This week I attended a conference about professional development in Scotland. The participants were Community Learning and Development workers (CLD). I was there to show how the various ways in which a SMARTboard could be used for teaching, training and groupwork. There was also a focus on the use of ‘social media’ as a professional development tool and a way of engaging with individuals.
What struck me most forcefully is the way in which ‘social media’ (mostly defined as Facebook and Twitter), polarised the audience, with strong emotions on both sides. Many were strongly in favour of these engagements, but others felt ‘social media’ is more of a force for harm than good. Many of the debates were about using social media to connect with young and vulnerable people, a topic which does require sensitivity, and which is not the focus of this blog post. Instead I choose to focus on social media as a tool of professional development, an aspect which I think the conference neglected.
During the debate, I chatted to a participant who said: ‘you don’t do that twitter, do you?’ I felt a bit like the man who was asked ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’. The question felt very leading, and the questioner was fully expecting me to confirm that whilst ‘cruelty to animals’, ‘being a Jedward fan’ and ‘parking in disabled spaces’ were all little vices of mine I was happy to admit to, I would not be caught dead sending a tweet. Awkward. I shrugged and admitted that I did go on a twitter ‘a little bit’, which got me a very disappointed look.
But I can totally understand hostility to twitter, especially when its use is brought up within the context of a professional community with a vague but palpable notion lurking in the background that people should really get an account and start tweeting.
Twitter is opaque in the extreme to the outsider; a welter of unfathomable terms and a clique of weird rituals. Evoking religious metaphors is not completely out of place here. Just as believers wrap themselves in a cloak of flim-flammery which makes it hard for neophytes to penetrate, so twitter users appear as a ‘cult of the initiated’ in which newcomers are bound to make fools of themselves. And twitter is very like Marmite, most people have a sufficient taste of it and declare themselves to love it or hate it. Paradoxically for the social network which appears the most ephemeral (140 characters shot out into the ether), twitter requires hard-work and a strange dedication for it to work, and this contributes to the ‘love it, or hate it’ vibe.
Twitter can be a fantastic professional development tool though. I can think of no other way to find people working in your own area so quickly and have such a direct contact with them. They will tweet links and articles and thoughts which will be immediately useful to you. It’s like duplicating yourself many times over. The slight time penalty of checking your timeline should be more than paid off with your enhanced view of what is happening in your area right now. And the paradox is that you can do this without ever sending a single tweet. Simply follow people who tweet about stuff you are interested in and these benefits will accrue immediately. Some will follow you back, some won’t. But you get to earwig the conversation like a bystander at a cocktail party. Once you start to tweet, your following should increase quickly and you’ll be drawn into the virtuous circle of sharing, debating and conversation which is twitter at its best.
But explaining the power of twitter to those who have not tweeted is a little like forcing toast and marmite into the mouths of your breakfast companions whilst shouting: ‘taste this you bastard, it’s bloody gorgeous!’
It has become quite fashionable for pronouncements such as ‘the interactive whiteboard is dead’, or ‘IWBs are old technology’ or variants on that theme to be made recently. Blog postings are being written about how other technologies have supplanted the IWB as the classroom technology of choice for teachers. Those who have foretold the death of the interactive whiteboard are often keen to explain how other technologies are replacing it, such as iPads, netbooks or other devices which have caught the imagination of educators.
But the death of the whiteboard is greatly exaggerated for the following reasons:
1: Having an IWB in your classroom is about having a platform for content. Teachers need software to assemble content for lessons and increasingly this content is multimedia in nature with the need to integrate text, images, video, audio and flash type content. The major IWB players provide teachers with that software and it is optimised for teaching. Many teachers, particularly in secondary use PowerPoint, but this is not the same. PowerPoint has a different paradigm to a piece of software such as SMART’s NOTEBOOK, it forces you to design your content first and then present it. It can lead to lessons where slide after slide of information is presented and the teacher does little manipulation of that content. Of course PowerPoint does not dictate this kind of paradigm, it is possible to use PowerPoint in very creative ways, although this is not something I have seen often in UK classrooms. It is precisely the manipulation of the content which is important when teaching. So take the IWB out of the classroom and you take the software out too, and if that means more teachers use PowerPoint because that’s the only thing suitable they have to hand for their slide stacks, then that’s not solving a problem, that’s making a bigger one, and creating a big hole in the teacher toolkit which will be expensive and complicated to fill later on.
2: IWB antagonists often cast this technology as forcing teachers into a ‘transmission based, teaching from the front pedagogy’. In fact one of my followers on twitter bemoaned the fact that the IWB was keeping pupils sitting on the carpet looking at the front too much. My comeback to that tweet was fairly easy to write, it’s not the board which is doing the “from the front teaching, it’s the teacher (DOH)”; don’t blame a technology for a teacher behaviour. Instead address the root cause of why a teacher allows a particular instructional practice to dominate and then find a way for the technology to serve pedagogical practice rather than driving it. Great teachers assemble their lessons using a variety of methods and techniques and they also vary how they organise the class, their time and the resources (both technological and human) available to them. They probably teach from the front for some of the time, and the IWB is an essential tool for those sections of the lesson. Without it there is no focus for the class, no sense of a shared space to create meaning and set tasks, nowhere for the class to come back at the end of a learning session and review what has been achieved, nowhere for the students to come and present to the rest of class. However great teachers do not allow from the front teaching to dominate; they set individual, pair and group work, skilfully orchestrating resources and using detailed knowledge of the class to create the conditions for learning without direct instruction from the teacher. Perhaps in the early days of IWBs, teachers were so enamoured of what the technology could do that they overused them. As the saying goes, ‘to someone with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail’. But to repeat my point, IWBs can never be held responsible for the pedagogy in a classroom, teachers have to answer for that. After all, the police don’t prosecute cars for driving badly, they prosecute the drivers. We don’t applaud the piano at a concert, we applaud the pianist.
3: In the UK there has been a massive investment in IWB technology, and ripping this out and replacing it with something else is wasteful, prodigal even. Schools should concentrate instead on getting the most out of the technology they already own. I have visited many schools and worked with lots of teachers during my time working with a major IWB manufacturer, and I have found only a handful who use the technology to its maximum capability. Unfortunately most only use 10% perhaps or less of the features. This is not normally the individual teacher’s fault, it was a systemic failure to address training and professional development when the boards were first going into UK classrooms. It is a mistake being repeated in some BSF and Academy projects where professional development for teachers drops off the bottom of the list. But senior managers in schools need to grasp this issue. They need to make it their business to understand the technology which their teachers have to teach with, and then invest (both internally and externally) to maximise the usage of this technology. They need to find courses and providers which set the technology usage in an overall pedagogical context and set clear expectations of the kinds of teaching which they want to see in their school, and then fund the necessary investment to give teachers the tools to do this.
So to conclude, ripping out interactive whiteboards and giving every student in the class an iPad or netbook won’t fix education anymore than putting the IWB into the classroom 6-8 years ago was going to fix education. We need to start every conversation about teaching with how we develop and empower teachers to marry technology usage and appropriate pedagogy, and we don’t need conversations which focus on a particular piece of equipment in isolation, as if somehow the technology itself has a magic power to orchestrate teaching and learning. Technologies do not have this power. Only teachers have this power. Let’s focus on pedagogy rather than technology.