Why we need to embrace technology inside and outside of the classroom, no matter how we feel about it

Education, Publishing Blog

Teachers have always been caught in a struggle to maintain the interest of their students. The issue of classroom management is a common thread throughout the history of the profession; how does a teacher successfully engage with their audience? At the surface level, engagement begins when students, for whatever reason, feel compelled to pay attention to what is being taught to them. This is, to some degree, within the teacher’s control – creating an effective lesson can certainly go a long way in increasing student engagement. However, as the proliferation of technology within the classroom increases, so too does the difficulty of maintaining student interest. This is simply because technology has an arguably irresistible lure, regardless of the age of the user. In light of this, it seems fair to argue that fighting the onset of technology is impossible in the modern world. The question is then, how can technology be utilized as an asset rather than a distraction? To answer this question, it is essential first to look at how classroom dynamics have shifted over time relative to the presence of technology.


Education Prior to the 1900s

To illustrate the changing world of education, the first technology to be addressed will be the humble textbook. When we think of publication technology today, we are far less inclined than we previously might have been to associate the words with printed material. Despite this the textbook is – and has been since its inception – a fundamental stepping stone in the world of education. The function of the textbook is simply to standardize learning content so that each participant has a clear reference point to inform classroom discussion. It also allows for a cumulative, linear progression through content within a subject area.

This direct and standardised method of conveying information is extremely useful for teachers – but what does this mean for the attention of the students and the dynamic of the classroom? Firstly, it means a very simple actor network; students have one source to inform their learning in the immediate environment, with the teacher present to supervise their understanding and elaborate where necessary. This enclosed network functions well to reduce distraction, and certainly simplifies the job of the teacher by having all of their students looking at the same content. However, it severely limits their opportunity to craft a well informed personal opinion, as there are very few points of comparison for the information. Prior to the inception of the internet, the extent to which students could undertake their own research was limited; at best, they could scour the local library for relevant publications or ask someone more informed (if they happened to be available).

In such a learning environment, all knowledge is mediated to a degree by the kinds of value society places upon it – while this still holds true with many forms of media publication, the freedom to publish a personal opinion that can be easily accessed by a wide audience does provide a means of challenging conventionally accepted ideas. It could be argued that a lack of conflicting information reduces the potential for what Paul Edwards refers to as ‘data friction’; this is not necessarily a positive aspect. I would argue that without the debate that arises from such disagreements, progress is rarely made. Unlike many online resources, the textbook is static; the flow of information is a proverbial one-way street, on which students are ‘fed’ information and allowed no input. There is something distinctly problematic about the lack of power this model allows students over their own educational experience. One particular proposal by James Koch discusses that textbooks are almost never selected by those studying from them, further exacerbating the issue of personal license over the learning experience.

Bearing this in mind, we can begin to assess how all of these initial issues carry across into the 21st century, complicated by their interactions with modern publication technologies.


Education and the Technology of the Modern World

There is no denying that the introduction of the internet has had a profound effect on all aspects of society; never before have we been so interconnected, with such freedom to access and publish information. It has certainly had a huge impact on the world of education – and not just for the teachers who readily embrace the potential the internet offers for their pedagogy.

While many teachers are still divided on the presence of digital technology within their classrooms, at this stage in proceedings there is little to no potential of removing them from the equation. John Quay’s article, ‘Cloud schooling: why we still need teachers in the internet age’, puts very eloquently exactly the issues tied up in our progression into the digital age.

“Many young people find traditional forms of teaching alienating: the teacher telling them what they should know leading up to a test. Such teaching positions young people in particular ways. It can downplay their own interests and take away their ingenuity and creativity. If teachers are only knowledge experts in this traditional sense … they are quickly being overtaken by what is readily accessible via the internet. But teachers are – or at least should be – more than knowledge experts.”

One way this information availability has drastically changed the role of the educator in the 21st century is by changing how we perceive power structures within our classrooms. Motivational theorists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan proposed at the turn of the century a theory for understanding what drives students to remain engaged in the classroom, which they titled ‘self determination theory’. This focused on what they argue are the three psychological needs necessary for facilitating a positive learning environment; autonomy, competence and relatedness. Of the three, the one that has received the greatest emphasis has been the study of student autonomy. This is particularly applicable when we consider the freedom that internet technology gives students in pursuing their own interests and forming an opinion of their own.

In many ways, it is technology that has been responsible for the shift from teachers as the all-knowing presence, to a far more learner-centred classroom. This shift that has been met with some apprehension by teachers who are “digital immigrants” – it has placed pressure on them to keep up with changing technologies. They are no longer the centre of knowledge and power; instead, they have become more akin to a mediator of information than the sole provider (to echo John Quay).  In my view, this is one of the most important aspects of the shift to the digital world; putting the responsibility on students to determine the path of their own learning is a skill that is essential to their lives well past their final year of formal education.  As Marcia Powell writes, “shifting our perspective means that students take on more active roles as learners and that our roles change, too. We must decide whether to think and act as facilitators who empower (and learn from) our students—or as the people guarding the vault.” This tension against moving into an integrative teaching environment is not unique to the field of education; as Nathan Jurgenson makes clear in his critique of ‘digital dualism’, the two are not separate entities, but rather components that need to be analyzed through the ways they interact and shape one another.

