

  1. Do you think teachers have to show students how to use the software which is relevant to their major?
  2. Do you have any other reasons to explain why technology is important in class?

Here are my responses:

I do believe that teachers need to be able to show students how to use technology as part of their courses. If the technology is being used pedagogically, then it is closely tied to the way the course is taught, which means that it’s probably not going to work for the IT department to show students. When my students use technology in my courses, it’s because I want them to do it in a very specific way, because the use is tied to the objectives I want them to achieve. I also want to be able to explain why we’re using the technology. It has an advantage over other approaches and I want to be able to discuss that.

I think that using technology is important because it does 2 main things:

It enhances communication: By including technology into our channels of communication (note that I’m not suggesting that it replace other channels) we add the ability to enhance communication in ways that are difficult to do without technology. For example, adding rich media like animations, audio and video files, and images helps to convey complex ideas in addition to text or lectures.

It accelerates: adding technology simply allows us to do things faster. Instead of having to search for something on a library shelf, I can search inside books online. Instead of having to flip through pages of course notes, students can search for keywords. Instead of having to write by hand, students can type faster. Technology helps us to do things, find things, learn things, etc. more quickly than the analogue equivalent.

What do you think? Would you have answered these questions differently?

education technology

Technology is no longer a luxury for universities – it’s a necessity

This is a republication of my article on The Conversation. See bottom of the post for the link to the original.

In the world’s new knowledge economy, innovation and technological change are recognised as the primary drivers of progress. Technological and digital literacy will be a crucial part of helping many countries move beyond their reliance on material resources.

Such literacy, and an understanding of technology in general, will also be crucial for university students. They will have to develop the ability to collaborate across multiple contexts, filter and synthesise information from a variety of sources. These skills will be necessary if students are to contribute to the world in the 21st century.

We live in a world where the phone in your pocket has more processing power than the computers that were used to put men on the moon. But what is being done to make better use of the affordances of technology in higher education? Not much, unfortunately. In general, academics continue along traditional lines of thinking and practice that seem to ignore technological progress and its accelerating rate of change.

To address these challenges, higher education institutions must ask what steps they can take to ensure that their students are relevant in the future. The following suggestions may help the academy to think differently about how technology is used in the classroom.

Access is increasing

One common rationale for not bringing technology into the classroom is that access to technology is not uniformly distributed among students. This is especially true in a country like South Africa, where I teach, and on the African continent as a whole. But access to textbooks is uneven, too, and no-one would use that as a reason to ban textbooks in class.

Things are changing faster than we think. When I started teaching in 2009, incorporating technology into the classroom was challenging. Few of my students had laptops or even computers at home. We didn’t have good access to wifi in lecture halls, so we had to use the computer labs. Now every student in my classroom is encouraged to use phones, tablets and laptops to search for new information that’s relevant to our topic, and to synthesise it for sharing in our discussions. They can do so because smartphones are ubiquitous. Students can also collaboratively author course notes for the module.

The network is what matters

But merely providing access to devices does little to help students learn. Many studies still centre on access to the device, as if handing a student a tablet will magically develop the skills needed to use it effectively. It is time to change academics’ thinking to prioritise the network over the device. The device is simply a window onto the network. The United Nations weighed in on this debate in 2011 when it declared that access to the internet should be recognised as a basic human right.

There is also a shift from vertical communication channels that privilege hierarchies of control to horizontal structures – like networks – that embody coordination, cooperation and collaboration. The power of the internet is not that it provides us with new and innovative means of sharing cat videos. It is a new communication paradigm that is constructed through community engagement and participation. It allows new forms of interaction between people, information and devices.

Preparing to adapt

As technology progresses and its influence becomes clear in every aspect of society – apart from higher education – universities need to ask if the next 50 years are going to look anything like the last 50. It seems as if the most important skill people can learn is how to adapt to a constantly changing world. If this is true, then academics may need to radically change what is prioritised in the curriculum, as well as how they teach students to learn. How can academics prepare students to be successful in a world that we can’t predict?

Incorporating technology into the classroom allows academics to help students develop the skill set needed for engaging meaningfully in the 21st century. Academics cannot continue with the notion that higher education is about providing students with access to specialised knowledge. Universities and individual lecturers cannot plan curricula for the lowest common denominator in terms of digital literacy and then base teaching and learning practices on that.

The academic enterprise is about striving to upset established models and paradigms and to push for change in how we understand and work within the world around us. It is time that academics applied themselves to this task – and technology is a crucial way of doing so.

The Conversation

Michael Rowe, Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy, University of the Western Cape

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Thoughts on my first article for The Conversation

I pitched 3 ideas for articles to The Conversation: Africa at the end of last year, one of which was picked up to develop and publish. A few days ago I gave the go-ahead for it to be published and am happy to report that it is live. It’s called Technology is no longer a luxury for universities – It’s a necessity. My original title was a William Gibson quote: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” but I gather the editor decided on something more accessible.

