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education technology

Is that it? More, better apps?

It seems that much of the literature on the use of technology in education focuses on apps (Instagram, WhatsApp), services and platforms (Google Docs, Facebook) and hardware (tablets, laptops and phones). This is fine, of course. We need to understand how students and teachers use these things in the classroom. But is this really what we mean when we talk about innovation in the classroom?

Consider the changes wrought in society and industry between 1900 and 1970 as a result of the invention and implementation of technologies related to the electrification of cities, national road and railway networks, sanitation, pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine, and mass communication (Gordon, 2017). These were the kinds of innovations that changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people in truly significant ways because they changed the physical structures around us. They changed the configuration of space, which determines the kinds of activities that are available in that space. But what counts as innovation today? More, better apps. I came across this quote attributed to Elon Musk (although I can’t find a good source to confirm): “Cellphones distract us from the fact that the subways are old”.

When we look at infrastructure we start to get a sense of what innovation really looks like, as well as the amount of effort it would take to change it in innovative ways. For example, deciding that cities and towns should have green spaces set aside for its citizens is by no means intuitive or inevitable. Town planners could just as easily have decided that that real estate could better serve commercial interests. And how would you go about changing those green spaces, maybe by installing safer playground equipment or rerouting a running track? The point is that infrastructure is old and because it’s old it naturally forms the baseline upon which other things are built. No parks in the city means no green space to enjoy being outdoors and if you want green space you’re going to have to do an enormous amount of work to get it. You can’t just build a new app.

We’re spending a lot of time looking at technology that may improve some superficial aspects of pedagogical work but we spend very little time on anything that would fundamentally change the underlying infrastructure. Maybe this is because we don’t even see the infrastructure anymore? It’s easier to focus on the superficial stuff that everyone can see. For example, there are 4650 studies looking at the use of Snapchat in the classroom at the time of writing but relatively few that question why we’re still in a classroom. With the desks screwed to the floor. Changing infrastructure is the hard work that no-one wants to do but it’s also the important work because that’s what everyone else builds on. We’ve been distracted into thinking that we’re innovating when we’re really just painting over the cracks in the walls.

Would we even recognise innovation in higher education, or would we disreguard it because it doesn’t fit the mental model of what we think it should look like? Maybe we could use this idea as an indicator of innovative work: If we recognise it, it’s probably not innovative. That’s not to say that we should break everything and innovate for it’s own sake. But let’s be clear about what innovation really means. It’s not the consumption of content in new formats. It’s not the use of laptops and tablets instead of books. It’s not the use of Twitter to share resources. These may be good, useful iterations of our practice but they’re not going to change the infrastructure of learning.

In five years time Snapchat will be gone and there’ll be a new #educationapp trending on Twitter, but the desks will still be screwed to the floor.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.

1 reply on “Is that it? More, better apps?”

Excellent commentary, we need to challenge our own paradigms a little more often.

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