An Invitation to Individualism in the Tech Era: What comes next?

In 2020 and 2021, teachers all over the world were only able to keep working because of some type of digital and online technology. Without at least a videoconferencing tool and a digital device, there could have been no classes at all. Many experts shared their thoughts about how this would boost the EdTech industry and propel us 5 or maybe 10 years ahead. All the excitement sometimes blurred what was going on in many educational settings: anxiety and despair.

I witnessed firsthand the struggle of teachers trying to adapt overnight to these technologies that had been part of education for at least 10 years but hadn’t yet made their way into most classrooms. These teachers have always relied on face-to-face classes and many of them simply couldn’t adapt fast enough and ended up getting fired or burning out – sometimes both.

What is then the role of tech in teaching? Have you ever heard that we shouldn’t use “technology for the sake of the technology”? How can we use technology with a purpose then and when should we not use tech – at least not digital tech? This text is a reflection about EdTech and its impact on our lives as educators.

Let’s start with Online Teaching and the use of Learning Management Systems. I watched a Nat Geo Learning webinar with Alex Warren at the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was getting used to this new way of teaching, and I wrote down some of the benefits. According to Alex, these technologies allowed:

  • Personalization
  • Differentiation
  • To better keep track of learning
  • Immediate feedback
  • More formative assessment
  • Better integration since it spoke the students’ language
  • Family involvement

It’s certainly true that online platforms can collect lots of data on how students access and do their activities and that facilitates differentiation. It also allows families to check on what their kids are doing more easily. If you ask anyone in education, chances are they’d say it’s overall a good thing to have online platforms that connect teachers and students and help create personalized learning. We’ll come back to that later. Now, what about the other types of EdTech?

EdTech Conference 2018

Let’s go back in time a few years before the pandemic. It was 2018 and I had the pleasure of being invited to take part on a panel about Lifelong Learning at the EdTech Conference in São Paulo. The panel consisted of three guests and a moderator debating the meaning of Lifelong Learning and what each one expected to see in the future of education.

Now, can you imagine my excitement as I was walking into Expo Center Norte about to witness some of the newest trends in technology for education? I could barely hide my curiosity. There was an EdTech Village set up just outside the auditorium and it had everything you can imagine when EdTech is the subject: augmented and mixed realities, gamification, customized learning platforms, coding, robotics, online tutoring, you name it! It was certainly a playground for school managers, coordinators, and teachers looking for “innovation”.

I watched closely how entrepreneurs presented their ideas and startups emphasizing the fact that schools that do not adhere to these trends will be left behind. The focus was definitely on “democratizing” education through technology. One of the priorities was also “personalization” or, as repeatedly mentioned by many of the presenters, allowing students to follow their own learning path in the same classroom.

Almost two years into this global pandemic, after hours of mentoring teachers, talking to school managers and families, watching schools buy fancy equipment and advertise they have completely revolutionized the “learning experience”, I can’t help thinking how it all sounds too good to be true. There was no revolution in education apparently. As a matter of fact, this promise is old. Actually, the headline of The Heritage Foundation in 2010 read:

How Online Learning is Revolutionizing K-12 Education and Benefiting Students

According to Dan Lips, senior policy analyst in education at the time, online learning expanded the reach o education, helped flexibilize and customize learning, and made schools more productive. The report mentions meta-analyses conducted by the US Department of Education showing that online learning was overall as good as or better than traditional face-to-face learning. They did mention that for very young children, it seemed to be less effective.

However, 10 years after this so-called revolution, what evidence was there to support the claims mentioned above? Well, a 2019 report of the MIT Technology Review actually said that classroom technology was holding students back. One of the issues with this tech is:

Motivation. If Kevin had been asked to combine 8 and 3 by a teacher rather than an iPad, there’s a greater chance he would have been interested in trying to do it. “It’s different when you’re learning from a person and you have a relationship with that person,” cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has said. “That makes you care a little bit more about what they think, and it makes you a little bit more willing to put forth effort.”

Still in 2019, before the pandemic hit the world, the MIT publised the results of 126 that evaluated the impact of technology on student learning:

Online courses are developing a growing presence in education, but the limited experimental evidence suggest that online-only courses lower student academic achievement compared to in-person courses. In four of six studies that directly compared the impact of taking a course online versus in-person only, student performance was lower in the online courses. However, students performed similarly in courses with both in-person and online components compared to traditional face-to-face classes

Even though what Alex Warren described above about online teaching and learning, it seems that the evidence suggests it is not as effective as traditional face-to-face teaching or blended modalities. The MIT report did mention the “limited experimental evidence” in 2019. More and more studies are coming out with different results. Some point out to the fact that online learning allowed students to study in more flexible ways while others focused on the lack of social interaction and how unprepared teachers were to deliver classes remotely. A few look at how this COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions have impacted students’ mental health whereas others focus on students’ outcomes. There’s no consensus. Nonetheless, even though there are conflicting results, one thing is certain: the pandemic has widened the digital gap and favored some while others could barely make do.