There are a few things that were different to what I was expecting, in particular the amount of input that the editor provides. I was expecting something more like critical feedback in the peer review process but it was actually more like having a co-author at times. This worked out well for me since I didn’t want to feel like I had to put in the same amount of time that I would for an academic paper. It was nice to have someone else try out the ideas and to actually make the changes to the article.

I was also surprised that the editor selected the header image. When I’m blogging I’m used to spending a bit of time trying to find a good picture that works with the post, so it was strange to see the final article with an image already included. This is both positive and negative. Positive because I didn’t have to spend the time finding a graphic with the right permissions (I suppose this is the main reason the editor takes on this responsibility), and negative because I may not like the selected picture, although this is obviously something that can be discussed.

All in all, I enjoyed the process, especially the very quick turnaround time from the initial submission of the idea to the final publication, which would have been even quicker had we not had the #FeesMustFall movement at the end of 2015. I am also impressed at the reach of the publication, which you can see in the screenshot below. That’s not bad considering it was only published this morning. Finally, The Conversation makes it very simple to republish articles on your own site – providing the source code for the piece – which you can copy into your own blogging platform. I’ll be doing that in my next post on this blog.

The Conversation 2016-01-12 10-53-04


mobile technology writing

Pitches for The Conversation: Africa


I’ve been wanting to contribute to The Conversation: Africa for ages and have only recently been able to put together a few pitches for the articles I’d like to write. If you’ve never heard of The Conversation, it’s a wonderful attempt to get academics to write thought-pieces that are more accessible to the general public and those outside the field. All content is also published under Creative Commons licenses, meaning that what you write is freely accessible and can be distributed in any number of ways. Here are a few points that resonate with me from The Conversation: 10 ways we are different page:

  1. In a world of misinformation and spin, The Conversation contributes to healthy democratic discourse by injecting facts and evidence into the public arena.
  2. All our content is sourced from university scholars and researchers who have deep expertise in their subject.
  3. We are transparent, with every author disclosing their expertise, funding, and conflicts of interest.
  4. All our content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons while the rest of the media charges for re-publication.
  5. We believe in the free flow of information. We disseminate our content to more than 12,000 sites worldwide. That gives our content a global reach of 23 million readers a month, and growing.
  6. To avoid commercial conflict we don’t carry advertising pop-ups or annoying autoplay.
  7. We are a not-for-profit organisation serving the public good.

It’s a bit more formal than a blog because you have to submit ideas to the editors who then review the pitch and provide you with guidelines and deadlines. I’ve drafted the outlines for three articles on the use of technology in higher education and sent the following three pitches to the editors.

Pitch 1: The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed
It has become a truism that when we talk about the integration of technology in the context of teaching and learning in higher education, we must avoid making assumptions about the level of physical and epistemological access that our students have when it comes to using that technology. However, while I acknowledge this important point, I do worry that too much emphasis on it leads to a conservative approach to the introduction of technology into the classroom, and that this conservatism will lead to our students having a significant disadvantage upon graduation. The world is not going to wait for our students to catch up and the deep integration of technology into every other aspect of life continues unabated, at an accelerating rate of change. So, how do we prepare our students for a world that we cannot predict? Is it by adding more content to the curriculum? Or is it by teaching students how to adapt to change, through the aggressive incorporation of digital technologies into teaching and learning practices through intentional pedagogical design?

Pitch 2: Dominant design and the future of technology in higher education
The power of technology in education is in it’s potential to bring about transformative forms of teaching and learning that fundamentally change the people who use it. And yet, when we look at how technology is used in higher education we see it predominantly used to encourage ways of thinking and learning that reinforce outdated pedagogical practices. Dominant design is a management concept suggesting that, once a design has taken hold and become dominant, future innovation in the field is directed towards improving that design rather than challenging it and creating new paradigms. This is exactly what we see when we consider the Learning Management System (LMS) which, for many, represents the cutting edge of technology-integrated teaching and learning. And yet, what does the LMS offer besides a cost-effective content-distribution system and an efficient way to manage students? In order to truly use technology to bring about transformative approaches to teaching and learning, we must establish the following beyond any doubt:

  1. The technology does matter; but pedagogy matters more.
  2. The integration of technology should solve more problems than it introduces.
  3. The technology must be accompanied with a concomitant change in practice.

Pitch 3: Why an emphasis on content in higher education is untenable in a digital society
There are important pedagogical reasons for why a focus on “covering the content” is flawed when it comes to higher education, not least of which is the idea that a higher education must be about more than the accumulation of facts and the ability to recall information on cue. The value of a university is not that its academics control access to specialised knowledge but that there is a need in society for spaces that encourage a deep and critical investigation into the nature of the world. By focusing purely on discipline-specific content, we do nothing to advance the academic project and instead reduce our roles as academics to filters, making decisions about what content is important to cover. But what happens when machines are able to outperform us as content filters? What happens when we can “outsource” information recall to our constantly connected devices? What do we do when our students are able to challenge us on every point we make? Do we retreat into the relative safety of an enforced disconnected classroom, or do we embrace the use of connected devices and work collaboratively with students to create deeper and more critical inquiries into the world?