The Difference Engine

In Debates and Polemics, Evidence in Education by Alex Quigley0 Comments


(Babbage’s ‘The Difference Engine No. 1’, 1832, image via Science Museum)

Charles Babbage is a name too few people remember, but in many ways his brilliant ideas have helped shape our modern world. Born in 1791, Babbage was a brilliant polymath, Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, and he is now most famous as the ‘father of the computer‘. His invention for the first mechanical computer, labelled ‘The Difference Engine‘, lay the foundations for modern computers as we know them.

Computer technology has no doubt made an irreversible difference to our modern world and its role in our daily lives is all encompassing. As a teacher, I am regularly faced with the debate around technology and teaching. In short, the question that is debated is something like:

Can technology prove the difference for our students’ learning?

When the role of technology in education is debated, the nuanced middle ground of what actually happens in real schools and real classrooms can be lost. Too many people, often with a vested interest, advertise technology, herald tablets, MOOCs or the latest digital tool, as the universal panacea for the future of education, sending their opposition into fits. Those in opposition harden their opinion, deriding the paucity of evidence and responding flatly that technology will not prove anything of the sort.

The truth – well – as usual, it is somewhere in the middle.

I am naturally sceptical when it comes to innovations and quick fixes  and I therefore question the grand pronouncements about technology transforming the classroom. First, the notion that the brain has fundamentally been changed by tech, that our students are ‘digital natives‘, has been debunked. When asked the question, ‘why do we need a teacher when we have Google?‘ I think of lots of very good answers why we still do. In short, the Internet can prove a very poor proxy for an expert teacher. Students need lots of prior knowledge and training to undertake just a useful internet search, never mind more complex tasks. Not only that, googling stuff can make us overconfident in what we know and technology can prove a distraction.

New innovations in technology are seemingly never far away. Recently, we have had the call to eliminate books, to be replaced by virtual reality tools, and gurus like Sugatra Mitra have sold the dream that merely popping some IT kit in a wall can transform a community (see one of the many refutations of the ‘hole in a wall‘ fallacy here).

The ‘edtech’ industry is only growing ever bigger the world over – with an $8 billion spend in the U.S. alone. Technology is often offered as a solution to our edu-problems, such as the idea that Skype can mitigate our teacher recruitment problem in the UK (as offered by Jim Knight). In truth, I think much of the antipathy to technology derives from wasteful spending and the knowledge that we should be investing more in teachers.

Now, for some much needed balance. I have experienced how technology can better support teaching. From photographing student’s work in an instant for critique, undertaking questionnaires, dialogue, to sharing documents with groups, accessing media and knowledge that has hitherto been unavailable to students everywhere, I can see how technology can amplify good pedagogy. Technology, used well, can make a good teacher that little bit better.

And yet, we often fail to evaluate how and why technology works successfully and the crucial support factors required for it to help improve learning. Let’s take an increasingly common example: the implementation of a whole school iPad project. So what are the support factors – the ingredients for success – for such a project? Here are just some considerations:

  • Training time with high-quality expert support (regularly undertaken and updated);
  • Knowledgeable school leadership to lead ongoing training (with knowledge of how iPads sync with pedagogy);
  • Willing teachers who believe that this innovation is worth their time;
  • A sophisticated understanding of how technology can store and organise student work;
  • Excellent wireless and other hardware support;
  • Parental support (often including funding);
  • Highly skilled IT support for when things go wrong.

This list is short, but you could fill a book with support factors alone. Time and money is clearly required in abundance. When it comes to a question of schools undertaking such an innovation, they should count more than just the cost.

Teachers like José Picardo have written with balance and intelligence about using technology – see here – and how it is fundamentally akin to using textbooks or similar. Of course, I have little doubt that José himself is a crucial support factor that has helped the iPad project in his school take root. We should then ask: do we have enough people like José in our school context?

I am inclined to think that a huge amount schools simply don’t have enough of the support factors available to make whole-school technology projects effective. For this reason, we should welcome simple technology, like using presentations and the Internet, but we should think much harder when we initiate a more significant technology innovation.

The crucial debate that attends technology in education should not be whether or not is is the ‘difference engine’; it should be what are the requisite support factors that will see technology help amplify high quality teaching. Ultimately, the ‘difference engine’ engine is the teacher in the classroom, not the technology.

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