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The McDonaldization of technology in education – do you want slides with that?

ICICTE is all about people who use technology in education. This is a pretty broad aegis, which I think is great — highly specialist conferences sometimes seem in danger of disappearing up their own abstracts.

So I went along to ICICTE last week to tell people about our work with lecture slides and lecturers’ attitudes to slides, but conferences are all about the exchange of ideas, and I spent most of my visit listening to other people talk about their work.

I’m always fascinated to watch others interact with slideware and their audience, and the breadth of experiences that ensue. Standing up, sitting down, talking around the slides, reading out bits from slides, skipping over the slides. One sentence per slide; 21 lines of dense text (yes, I am sad enough to count). Ten slides, forty slides; both for a 12-minute presentation. Once they know what my research involves, people sometimes get a bit twitchy about their own slides (now I think about it, not unlike the reaction when you tell them you’re a psychologist — apparently I’m building a career on making people nervous), but I try not to be judgemental: variety is the spice of life — and anyway, someone might turn my results upside-down tomorrow.

One speaker I particularly enjoyed was Kevin Burden, who talked about furthering educators’ personal and professional development using ICT. He talked about the need to filter technology by its qualities and suitability for the task at hand: for example, blogging is a great way to promote teacher reflection, but might not be such a great tool for peer interaction. Essentially, he was promoting mindful use of technology.

Mindful use of technology is a real issue in education. Kevin’s approach is much more considered than the kind often taken by institutions, which have the amazing ability to issue blanket edicts (e.g., “Thou Shalt Use Blackboard”) without necessarily considering whether it’s in the best interests of the staff or students involved. I have nothing against Blackboard, and I support wholeheartedly the emergence of VLEs, but I sometimes think their implementation would be better left to relevant teaching staff. (Then again, to get everyone on board, sometimes you just have to legislate, because nature abhors cognitive dissonance)

Kevin’s talk got me thinking — again — about use of visual aids in teaching, and why people started using software like PowerPoint in the first place. Obviously it looked much better, more professional, than scrawled or photocopied overhead transparencies — and, like other new media, it was easily editable, copyable and redistributable. All great reasons for adopting a new technology.

But how many people used the jump from one form of technology to another to pause for a moment and reflect on whether these visual aids were always the right tools for the job?

Not very many; we see that now in the near-ubiquitous use of electronic slides to support lectures. So prevalent is the notion that lectures must have slides that when students miss a lecture, they don’t ask what we covered: they ask for a copy of the slides. To students, the slides are the lecture.

Which does make me wonder what value anyone thinks we’re adding by standing there at the front and clicking now and again to make the slides transition.

Simon Schurville, in his ICICTE keynote,* discussed the massification and McDonaldization of higher education: the idea that to deliver the same experience to so many, a very simple, identical, easily-replicable product is required. He asked, Is this really what we want higher education to be like?

I thought about the McDonaldization of lecture slides. Do we honestly want students’ experience of university, the world over, to consist of staring at yet another mindless set of bullet-points? Do we really want to foster the expectation that a lecture is not a lecture unless every point is clearly laid out in 24-point Times New Roman, up there on the screen and right there in front of you in all its dead-tree reproduced glory?

In short, do you really want slides with that?

* Sadly, Simon was taken ill a couple of days before the conference; the keynote was delivered in his absence by Greg Anderson and Raymond Welch.

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Harvey: why every educator needs a pet pain in the ass

My friend Harvey is in the enviable position of being an instructor and having a job in the real world. (He insists he’s not an academic, but among his many other talents, he’s a damn fine educator.)

Harvey is routinely upset by the extent to which ostensibly prosaic ideas about education are treated as revolutionary. For example, I was tweeting about George Papandreou‘s speech at ICICTE, and how he was evangelising the need to empower people to understand and use technology, and the need to educate them about how to evaluate information and judge its authenticity. It was basic reportage; this guy might be Greece’s next Prime Minister — his father served as PM, by the way, so there’s precedent — and it was interesting to hear what he had to say about the intersection of education and technology. Asher Rospigliosi summarises the key points here.

I thought Papandreou talked a good game; nothing very new, to a conference of people already sold on the adoption of technology in education, but he expressed himself very clearly and seemed to have genuine commitment to change. He gave a brief nod to Barack Obama when he said that it was important to educate people about the coming changes and the responsibilities those would bring (he did explicitly mention Obama, though I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering whether Greece’s leader of the opposition is also a secret Spider-man fan).

So I tweeted some of the key points of George Papandreou’s address, and Harvey was all, like, “Yeah, and? This ain’t rocket-science.” (I paraphrase; I think his original tweet used the phrase “bleedin’ obvious”.)

This comes on the back of conversations with Harvey in which he was dismayed to learn that educators do not routinely make deliberate use of narrative in structuring their lessons; that they are not all aware of the complex attentional demands created by having to read dense text off slides during a lecture; that they are not, in short, necessarily all that educated about attention and learning, outside their own subject areas.

So by now you’re probably thinking that Harvey is a royal smart-ass and world-class know-it-all, right?

Well, yeah.

But the thing with Harvey is that he’s way ahead of the curve in terms of adopting narrative in his teaching, encouraging student interaction, making appropriate and minimalist use of visual aids, etc. Much of this is surely down to his non-traditional background and subject specialism, but a substantial chunk of it is absolutely down to his being a professional pain in the ass.

And I love it.

Because, when Harvey points out that this stuff is, to use his terminology, bleedin’ obvious, it encourages me to test the things he take for granted, to be able to demonstrate empirically that they work. I work in science, and we’re all about evidence; pretty soon now I hope to publish a paper on why minimalist slides are so important for learning, and then I can approach my colleagues and say “Look: here are the numbers. This really works.”

Critically, I know the concepts I’m championing are not in widespread use right now, else educational conferences wouldn’t keep inviting me to present my work. (Okay, so really, there’s nothing new under the sun; but maybe these ideas need to be recycled once in a while — we’re certainly in need of them right now as we struggle to avoid being derailed by the very technology we seek to promote.)

What I’m trying to say is this: having my ass kicked on a regular basis about the fundamentals of teaching, by someone with a bit of objectivity, galvanises me to educate my colleagues — because if I’m learning anything from my travels in educational research, it’s that there are many educators out there to whom this stuff is often far from obvious.

Thank you, Harvey; education needs more pains in the ass like you.

[This article has been edited since its original posting; this is what happens when your posting deadline is the lifespan of your laptop battery.]

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