While technology can help connect people with resources they couldn’t access before, it may also render learning virtually impossible for poor families with no computers and prepaid cell phones. In some contexts, TV channels and radio stations helped keep education going, but the lack of interaction between students and teachers may have taken its toll. When students were able to join the class, many chose to keep their cameras off. Although this may have benefited the occasional introvert, it may have had terrible consequences for most students.

What I witnessed as a mentor was fatigue, mental exhaustion, hopelessness, lack of support, working overtime like never before, apprehension, and frustration. Many teachers fell back on what was safe and simpler. They made slides and lectured. Some simply gave up asking questions as many students would either be absent or not say a word and that became a habit. Suddenly, shared spaces disappeared and became tiny individual squares on a screen. Each person in their own bubble, in their separate world.

With things going back to normal – at least to some extent – many are left wondering whether education has changed forever and EdTech is here to stay or what will be the next technology for schools. Remember the buzz of Interactive Whiteboards? I remember they promised it was going to revolutionize what we could do. After a couple of years, they basically became regular whiteboards we used only to write stuff on and project the digital version of the book or play a YouTube video.

So let’s do a quick exercise. Let’s say things are truly going back to normal and you were presented with the following situation:

Imagine you were in charge of a school and received a check worth of an extra year’s budget to make an investment. Which of these technologies would you spend that extra money on:
1) game platform;
2) augmented reality;
3) smart/digitals boards;
4) classroom furniture?

You might be confused now. Classroom furniture? Yes, and I’m not talking about high-tech classroom furniture. I’m talking about modular and multipurpose desks, bean bags, armchairs, counters, tatamis, and the like. Our current classrooms in Brazil are an invitation to individualism. Rows of single desks, sometimes arranged in different patterns (semicircle, circle, face-to-face, back-to-back, etc), facing a board. Pretty much like the tiny squares on a screen. We normally see no room for stationery, low-tech or traditional games, or even just a place to sit more comfortably. And all the tech seems to be helping students create their own virtual worlds even more, disconnecting them from reality and keeping them in their bubbles.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to demonize EdTech. The EdTech Conference fulfilled its purpose by showing us what new technologies we can use in our schools. And you know what? Everything on display there can be extremely useful in helping us make a more positive impact on our students. Nevertheless, I think words such as “innovation”, “democratizing”, and “personalization” could use a good dose of the old-fashion human interaction/collaboration.

Perhaps schools could learn more from conferences like EdTech 2018. Think of it for a second. Even though there were thousands of people, the experience was definitely different for everyone. Some decided to check one booth at the EdTech Village and not the other, some stayed a little more time chatting during the coffee break and exchanged business cards to work on a future project together, and some, like my panel mates and I, debated ideas in front of an audience. But you know what made the whole difference? Being there. Seeing and talking to real people. Physical presence and human interaction can have a much more memorable effect on us.

If I received that check, you know what my investment would be. And, hopefully, since classroom furniture is not that expensive, I’d still have some money left to buy something more high-tech. After all, according to the Education Endowment Foundation, the top four strategies that really work in the classroom to make learning more effective are feedback, metacognition, peer tutoring, and collaborative work.

Nevertheless, I feel like we’re still going to rely on remote teaching for a very long time. More often now than ever before. I suppose there are a few things we could do to give our students the sensation that we’re closer to them. Take me for example. Whenever I teach my students online, I always interleave moments of presenting slides with moments that they can see me as big as possible on their screen. I ask questions and encourage dialogues. I tell them to stand up and walk around their house to pet their cats or even have a quick chat with someone in their family. Sometimes I give them challenges, brain breaks, such as “Go water your plants”. Even when I record asynchronous courses, I try to speak as if I related to my audience and I share facts about who I am.

I recently challenged myself to record a quick online course without slides. I just used my rubber brain – actually it’s only the right hemisphere – some props and two websites I shared on the screen. I felt connected again as if I was having a conversation with someone. I saw myself on the screen not as a tiny square on the upper right corner. I wanted to be presentable and to look confident and to speak eloquently. I wanted to sound like a normal human being. I didn’t want my audience to come for the beautiful slides with amazing images. I wanted to be me. André Hedlund, a person.

I suppose my final message here is: reconnect with the human element. Use tech to bring people together through learning experiences. People can be the best resources there are. And remember to embrace a non- or low-tech approach now and then. The fact that you’re sharing knowledge with someone can in its own right be the only motivation anyone needs. So go back to the roots of education and use tech to connect.

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