One technology that has allowed teachers to make use of these theoretical frameworks in a positive way is moodle. Many educators have argued for the benefits of ‘blended learning’ – that is, a classroom that has components online and in person.  One of the overwhelming benefits of using moodle as a platform for educating is that it allows for teachers to observe, to some degree, the study habits of their students. As is the case in all fields today, data archives allow us an insight that would be otherwise unavailable. Applied well, online material can save teachers a great deal of time. Rather than trying to simultaneously gauge the ability of thirty students in a brief face-to-face lesson, they can come to class with an understanding of the progress being made outside of school hours. This then allows them to be more aware of issues in understanding as they occur, and prevents them from pushing forward with new coursework before students establish the skills necessary to understand it.

Unfortunately, as Paul Edwards makes clear in his discussion of climate data, there are drawbacks to our data related assumptions. Although teachers are able to see how many students have followed the links through to videos or articles posted, or how many have viewed lectures online, this still provides little certainty of the degree to which they have paid attention to the content. Tony Haile outlines in his article, ‘What you think you know about the web is wrong’, that the average reader pays little more than 15 seconds of their time to attend to an online article. This statistic may differ somewhat in an educational context, but it is nonetheless something teachers should be mindful of. Clicking a link is a small investment; taking the time to read (or watch) and genuinely understand is another thing entirely.

This issue is further exacerbated when we consider the sheer amount of things competing for our attention in the digital space. In the world of the ‘attention economy’, novel content inevitably has the market (so to speak), both inside and outside the classroom. One issue the textbook didn’t have was competing interests; with this static educational tool, there was less sense that the ‘grass was greener’ someplace else, content-wise. The problem of connection and proliferation is that there is simply too much available; the issue is less about how to find content, and more about how to find something relevant and reliable. In this sense, the actor network of the digital age is exponentially larger than that of textbook age. For teachers, a new aspect of their work has been teaching students to be critical of sources, and ways to locate valid information. In spite of these shortcomings, I feel that the digital age has still had an overwhelmingly positive effect on educational innovations. There is no doubt that the opportunity to share content freely online has led to great advances in the academic sphere, with many sites such as Khan Academy  posting free-to-watch videos of educational material. This has been one of the unprecedented effects of the web; many people who began posting videos for their own enjoyment have inadvertently gained a much larger following.

There is little doubt in my mind that initiatives such as Khan Academy have had a significant bearing on the inception of the ‘flipped classroom’. The flipped classroom is arguably one of the most clever ideas to come from our exposure to the internet, at least in an educational context. The premise is that rather than lecturing content to students, educators provide links to content which students are required to read or watch at home. When they come to class, instead of learning new content, the students spend time doing what would usually be homework, while the teacher observes and assists where necessary. This system has often been met with a degree of skepticism, however evidence suggests that it is extremely effective. This is evidenced by the improvements to student outcomes at Clintondale High in the US, following the implementation of the system. According to the school’s principal, Greg Green: “When [they] first implemented this model in the ninth grade, [the] student failure rate dropped by 33% in one year.” Through innovative use of technology, the school found that rather than being distracted, students responded incredibly well to the change.

It is quite evident that in spite of all the additional issues of attention and quality of content, the implementation of technology in classrooms leads to more positive student outcomes. This shift allows for more personalized learning and greater academic freedom, and encourages students to develop critical thinking skills as they endeavour to discover for themselves what constitutes reliable information. This is not suggest that teachers are redundant; on the contrary, teachers still play a pivotal role in assisting students – however this role is one they share with new technology. The issue is less about whether or not we use technologies (as they are irreversibly embedded in our lives), than it is about finding the most innovative ways to integrate new technologies into the classroom.



[online] Banks, David (2011) ‘A Brief Summary of Actor-Network Theory’, Cyborgology, November 2, <http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/12/02/a-brief-summary-of-actor-network-theory/>

[online] Doyle, Terry (2008), ‘A Clear Rationale for Learner-Centered Teaching’, WordPress.com,October, < https://learnercenteredteaching.wordpress.com/articles-and-books/the-learner-centered-classroom/ >

Edwards, Paul N. (2010) ‘Introduction’ in A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: xiii-xvii

[online] Flipped Classroom. Infographic. Knewton.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2015. < https://www.knewton.com/infographics/flipped-classroom >

Green, Greg (2013) ‘My View: Flipped Classrooms Give Every Student a Chance to Succeed.” Interview. Schools of Thought. CNN, January 18, < http://schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/18/my-view-flipped-classrooms-give-every-student-a-chance-to-succeed/ >

[online] Haile, Tony (2014) ‘What you think you know about the web is wrong’, Time.com,  March 9, <http://time.com/12933/what-you-think-you-know-about-the-web-is-wrong/>

[online] Jurgenson, Nathan (2011) ‘Defending and Clarifying the Term Augmented Reality’, Cyborgology, April 29, < http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/04/29/defending-and-clarifying-the-term-augmented-reality/>

[online] Koch, James P. “An Economic Analysis of Textbook Prices and the Textbook Market”, 2006-09. Retrieved on 4-11-2015. (Alternative location (PDF))

[online] Laverne, Lauren (2014), ‘Born before 1985? Then you’re a ‘digital immigrant’’, The Guardian, November 16, < http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/16/born-before-1985-digital-immigrant-lauren-laverne >

[online] Morrison, Debbie (2013), ‘Is Blended Learning the Best of Both Worlds?’, Online Learning Insights, January 17, < https://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/is-blended-learning-the-best-of-both-worlds/ >

[online] Powell, Marcia (2013) ‘5 Ways to Make Your Classroom Student-Centered’, edweek.org, December 24, <http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2013/12/24/ctq_powell_strengths.html >

[online] Quay, John (2013) ‘Cloud schooling: why we still need teachers in the internet age’, The Conversation, November 18, <https://theconversation.com/cloud-schooling-why-we-still-need-teachers-in-the-internet-age-19872>

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.


 [First published 7 November 2015]


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