Perhaps we always have been in a period of uncertainty and our current circumstances are simply revealing that truth. There seems to be a divided view of a return to ‘normal’, with students in some countries transitioning back to school, and others having a while to go yet. Can it be possible to return to normal, knowing that the threat of another crisis is always looming? Or is it inevitable that we will just slot back into the way things were? Is it time to change how we think about school? And do we have the energy, the desire, and the courage to make those changes?
Some schools have been thinking about how they will mitigate against the next disruption. They are exploring where to make high impact, inclusive, and sustainable investments that will support both teachers and students. While crisis mitigation is prudent, digital technologies have the potential to systemically reshape the learning process, but only if teachers are supported to truly understand how they can fit into effective pedagogy. It can’t be just another thing we dump on teachers to integrate into an already full curriculum and full workload. Therefore, I propose five factors to consider when shaping a new normal with digital technologies:
- A blended approach
- Support for teachers
- Framework to guide technology integration
- Partnership and Equity
- Re-conceptualisation of learning
A blended approach
Digital technologies can help in many ways as we transition back to the classroom. Teachers believe that students will need additional instructional support as they return (Flack, Walker, Bickerstaff, Earle & Margetts, 2020) and online tools allow teachers to restructure their time, enable access to a wide range of the most up-to-date resources, and track differentiated learning pathways. Digital technologies can also enhance communication and feedback between students, teachers, and parents, to smooth the process back to school. Teachers are often navigating several different technologies in their practice and use a blend of traditional teaching methods, with technology as an enhancement.
There is a lingering and widespread thought around the idea of ‘digital natives’ – that this generation of learners are tech savvy, spend all their time on their devices, and are digitally fluent. But newer research dispels this over-generalisation. And no doubt everyone’s recent experience has exposed that too. Young people do not inherently possess digital skills – exposure to tech cannot be equated to an ability to harness it. They need guidance, support and careful selection of tools. Just as teachers do. And we all suffer the same frustrations when devices don’t work or the Internet cuts out. In my own experience, students want a mix.
There are also some concerns around technology negatively affecting the psychological wellbeing of our students. Interestingly, the research shows that the association between digital technology and adolescent wellbeing having a negative effect is small – only 0.4% of the variation in wellbeing. Too small to warrant policy change the researchers concluded (Orben & Przybylski, 2019).
So perhaps a blended approach is the way to go. Maximising the best that digital technologies have to offer as an additional support to the classroom.
Extensive support for teachers
Teachers are split on the efficacy of online learning (Flack et al., 2020). But these recent sentiments reflect a time where we were not engaging simply in online learning, we were providing emergency remote teaching. It can take organisations years to undergo digital transformations, and teachers, as a credit to their utter professionalism and dedication, undertook it in a matter of days and weeks.
Schools should focus on the combination of contextual factors, not the technology itself, to be successful in improving teaching and learning via technology. Supportive leadership, ongoing, teacher-driven PD, and technology infrastructure are essential. An investment of time and resources is required to provide genuine, ongoing, and timely support to teachers – from helping them navigate an online tool to understanding how it can be maximised to support learning outcomes. Technology provided a temporary substitute to the physical classroom, but as we return to the classroom, it needs to be more meaningful than a substitute – we need to look at how technology can help redefine the learning experience.
Schools need to be supported to critically analyse each tool and the infrastructure they invest in, and how it can enhance the learning experience. The challenge is that digital technologies evolve so quickly that teachers often feel overwhelmed, so providing ongoing, contextualised, and job-embedded support is key. However, who is responsible for providing this guidance? Is it from a governmental level? The private sector? A blend? And if it’s the private sector, what set of standards do edu-tech companies adhere to when providing this crucial service?
Robust framework to guide technology integration
Successful digital implementation is often fostered by a strong school-wide vision focused on pedagogy over technology. Schools need a sound framework to guide and measure technology integration, that unifies both pedagogy and technology. Perhaps the TPACK model provides a good starting point to consider the broader social, political, and economic contexts. This model is a blend of technological, pedagogical and content knowledge. Teachers can triangulate research on digital integration, effective teaching pedagogy, and their content knowledge to inform an effective classroom approach. This is no easy task. If we are asking teachers to be highly skilled in pedagogical, content and technological knowledge, a role that is increasingly complex (and I’d say one of the most important roles in society) perhaps it’s time to elevate its status and remuneration to match.
Partnership and Equity
A new normal needs to be shaped by the voices of the educational community. We need to listen to what the teachers, the students, and the families are telling us. Listening to the teachers who don’t feel empowered with technology and need support to understand its potential efficacy. And listening to the students who are the reason we are all here.
There is a digital divide and ensuring equitable access must be a priority. This is impossible without strong partnerships where we listen and value all voices. This is a complex issue and involves social, cultural, and economic factors. Put very simply, firstly, all teachers and students need access to the internet and digital technologies – both physical infrastructure and access to online tools. Secondly, there exists an inequity in how digital technologies are being used to support teaching and learning. This is due to different levels of support for understanding future focused pedagogy, teachers’ digital competence, resources and collaboration.
Re-conceptualisations of learning
Part of me wonders – what if? What if we could have a blank slate and totally re-shape our view of how digital technologies fit within the teaching and learning cycle? It might help to clarify what we mean by ‘educational technology’. We have so many terms – e-learning, technology enhanced learning, ICT, virtual learning environments – that it is easy to get lost in the terminology and use them interchangeably. But semantics matter and the different terms show how we perceive the role of tech. There seems to be an emphasis on the role of technology as a supportive mechanism for already existing educational activities of teaching and learning. Technology, it seems, offers a simple enhancement of pre-existing practices which are not in need of any radical shift or displacement (Bayne, 2014). However, transposing digital technologies onto an existing curriculum framework is problematic because the curriculum has been constructed using pedagogical beliefs which predate the digital age. What we can do now with technology, who we can connect to, what resources we can access, is far beyond what we could do when modern education was designed. We’ve had curriculum updates to reflect new strands, but it’s adding a layer of technology on top, not infusing it and embedding it throughout. So this could be, if we’re game enough, a real opportunity to redefine what the learning experience looks like. Not merely a substitute or token bit of technology here and there, but really craft it into a new framework of teaching and learning.
This can be scary for some. The root of it is the fear of being replaced, of being redundant. Is my role as a teacher being threatened by this device or software or app? But I would say not at all. Teachers will always be at the heart of this process. And in fact, they should be steering this process, revealing the need for their voice to be central when developing educational technology. A successful integration is not determined by the technology, but how technology enables teaching and learning.
“It is time to re-think our task as practitioners and researchers in digital education, not viewing ourselves as the brokers of ‘transformation’, or ‘harnessers’ of technological power, but rather as critical protagonists in wider debates on the new forms of education, subjectivity, society and culture worked-through by contemporary technological change”. (Bayne, 2014)
Digital technologies can shift the traditional role of teacher and student both within and outside the classroom. Teachers can use digital technologies to connect people with each other and to new information, ideas, and perspectives. Students have access to mass information and many perspectives. Teachers are already supporting students to critically consume information, and perhaps this is a gradual shift from being a ‘content specialist’ to a ‘learning specialist’. A learning specialist will guide students to understand, process, and initiate their own learning and to collaborate and co-construct knowledge on a global level.
Ultimately, effecting change is massive and can sometimes feel impossible, but as we have had some time away from the usual system to truly evaluate what values we hold as important, it might just be the catalyst required to re-imagine a new normal.